Paul Liberatore

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Vancouver’s housing boom sets off human-rights alarm at UN


Vancouver’s housing crisis is more than a question of real estate prices – there’s the bigger issue of housing as a human right.

“Housing is the core to well being and to life. It affects us in so many ways, emotionally and physically. That’s why it is a human right,” says Leilani Farha, special rapporteur on the right to housing for the United Nations Human Rights Council. “We are talking life and death issues. We are talking health issues. It’s very serious. All tend to compromise one’s dignity, and one’s being.”

Ms. Farha, a lawyer by trade, was in Vancouver recently as part of her research on a paper she will present at the UN, on the commodification of housing. As part of her research, she toured the Lower Mainland and attended the first Larry Bell Urban Forum, an international housing conference at Simon Fraser University.

If there’s a cautionary tale of what happens when houses become commodities instead of homes, it is Vancouver. It’s not an isolated phenomenon, nor is it new. It’s happening in other gateway cities, such as London, New York and Sydney. Rich people have always gentrified neighbourhoods and displaced low-income groups.

But Ms. Farha, who is also executive director of Ottawa-based Canada Without Poverty, says the scale of the phenomenon has changed, and the sudden benefactors of this wealth aren’t as concerned as they should be. While the widening gap between rich and low-income is leading to an increase in displacement and homelessness, we’re not responding to the crisis with enough concern or haste.

“There’s something different,” she says. “It’s the amount of wealth, and the intensification of housing as a commodity and the incredible emphasis right now on housing as an investment.

“If we took the North American context, or even the Vancouver context, where people are in a few years doubling the equity and value in their homes, I think people are chuffed. You bought it for $500,000 and now it’s worth $3-million in a short period of time. I don’t see people embarrassed by that or worried about what that means for the poorest people in [the] country. They are chuffed. They know what they are sitting on.

Presenting her report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Leilani Farha stressed that local and regional governments must be aware of their obligations under international human rights law with respect to housing. (United Nations)

“This is because of the intensification of the drive to own property and real estate, to invest in it, to flip it to make money – that has created a culture where people are being harassed and forcibly evicted, or evicted unfairly, so that landlords can sell properties and make a big quick buck.

“The human-rights alarm bells go off for me. The question is, should subnational governments be regulating this stuff? From a human-rights perspective, the answer is, absolutely. Subnational-level governments are all equally responsible. I don’t think there’s been enough attention paid to the necessary regulations that could control this.”

The right to housing is found in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations and signed and ratified by Canada. Adequate housing is defined as living “in security, peace and dignity,” at reasonable cost, with secure tenure. That makes forced evictions and skyrocketing rents a human-rights concern.

In Vancouver, low-income residents are being routinely displaced from rental buildings because landlords know they can get higher rents. At Little Mountain, our oldest social-housing project, about 700 low-income residents were displaced when the province sold the six hectares to developer Holborn, the same developer behind the luxury downtown Trump tower, which sold for an average of $1,615 a square foot.

Ingrid Steenhuisen, spokeswoman for Little Mountain, stands near a boarded-up house. At Little Mountain, about 700 low-income residents were displaced when the province sold the six hectares to developer Holborn. (Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail)

And in Burnaby, hundreds of low-income renters have been given the boot from their rental buildings because the city rezoned the area around SkyTrain for greater density.

“The international human-rights community has decided forced evictions constitute a gross violation of human rights and should never happen,” says Ms. Farha.

“But the human-rights world is also realistic. It does happen. And if it does, what rules should govern? It’s been decided that there has to be a pretty long and involved process before people in a community should ever be forced to leave. It involves meaningful consultation and exploring every alternative to the displacement. There are many more criteria.

“But just ask yourself, were those criteria met for the folks in Burnaby, who are being displaced as a result of the Canada Line? Have they been meaningfully consulted and has every alternative been pursued?

“Of course not. So that answers the question. Under human-rights law, you do everything you can to keep communities intact, because families set up homes in certain locations for a reason, and once they do that they become very rooted.”

Ms. Farha attended the Urban Forum to hear academics such as Dallas Rogers, Urban Studies Professor at the University of Western Sydney. His book, The Geopolitics of Real Estate, is out this month, and it looks at the history of the global wealth driving the housing crisis.

Dr. Rogers says foreign wealth grew in part because governments in China and Russia privatized previously state-owned assets. Wealth in those countries became global and mobile.

But not all foreign capital is equal. Sydney, he says, is seeing a more middle-class type of Chinese foreign capital, where buyers are interested in housing for their children while they attend university. That’s different from the rich buyer in London or Vancouver, who purchases a luxury house or condo as a means to build the investment portfolio.

The result of that sort of capital is felt on the ground, as in the empty neighbourhoods. Dr. Rogers says he saw signs of emptiness in Vancouver.

The last row of homes left at the 15-acre Little Mountain site in Vancouver, seen in this June 26, 2012 photo. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

“That is when you have neighbourhoods where nobody lives in them, businesses die, no one is servicing them – you are seeing that maybe in Vancouver,” says Dr. Rogers. “It certainly looked that way when I was there. We’re not seeing that in Sydney yet, but this [situation] is the dead end. We don’t want Sydney to become Vancouver, in that sense.

“The real estate is so detached from the physical environment because they are just putting their cash in and knowing they can get it out later. They are more interested in diversifying than capital gain – that is the most worrying progression in this. That is the end game that we all need to be worrying about.

“In Sydney, there is some trophy home investment, but not to the scale of Vancouver or London, where you are abstracting the home so far from a place that you live in, have kids and send them to school, to this place where you store capital.”

As well, he says it’s tougher to get citizenship in Australia than it is in Canada, which is a significant difference. Also, foreign investors in Australia are mostly limited to new housing stock.

“Because of differences like that, you get the footloose capital into Vancouver, but we get more strategic capital. It’s investment for a purpose, and that is directly related to our foreign-investment rule.”

Dallas Rogers, Urban Studies Professor at the University of Western Sydney and author of"The Geopolitics of Real Estate."

Both Ms. Farha and Dr. Rogers argue for intervention that aims to close the widening gap. Government needs to step up.

“The government is going to have their pro-foreign agenda, and their rules, and if we accept all those things, we need to be arguing for affordable housing,” says Dr. Rogers. “If you provide it in all suburbs of the city, then you protect against that absentee landlordism because you are building communities.”

Ms. Farha says it’s simply government’s job to regulate the housing market and uphold human-rights laws. It’s also government’s job to regulate developers, she adds.

“I’m talking about recognizing the dignity of every person, and making sure we are doing everything we can to ensure that dignity remains intact – that’s not too much to ask of government.”


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