Friday, June 04, 2010

"The People Have Won"???

According to a story in Northern Life, a local newspaper, Sudbury city council voted not to allow for boarding houses and rooming houses in areas outside the city core. This would not have been in areas primarily zoned for single family dwellings, but in areas already zoned either for commercial use or for multi-residential dwellings, and already near high-traffic roads.

A grouping described as "200 irate home owners" attended a planning committee meeting earlier this week, voiced their opposition, and the proposed change was scrapped in favour of further study and consultation.

The quote that is the title of this post, "The people have won," comes form Joscelyne Landry-Altmann, Ward 12 councillor.

Let's be clear, though, exactly who has won and what exactly they have won.

In the late 1990s, the mayors of the ten largest cities in Canada declared homelessness a national disaster. Research at the time in many cities -- I was involved in some of this research in Hamilton, Ontario -- demonstrated quite clearly that poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of supports for people who need them were the basic causes of this homelessness. I'm not as up on the most recent stats as I would've been six or seven years ago, but my understanding is that lack of affordable housing is still a massive problem in most places in Canada, far too many people are still living in poverty, and an unconscionably large proportions of them still experience relative or absolute homelessness. Despite some tinkering with emergency response systems over the last decade, governments with the resources to make a difference have steadfastly refused to invest in the kinds of programs that would significantly increase the supply of affordable housing (that is, social housing) or significantly reduce poverty. The Liberal Ontario government and the Conservative federal government have not wavered from their greater concern with pleasing bankers than meeting the needs of poor people -- again, despite some Liberal tinkering that is more cosmetic than substantive.

Rooming houses and boarding houses are far from ideal solutions. Treating them as a final answer to the problems of poverty and lack of affordable housing institutionalizes the idea that some people -- that is, poor people -- do not deserve the comfort and dignity that most of us take for granted. They are, at best, a temporary measure. However, given the state of things, rooming and boarding houses are an absolutely necessary measure.

In the article, the only population explicitly referred to as losing out from this city council decision is students. That's true, but it leaves out the fact that there are large numbers of non-students living in poverty in this city who need housing too, and who have very few options. Increasing the number of rooming and boarding houses, and regulating them appropriately, is an important step within the powers of the municipality to take the edge off some of this need -- it's not a massive investment in social housing and anti-poverty programs, which is really what we need, but it's at least doing something to respond to the need.

So when Landry-Altmann says, "The people have won," what she really means is that middle-class people have won. The implicit content is that middle-class people matter, middle-class people count as "the people," while people living in poverty don't matter, or perhaps don't even count as "people." These complaining middle-class people are, according to the article, concerned about noise and littering problems. The focus on noise and littering, however, is a kind of stand-in that can be publically voiced without coming across as too overtly prejudiced. As is so often true in Canadian political discourse, civility is given far greater importance than substance. What these concerns boil down to is a focus on the supposed impact that these unwanted Others will have on neighbourhoods that they consider to be theirs. They aren't really that bothered by a particular way of organizing housing, what they object to is having to live near particular 'kinds' of people. These middle-class homeowners object to young people. They object to poor people. They don't appear to care what happens to young people and poor people -- the article says nothing about these homeowners threatening to stage a sit-in at MPP Rick Bartolucci's office until the provincial cabinet pledges hundreds of millions of dollars to build new social housing, for instance, or organizing a mass movement to make similar demands of Ottawa -- they just don't want to have to live near them.

This is the people winning? Keeping unwanted Others out of particular neighbourhoods?

That's a pretty shameful way to look at it. It seems to me, rather, that this is yet another instance of the people losing. All of us are losing because privileged people have succeeded in pushing for the needs of people living in poverty to be, once again, treated as a low priority. This kind of dynamic is one of the ways that the elite attacks on ordinary people that make up neoliberalism manage to survive and grow.

And it is also a sign that we are not winning that this is the question that is most visibly being asked -- massive new investments in social housing and reducing poverty are not even on the table, despite the level of suffering in so many communities. That is incredibly shameful. And I won't even get into the barriers to talking about the social relations that cause the problems of poverty and homelessness in the first place, and to pointing out that things don't need to be this way.

1 comment:

thwap said...

Good writing. I agree one-hundred percent.

Take away the access to housing, then take away their other options, ... in the end, it's like the shop-owners in Rio who paid off-duty cops to kill street kids.