The Epistemic Geographies of Homelessness

For the last couple of years I have been working to better understand the epistemic geographies constituting the politics of homelessness in Canada. After following the rise of policy models such as Housing First it became more apparent to me that calculative practices, particularly ones that measure social costs, have proven instrumental in transforming social service systems addressing chronic homelessness. Damian Collins and Jalene Anderson (both at the University of Alberta) and I recently published an article in Social Science & Medicine – entitled Homelessness, Bedspace and the Case for Housing First in Canada – that offers a preliminary attempt at mapping this calculative geography. We arrived at the term ‘bedspace’ to describe this political spatiality. Abstract and link to the article is below.

Homelessness, Bedspace and the Case for Housing First in Canada

Abstract

The act of problem formation is integral to the policymaking process. Moreover, the process by which certain situations, experiences or events are rendered problematic hinges upon the places, spaces and networks through which the issue is made visible and intelligible to policy makers and decision makers. In this paper, we explore these epistemic geographies by unpacking one such example e the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi study, a federally funded, $110 million field trial of the Housing First (HF) model. HF prioritizes rapid rehousing of the chronically homeless, followed by separate support and treatment services. The model has become widespread in Canada since 2005, based in large part on understandings of its cost-effectiveness. In this article, we utilize At Home/Chez Soi as an illustrative case for examining how ‘chronic homelessness’ is translated into a discourse of costs and benefits, and given an accounting value, through a series of translations. This problematization advances a particular logic, what we refer to as ‘bedspace’.

Effective Systems Responses to Homelessness

An insightful and comprehensive e-book from the Homeless Hub is now available as a free download. The book, edited by Naomi Nichols and Carey Doberstein, explores issues, practices and experiences associated with coordinated efforts to end homelessness in Canada. Robert Wilton and I have a chapter in this great volume entitled “What is needed is the mortar to hold these blocks together”: Coordinating Local Services Through Community-Based Managerialism.

The book is available for download here.

Our chapter can be found here.

5 things to know about housing bubbles

1. Low interest rates, weakening credit standards, and lack of financial regulation are not the cause of housing bubbles; rather, they are better viewed as products of housing bubbles (Shiller 2012).

2. Housing bubbles are created when irrational public optimism and enthusiasm regarding future home values increases demand causing a region’s housing market to become overvalued (Shiller 2012).

3. This irrational exuberance is contagious and can ‘spill over’ into other regions but not necessarily the geographically closest region (Nneji et al. 2015).

4. The bursting of a bubble is caused by an event, one that results in the downward correction of current and anticipated house prices and, subsequently, the destruction of public optimism about the housing market (Duca et al. 2010).

5. When bubbles burst, house price corrections tend to be more extreme in regions that experience the largest and most rapid growth in house prices and where the ratio between house prices and rental rates is the greatest (Nneji et al. 2015).

References

Duca, J.V., Muellbauer, J., and Murphy, A. (2010). Housing markets and the financial crisis of 2007-2009: Lessons for the future. Journal of Financial Stability, 6, 203-217

Nneji, O., Brooks, C., and Ward, C.W.R. (2015). Speculative Bubble Spillovers across Regional Housing Markets. Land Economics, 91(3): 516-535

Shiller, R.J. (2012). Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do about It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Debt Crisis on the Horizon?

Authentic or alarmist? This is the question Canadians are asking themselves when it comes to concerns being raised regarding record levels of consumer debt and the recent rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Daniel Tencer contends that “35 years of economic history is coming to an end.

Neil MacDonald says “America has had its housing ‘correction,’ ours is yet to come.”

Barrie McKenna and Tamsin McMahon describe the Bank of Canada’s “angst” regarding a “housing crash.”

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First as tragedy, then as farce

As oil prices continue to hover around $40 a barrel, and the unemployment rate creeps higher each month, a correction in the Alberta housing market is in full swing. In Calgary, home sales are down 28% and home prices have dropped 5% from November 2014. In Fort McMurray, home sale prices have dropped more than $117,000.  Canadian Mortgage and Housing chief executive Evan Sidell recently stated that if oil prices stay near the $35/barrel mark for 5 years, provinces like Alberta could experience a catastrophic collapse in house prices on the scale of the housing crisis that occurred in the United States 7 years ago.

This comparison to the U.S. housing crisis is valid if you consider conditions in provinces like Alberta. Many attribute the crisis to deregulated financial markets and shoddy lending practices that contributed to defaults on sub-prime mortgages causing insolvency in the banking sector. But too often people forget to ask why mortgage defaults occurred in the first place. At the centre of the crisis was the accumulation of unsustainable levels of debt and record high levels of wealth inequality (Bartolini et al. 2014; De Vogli and Owusu 2015). This changed behavior among consumers, enough of whom decided to spend less and pay off debt, while others could not simply keep up with interest payments and defaulted. This quickly spiraled into a cycle of unemployment, mortgage defaults and home foreclosures in certain regions. These downward spirals spilled over into other regions. Deregulated financial markets transformed the housing crisis into a banking crisis.

Canadians, and Albertans in particular, should not act as if we are immune to this scenario. Household debt levels are at a record high in Canada. Moreover, households in Alberta have been found to be particularly vulnerable to a major economic shock. It is no longer possible to claim our banking rules and mortgage markets are better regulated as major Canadian mortgage lenders are now under investigation. As the repercussions of the oil glut reverberate through the Alberta economy an economic contraction not unlike that which occurred in the United States remains a real possibility.

References:

Bartolini, S. Bonatti, L. and Sarracino, F. 2014. The great recession and the bulimia of US consumers: deep causes and possible ways out. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 38, 1015-1042

De Vogli, R. and Owusu, J. 2015. The causes and health effects of the Great Recession: from neoliberalism to ‘healthy de-growth.’ Critical Public Health, 25(1), 15-31

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Paris November 13, Réflexion

Here is an ensemble of recently published reflections on the Paris attacks by notable thinkers.

Slavoj Zizek writes:

There should be no “deeper understanding” of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of “their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to European brutal interventions”); they should be characterized as what they are: the Islamo-Fascist counterpart of the European anti-immigrant racists—the two are the two sides of the same coin.

Etienne Balibar writes:

So what can we do? At all costs, firstly, we must reflect together and must resist all fear, amalgams, and impulses for vengeance. Clearly, we must take all necessary measures for civil and military protection, for intelligence and for security, in order to prevent terrorist actions or to counteract them, and if possible to judge and punish the perpetrators and accomplices involved. But, in doing so, we must demand the most complete vigilance on the part of  ‘democratic’ states with regard to acts of hatred towards those nationals and residents who, as a result of their origins, beliefs, or ways of life, are singled out as ‘the interior enemy’ by self-proclaimed patriots. And further: require that the same states – when reinforcing their security devices – respect individual and collective rights which are the foundation of their own legitimacy. The examples of the ‘Patriot Act’ and of Guantanamo show us that this is not so easy.

Bruno Latour writes:

But what makes the current situation so much more dismaying is that the crimes committed on 13 November have occurred within a few days of another event about to take place that involves tragedies of a different kind, ones that will require that we come with very different answers to wholly different threats that have nothing to do with ISIS/Daech. I am referring, of course, to the World Climate Change Conference in Paris, the COP21, which we are now liable to deem less serious, less urgent than the police response to the bloody escapades of those machine gun-toting lunatics.

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Reconciling the Politics of Homelessness

Over the last two decades, the politics of homelessness in North America has undergone a significant metamorphosis. Towards the end of the 1990s, as compassion fatigue set in and homelessness worsened a new field of policy experimentation opened up. Out of this policy field emerged two models that proved incredibly mobile: the 10-year plan to end homelessness and the housing first approach. Presented as evidence-based ‘best practices,’ these models have since become the norm in cities across North America. In a recently published chapter I attempt to critically engage with the discursive spaces that gave birth to this policy field. I do so to deepen understanding of the democratic stakes involved.

The volume the chapter appears in can be accessed here and the chapter can be downloaded here.

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The Seemingly Impossible Challenge of Social Housing

The release of a Government of Alberta report on the state of social housing in the province is attracting some controversy today (see CBC report here). The government report purportedly shows (I have not yet acquired a copy) that no provincial money has been invested in the construction of new social housing since 2011. This revelation is controversial because it is out of step with the province’s ambitious plan to end homelessness by 2019. This goal was set in 2008 by then premier Ed Stelmach and it was accompanied by a commitment to spend 3.3 billion dollars on housing and homeless services. It seems what money was spent on ending homelessness has not found its way into ‘bricks and mortar’ projects.

This is particularly troubling for a city like Edmonton where I currently live. In 2011, just as provincial dollars for social housing were purportedly disappearing, the Edmonton Area Community Plan on Housing and Supports 2011 – 2015 was completed and released. This plan was formulated to guide community efforts in addressing housing needs in the Edmonton area over a five year period. One of the focus areas of this plan was housing supply. Among the goals was increasing the supply of market and non-market rental units that are suitable, adequate, accessible, and affordable.

In 2011, the need for affordable housing was clear. The plan estimated the gap in non-market affordable housing to be 19,000 units and it forecasted that this gap would grow to 22,000 units by 2015. The significance of this gap was clear to the stakeholders who were consulted and the committee that prepared the report who wrote,

The shortage of non-market and market affordable housing in the community was the greatest need brought forward in the consultations. Affordable housing is needed by a broad range of lower-income residents across a range of demographics, including some seniors, single parent families, newcomers, Aboriginal households, young families and those who are working at low income jobs (p. 42).

So it seems that just as the provincial funding tap was diverted or worse turned off cities such as Edmonton were identifying affordable housing an immediate need. Edmonton Homeward Trust’s 2014 Annual Report identifies two social housing projects underway and a handful of renovations to existing social housing projects. But these appear to be units of supportive housing rather than private subsidized units. It remains to be seen how deep the need for affordable housing has grown in the last five years. The release of the provincial government report and the revelations it contains also begs the perennial question, why is it so difficult to see non-market affordable housing manifest on the ground when the demand for it grows every year and politicians commit to investing in it?

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Whither the public university?

Athabasca University has received much press as of late, most of it negative (see here and here). This media attention stems from concerns regarding the future financial situation of the university. For those who may be unfamiliar with Athabasca University, it is an open university dedicated to the removal of barriers to post-secondary learning through distance education. This social mission makes Athabasca University unique in Canada. This is what makes the current situation newsworthy. It is not just another university in financial trouble. Athabasca University embodies a set of social values of fundamental importance in Canadian society and its financial uncertainty says a lot about the commitment of the previous provincial government to these values. Hence it is important to put this negative press in the proper political context to adequately understand causes and effects as well as what is at stake.

Athabasca University, like a majority of post-secondary institutions in Canada, is a publicly-funded university. The public-university system exists to make post-secondary education affordable and accessible. It is ‘public’ in the sense that universities receive a public subsidy to offset the cost of operating the university allowing tuition rates to remain artificially low. This approach is rooted in a commitment to equality and the belief that society is best served by an educated population. The public-university system is also ‘public’ in the sense that universities are overseen by a publicly appointed board of governors which are supposed to ensure accountability.

Over the past twenty-years public funding for post-secondary education has precipitously declined in Canada from 80% to a national average of approximately 53%. The reasons for this decline vary by province but an underlying storyline is a neoliberal tale characterized by antipathy towards taxation and unhealthy obsession with austerity. Not surprisingly, tuition fees have crept up to cover the hole in university budgets. But tuition caps in many provinces, including Alberta, have limited the ability of universities to cover the reductions in public funding sending many institutions that lack the endowments or other revenue sources into a financial tailspin.

Looking more closely at funding levels among research universities in Alberta offers more clarity with regard to the situation faced by Athabasca University. Using enrollment numbers from 2014 and provincial operating grant forecasts for 2014-2015 a disparity in provincial support is evident when it comes to funding for full-time students:

University of Alberta: $19,355/student

University of Calgary: $19,154/student

University of Lethbridge: $13,928/student

Athabasca University: $4,640/student

The nature of the public university system and the historic underfunding of this system by the province of Alberta is important context for understanding the dilemmas and challenges that Athabasca University currently faces not least of which is how to stay true to our social mission of lowering the barriers that otherwise inhibit university education and lifelong learning in the midst of a funding regime that exerts upward pressure on tuition rates and top-down pressure to contain costs through lay-offs and hiring freezes. Athabasca is left between a rock and hard place: offloading costs to students (that is in itself a barrier), or gutting the university of the value embodied in its highly qualified and dedicated staff.

What is at stake here is more than Athabasca University. At risk are the values upon which our public university system rests. Failure to address these systemic problems will shift our post-secondary system evermore closer to a private, user-fee based system, a system at odds with the values Canadians share.

DEVELOPING SOCIAL EQUITY IN THE CITY AND BEYOND: THE POTENTIAL OF COMMUNITY LAND TRUSTS

Mike Lewis, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, and I wrote this piece to draw attention to the promise and potential of mutual home ownership models and community land trusts in particular. More writings on this topic can be found here.

Introduction

Housing is the bedrock of urban life. It is foundational to personal development, social and economic wellbeing and to overall standards of living and quality of life. Housing is also a commodity. An overwhelming majority of the 13.3 million households in Canada obtain housing through the private market. It is generally agreed that Canada’s housing system is, in practice, market-driven and primarily orientated around private homeownership.

But this ‘ownership model’ is not without its problems, especially when it comes to issues related to social equity. Today, housing affordability problems are rife in many urban and high amenity communities in Canada. Vancouver is perhaps the extreme case. An average three bedroom bungalow built in the post-war early 50s cost $14,500 in the west end Kerrisdale neighborhood – 3.5 years of a carpenter wage. The same house went for $1.6 million just 60 years later – 33 times the annual wage of a carpenter.

How does this happen? True, wages have been relatively flat for a large part of the population for the last 4 decades. Fewer and fewer people can fit within the conventional ‘affordable housing’ target; 30% of gross household income. In 2011 this number was over 3.3 million households (Statistics Canada 2013).

Wages, while obviously important, cannot hold a candle to a much more powerful influence; the dynamic embedded in the private property market, where 69% of Canadian households (or 9.2 million homeowners) participate in its ups and its downs. The problem for high amenity communities is the prices just keep going up. The causes can be diverse – population increase, rapid economic growth and uplift in the housing market that come from public and private investments that increase the attractiveness of a particular place.

Most of us know how it works. If one qualifies for a mortgage and is prone to thinking of housing not only as a home, but also an investment, homework is done to position oneself in a location that may be able to ride the uplift of other’s investments. The profits can be enormous for householders and other real estate owners.

Consider the £3.5 billion public investment in the Jubilee subway line in London, England. The private property within 1000 yards of each station increased in ‘value’ by £13 billion, a windfall that went mostly to corporate landlords. Not surprisingly rents soared; a fine example of public investment accruing to private pockets and ordinary renters paying the price.

But what if the value created by public and other private investment could be captured so it goes onto the community balance sheet rather than as unearned income into private pockets? The answer to this question is hugely important because if it is possible, progress on affordability is conceivable.

The Community Land Trust (CLT) is one housing model providing such answers.

The Community Land Trust: A Proven Model

The CLT model is organized as a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization committed to acquiring, stewarding and managing land in ways that keep the owner occupied or rental housing upon it affordable in perpetuity.

The CLT tenure does this by separating the ownership of the land from the ownership of the buildings on it. The land is retained forever in trust by the CLT for community benefit. In short, it effectively and permanently removes the land from the market. By contrast, buildings on the CLT’s land can be owned by a variety of entities – a single family household, a co-operative, a non-profit, even a small business.

CLT land is never sold to the inhabitants; it is leased. Written into the lease are clauses that restrict the owner occupant from pocketing the profit from an upswing in the market, unlike the normal private property owner. The lease has a resale formula that may share some of the equity upswing but the greatest portion of the unearned profit stays on the community balance sheet. The CLT exercises this power through a pre-emptive right to buy housing units when they are resold. The departing owner has the contractual obligation to sell their housing back to the CLT at a price set by the resale formula.

And it works. There are over 260 CLTs in the U.S. extending from rural villages to initiatives that cover entire cities or counties. The Champlain Housing Land Trust in Burlington, Vermont is one of the best known examples. Between 1984 and 2009 the CLT had built and otherwise acquired over 2500 units of owner occupied houses and rental units. Burlington is a high amenity community that started the CLT because of upward pressure on house prices. Astoundingly, their housing stock has increased in affordability by 20% over the last 20 years (Lewis and Conaty 2012).

Such results had already begun to attract municipalities who in the U.S. are important players in affordable housing. After the housing meltdown they became even more interested in the robustness of the CLT land stewardship model. Across the U.S. CLTs radically out performed sub-prime and conventional mortgages in terms of both delinquencies and foreclosures (Thaden 2010). In both categories CLT housing proved itself much more stable. Losses hardly registered whereas they were high in conventional mortgages and soared in sub-prime.

Stemming the tide of urban social inequity: Scaling up CLTs

The potential of CLTs for addressing social inequities in Canada’s housing landscape is substantial. First, CLTs lock in affordability. The rising cost of housing has put incredible strain on household finances and has made housing itself out of reach for some. These affordability problems are most acute among low-income groups such as lone-parents who experience enormous difficulty finding housing they can afford. While social housing exists in principal to address these affordability problems government subsidies have precipitously shrunk over the last 25 years resulting in inadequate supply (Gaetz et al. 2014).

Second, CLTs can help alleviate housing related indebtedness. The rising cost of housing is driving the accumulation of record levels of household debt (Walks 2013). Households in Canada’s large, metro regions are, generally speaking, the most indebted. Household indebtedness is greatest in the suburban fringes and in gentrifying inner city neighborhoods where young families, immigrants to Canada, single parents, and low-income households are disproportionately affected (Walks 2013).

Third, CLTs can help preserve neighborhood diversity. Rapid increases in house prices have deleterious consequences for social equity at the neighborhood level. The gentrification process tends to decrease levels of social mix and increase income inequality; in other words, neighborhoods that rapidly appreciated in terms of their land values often see reductions in their share of immigrants, visible minorities and low-income households, becoming ‘whiter and wealthier’ in the process (Walks and Maaranen 2011).

Alternatives to Canada’s traditional ‘ownership model’ are badly needed to address these fundamental problems, alternatives that transcend rigid dichotomies –privately owned vs. publically owned, market-driven vs. collectively controlled, owners vs. renters – that have structured tenure norms in Canada’s housing system. CLTs are one such alternative.

REFERENCES

Gaetz, S., Gulliver, T., and Richter, T. 2014. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014. Homelessness Hub Press: Toronto, ON

Lewis, M. and Conaty, P. 2012. The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C.

Statistics Canada. 2013. Homeownership and Shelter Costs in Canada. Statistics Canada: Ottawa, ON.

Thaden, E. 2010. Outperforming the market: Making sense of the low rates of delinquencies and foreclosures in community land trusts. National Community Land Trust Network: Portland, OR.

Walks, A. 2013. Mapping the Debtscape: The Geography of Household Debt in Canadian Cities, Urban Geography, 34(2), 153-187

Walks, A. and Maaranen, R. 2008. Gentrification, Social Mix, and Social Polarization: Testing the Linkages in Large Canadian Cities. Urban Geography, 29(4), 293-326

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