OPINION - We can solve homelessness right now: A look at housing authorities from around the world

In the 1990s, there was a crisis in Vancouver with people dying of preventable drug overdoses. Ultimately, this triggered a concerted response among activists, led by drug-users and politicians. In the fall of 2002, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) swept to power with a mayoral candidate, Larry Campbell, on a campaign to implement harm-reduction programs like Insite.

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Creating spaces where overdoses could be prevented meant learning from grassroots harm-reduction activists working on the ground, as well as looking around the world for cities that had successfully adopted the policy. 

Over a decade later, in the lead-up to the 2008 Vancouver municipal elections, the city was deep into a housing affordability crisis. Gregor Robertson stepped down from the provincial legislature and started a mayoral bid with Vision Vancouver on a platform to end homelessness.

But after six years, there’s been a surge in the homelessness numbers in Vancouver. In 2008, the number of homeless people in Vancouver was 1,581. This week, Metro Vancouver released its report on the 2014 homeless count, which showed the number of homeless people in Vancouver has increased to 1,758 from 1,581 in 2011. Robertson has admitted he is unlikely to solve homelessness in his second term as mayor.

Vision has failed to stem the rise in homelessness because the party failed to listen to local housing advocates. It has also failed to tackle the underlying housing affordability crisis because it neglected to take lessons from cities around the world where governments have made affordable housing their biggest priority. These are cities which, in changing both their practice and thinking about the housing economy, can offer real lessons for us.

What Vancouver can learn from Toronto and New York City

This week, COPE released a report on housing authorities from around the world, and how their models could be implemented in Vancouver. It looks at six cities: Toronto, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vienna, and Stockholm. Taken together, the lessons support the creation of a centralized city-run housing authority here.

In Toronto, the city-run Toronto Community Housing houses over 160,000 tenants, including many vulnerable populations. More than half, 58 per cent of households in Toronto Community Housing, are headed by single mothers. Twenty per cent are new Canadians.

We can learn from the housing agency’s democratic innovations. Tenant representatives are elected to the board, and in 2010 they elected their first youth representative to ensure that young people have a say in spending and planning.

New York City only recently fell behind Vancouver as the “most unaffordable city in North America” and faces some of the same geographical, economic, and demographic pressures as our city.

But New York is a leader in building public housing for those who cannot afford the private market. The New York City Housing Authority houses 400,000 tenants. There are some great principles they’ve adopted to make sure their public housing works for tenants: building in good amenities such as parks space or seniors’ centres, ensuring access to public transportation, and prioritizing funding for front-line workers over office and administrative staff. The Housing Authority also acts as a lobbyist, with tenants regularly attending the US congress to speak out for more funding.


The John F. Hylan houses, built in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York City, have 210 apartments, and house about 450 people, with an average rent of $454. Tenants in public housing in new york are well organized, and have successfully protested funding cuts to the building. Photo supplied by COPE.

Lessons from housing authorities around the world

Across the Pacific, two cities have acknowledged their housing crises and built public housing by drastically reducing the influence of the private market on the cost of living.

Hong Kong shares many characteristics with Vancouver. Both cities are bound by the ocean, limiting the spread of construction. Both are also consistently ranked as being the top-most unaffordable cities in the world. One big difference, however, is that the Government of Hong Kong has intervened in the free market, and now almost half of their seven million residents live in public housing built by the Hong Kong Housing Authority.

Hong Kong uses many of the same powers Vancouver has but doesn’t employ: controlling density and development decisions to include real affordable housing.

In Singapore, 83 per cent of all of the housing is owned by the government. The private housing market only serves the richest 10 per cent. There, the Singapore “Housing Development Board” manages inflation by eliminating the ability of big developer monopolies to control prices.

In Stockholm, Sweden, 30 per cent of residents now live in public housing. All these tenants are part of the Swedish Union of Tenants, a membership-based organization which provides support for 1.6 million rental units across the country. Tenants have a national political voice that is incredibly powerful. Tenants in Sweden often collectively bargain their rents.

Finally, in Vienna, Austria, which nearly always beats Vancouver in annual livability surveys, 5,000 units of public housing are built every year.

Vienna citizens pride themselves on their public housing, bringing in world-class architects who meet with the eventual tenants of buildings to customize social housing projects. They also have maximum rent limits, currently set at five to six Euros per square meter (about $0.85 per square foot).

Low-income households get special subsidies in case the tenant becomes ill or unemployed. One-third of Vienna’s population are immigrants, and the City has taken this into account in its planning for public housing. For example, the “Integratives Wohnen” project houses 50 per cent Austrian residents and 50 per cent immigrant residents.

What’s really keeping Vancouver from becoming a world-class city 

Despite these concrete examples from around the world, it’s unlikely that Vision Vancouver will take action on creating real affordable housing. In six years, instead of investing in housing, they’ve increased the police budget by $50 million per year to police the housing crisis. Instead of building public housing, they’ve given real-estate developers tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to build unaffordable free-market projects.

The political environment in Vancouver is different than that in other global cities with successful housing agencies. Some critics would argue that we don’t have the tools to achieve the same gains.

But the reality is that in all of these cities, there were people who said that building public housing was impossible or would be a failure, and were proved wrong.

It can be done in Vancouver. COPE’s housing report identifies a series of funding mechanisms that the city could employ. For example, it could direct tens of millions toward public housing from development levies, the property endowment fund, and potentially a luxury housing tax.

The University of British Columbia’s housing agency has built three developments which have each generated about $100 million in revenues for the university’s endowment over the span of their development. A Vancouver housing agency could achieve such revenues annually.

To solve the housing crisis, we need to stop relying on profit-driven real estate developers, and start building public housing. This housing needs to have the support of residents who need to be organized and involved in the planning and management of the projects when they’re built. It needs to have amenities and be close to transit so people will want to live in them. Housing needs to be seen as an investment, not an expense.

By drawing on lessons from cities around the world, we can have a Vancouver Housing Authority that builds housing and ends homelessness. In turn, we can become the example for other cities to follow.

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