I'm fresh off our 3rd YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Week here in Barrie, so I've been giving even more thought than usual to messaging around affordable housing and homelessness.
I have two strands of thought on this:
In this post I'll address the first - some thoughts on an alternate narrative to homelessness as the fault of the person experiencing it. Stay tuned for part two...
Housing as a Right vs. the Financialization of Housing
Our slogan for YIMBY Week is that "everyone deserves a safe, affordable, hopeful place to call home, and when that's the case our entire city benefits." It's a nod to the Right to Housing, and to the evidence that the smaller the gap in equality across a cohort, the wellbeing of everyone in the cohort goes up.
Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing told me during YIMBY Week that the messaging of housing as a right is starting to catch on. Which is great!
But I think it could still use a little help.
Because the rest of our conversation was about the financialization of housing and the woefully inadequate policy tools that municipalities have to protect their housing stock from predatory investors and investment funds that buy up enormous amounts of housing to rent out at extortionate rates. In fact, in some ways it would seem that the government policies benefit real estate investment trusts (REITS) more than individual homeowners. In other words, housing is (becoming?) a commodity first and a home second, which will always be at odds with the realization of the right to housing for everyone. (To learn more about the financialization of housing, I'd suggest Leilani's documentary PUSH, and her recent Globe and Mail Op-Ed. I would also suggest our YIMBY Week panel discussion, but, I forgot to record it. Womp womp.)
To my mind, one of the biggest hurdles we face in changing the conversation on homelessness is overcoming the deeply rooted Western value of individualism. This is a predominant frame that attributes all personal outcomes to personal choices. Within this frame, policy solutions don't make sense.
The interesting thing about our values is that many of us, if not all, often hold two seemingly contradictory values at once. Last week I had a conversation with someone I love very much, who believes in the right to housing, and believes governments should be a safety net. And this person said to me, "Do you really believe that anyone should be able to live in any city they want? People make choices in their lives. Do you honestly believe that anyone who wants to live in downtown Toronto should be able to do that, regardless of their income?" To which I incredulously replied "Do you honestly think the baristas on Bay Street should have an hour-long commute?"
We argued back and forth, until I said "Good urban planning should include adequate housing that is affordable for everyone along the income spectrum available in that city." And that was something we agreed on.
The thing I love about this sentence that popped out of my mouth is that it shifts the onus to be able to afford housing off the individual, and places it on the policymakers, where it belongs. In this framing, homelessness is a policy choice, and it can only be solved through policy solutions.
An Alternate Narrative
You'll know by now that I am an Anat Shenker-Osorio disciple, and Anat reminds us that just putting a negative in front of our opponent's message to refute it gives them free air time. The best way forward is an alternate narrative altogether.
So let's try disrupting conversations about housing affordability by spreading the idea that:
If you try this out, please report back on the results! There are lots of opportunities out there right now, especially if you are in Ontario. We're going to have elections at all three levels of government over the next 16 months, and community consultations on Official Plans (cities' land use planning documents which include their affordable housing targets) are happening right now.