Housing

The faceless 'they'

Why the welfare state isn't the answer to our social services crisis
Photo: Reading Is My Heroin

“They're filling in the pool,” my mom tells me. “They told us they were going to make it into a water park, but now they're just filling it in with concrete.”

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She's not upset. In fact, she's completely resigned. Probably because every time we talk now, there's some version of this story. They in this story is BC Housing, the agency responsible for subsidized housing in the province, created in 1967 and run by a board of commissioners appointed by the government. They were always very active in the social housing project where I grew up. They cancelled the holiday party, they replaced the carpets in our units with stiff office carpeting, they razed the playgrounds.

The pool was the last of what could be described as amenities — common spaces where people of diverse backgrounds could form community. From the perspective of austerity, playgrounds and parties are unnecessary luxuries, risks to the government's credit rating.

But from the perspective of community, those are some of the roots of welfare as well-being, where belonging and kinship can take hold.

Unfortunately, the faceless they don't care about that, and they don't limit themselves to just cancelled parties and destroyed playgrounds. They evicted my neighbour, the single mom who lived next door for decades, for moving in the partner who had come from another continent for her. As many frontline workers will tell you, evictions are one thing they are quite zealous about.

And now, they are terrifying residents of a large family-oriented social housing complex in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Stamps Place is the first of an astonishing number of BC Housing properties (350 in total) being transferred from the government to non-profit agencies. In the case of Stamps, there is currently no non-profit running the complex, and residents were shocked to find out that BC Housing had issued a notice looking for a buyer, with less than a month to find one.

Stamps Place residents are worried partly because they're looking at what happened to Little Mountain, formerly the oldest social housing development in Vancouver. Little Mountain was demolished in 2009, and the social housing has not been replaced. The process was deplorable. As tenant-activist with Community Advocates for Little Mountain Ingrid Steenhuisen described it, the “lives of the tenants were enshrouded completely in fear and uncertainty. The authorities painted a picture that was bleak and vague.”

Many feel that the way BC Housing handled the redevelopment needlessly destroyed a community with no regard for the people who lived there — and many are rightly afraid that we'll now see similar scenarios in communities with even less ability to organize and fight back than CALM. BC Housing's only comment on the project website about the evictions and heartache at Little Mountain is that “the relocation of residents was conducted according to the Guiding Principles for Resident Relocation.”

Cases like this make it obvious that community and bureaucracy are like oil and water. They don't mix. In an era when it seems stupid or foolhardy not to wish to go back to the welfare state, I'm desperately wishing that we would go forward. And when forward right now means vaguely defined social innovation — when BC Housing properties are sold with the promise that non-profits will somehow be able to creatively innovate away from aging homes that “could become liabilities in the future” if they aren't the site of more market housing — we urgently need to pause and ask ourselves what we can learn from the mistakes of the past.

Cases like this make it obvious that community and bureaucracy are like oil and water.

Those who value social justice have got to stop and dig deeper, despite our strong and understandable sense of immediate threat, in order to recognize why taxing and spending through bureaucracy isn't and never really was the ultimate answer to greater social and economic justice. Surprisingly, it's the same reason why social innovation as currently conceived likely isn't the answer either.

In talking with the many leaders in the progressive community who don't share my class background, I've discovered this isn't something self-evident if you were never so much at the mercy of the Almighty Theys — the bureaucratic state and finance capital.

The distant activity of the faceless they constantly impacted my low-income community. Decisions were never made by us; they were always made for us. And because our community was a place we were taught to always aim to get the hell out of (in strong contrast to much subsidized housing in Europe), the rapid ebbing and flowing of people from wildly different backgrounds gradually made us more and more nebulous, less like a real entity with shared needs and feelings. The sense of community that existed when a group of tenants ran an association that put floodlights over the back field between our townhouses and the school was long gone by the time I was in my teens. This was particularly devastating given that many incoming tenants were also arriving new to this country, carrying the trauma of wars ultimately caused by the same economics that would greet them so coldly here.

So of course, when death by a thousand cuts really started in earnest in the 1990s, there was no community to stand up and say, “This doesn't just hurt us. It hurts everyone.” Without community, there was no basis for activism, or even activity, to push back and create serious political costs for some of the worst public policy imaginable.

What the devastation of low-income communities should show us is that the alternative to neoliberalism isn't just taxing and spending, and it's not just finding new ways to use the market to get private capital invested in solving social problems. Empowering communities with their own forms of capital — taxing, empowering, and spending, ensuring communities have unrestricted decision-making power over how money is invested — is the key to ensuring that the pendulum swing of capitalism doesn't simply throw a wrecking ball into low-income groups at regular intervals and take the rest of our social fabric down with us.

When you're caught between the two limited progressive poles of the bureaucratic welfare state or market-centric forms of social innovation, it can feel hopeless, like there truly is no alternative. But there are so many seeds of promising community-building alternatives that I could not even list them all here — participatory budgeting in New York and Brazil; the organizing methods of the Working Families Party; the Jackson Plan, people's assemblies and the solidarity economy in places such as Mississippi and St. Louis; the Cleveland Model and the Evergreen Cooperatives; the cooperative movement in Northern Italy; the open knowledge process in Ecuador; the Icelandic citizens’ constitution; liquid democracy used by Pirate Parties in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Brazil. In Canada we aren't looking seriously enough at these models.

Many incoming tenants were also arriving new to this country, carrying the trauma of wars ultimately caused by the same economics that would greet them so coldly here.

While these seem like disparate approaches, what unites them is they foreground a question that we should be asking ourselves: How do we empower communities to decide for themselves? It's also the criterion we can use to evaluate the success of these projects, and, more crucially, what our progressive rallying cry should be.

We're not speaking about the state or the market in ways that most people can identify with, but neither is the shrinking tent of the right. To resonate with a broad enough audience with whom we can build mainstream, powerful, resilient progressivism, we need a critique of bureaucracy (both government and corporate) that isn't right-wing populism — that is neither Andrea Horwath's Ministry of Budget Cuts nor neoliberalism with a green visage. It's something more aspirational and more practical, more fundamentally about processes in communities than it is about a rhetorical air war. It will need different ways of organizing in order to be sincere. It will put the people whose lives will be most impacted in the centre of decision-making, whether that's First Nations on the front lines of fracking and pipelines, or tenants of a social housing project that is slated for demolition (many of whom are also Aboriginal, in the case of Stamps).

It will need to work its way towards a shared understanding of empowerment by bringing the most marginalized voices to the table. It will prioritize first the Indigenous voices whose silencing has been the strongest evidence of the need for a dramatically different approach to politics.

The fact that BC Housing announced the sale of Stamps without any warning to the residents, and without giving them any say in which non-profit will be selected to run (and likely demolish) their housing, needs to be a vivid red flag to anyone who cares about social justice. We need to be able to easily identify that without community empowerment that goes beyond a buzzword, this simply represents an entrenchment of the politics that fit so snugly with our boom-and-bust economy, despite the rhetoric that casts this as an opportunity for creative innovation.

Both the social innovation scene and the traditional leftist world of labour, think tanks and parties far too often neglect the question of whether we have diverse enough people involved in setting our agendas to know for sure that those agendas will have beneficial, long-term impacts on the groups that we should care most about when social and economic justice is our goal. We need to get better at asking ourselves “Does this empower communities, particularly those most harmed by the current system?” and at rallying behind the models that answer it with a resounding “Yes.”

Progressive change can only happen if we empower frontline communities; this is how progressives have always built power over time. Nothing else as clearly represents the progress towards justice that we so passionately care about.

You can support the residents of Stamps by signing “Our Place, Our Home, Don't Give it Away!” online or in person at Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, 920 East Hastings Street, Vancouver.

Reilly Yeo will be speaking about economic democracy at Media Democracy Days at the Vancouver Public Library on November 8.

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