Ending discrimination on the basis of social condition: The next frontier in the fight for affordable housing

"Social condition is the situation you have in society because of your income, your occupation or your level of education."


(Photo credit: Jackie Dives, West Hastings Street, 2015)

Since Pivot began working on housing issues nearly 15 years ago, we have been calling on the federal and provincial governments to step up and invest in a range of affordable housing options to address a crisis that has evolved alongside our organization. As the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to increase, the research demonstrating that homelessness is akin to a death sentence mounts, and people experiencing homelessness continue to take bold action to stand up for their rights, we are finally starting to see a little bit of action.

In BC, the provincial government has put funding in place for several quick turnaround projects. Service providers are eager to move ahead with desperately needed shelter spaces and modular housing units. We should be celebrating this small victory. Instead, as another winter sets in, projects are being cancelled or delayed as a result of discrimination in municipal public consultation processes.


(Photo credit: Peter Kim, Sugar Mountain tent city, 2017)

While housed people vehemently opposing services for homeless residents in their community is nothing new, it is quickly emerging as one of the biggest barriers to addressing the housing crisis. Municipalities across BC have authority to hold public consultations, and approve or dismiss applications to develop housing using their power over land use and zoning within their jurisdictions. This power, which is well equipped to consider traffic flow, sewers and view corridors, has resulted in a series of poorly managed referendums on whether or not people living in poverty belong in a community.

As a result, tonight when you crawl into bed, there will be vulnerable people including people with disabilities and serious illnesses, seniors, young people who recently left government care, and women fleeing violence, sleeping outside because their neighbours are saying "no" to shelters and housing. Here are a few examples of what is going on around the province this fall:

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.


Maple Ridge

Pivot has been representing homeless campers in the City of Maple Ridge, where the province has had funding in place for housing since at least early 2016. The major hurdle to bringing people inside has been the intransigence of some members of the community who have fought against every proposed location. Two development sites have been rejected as well as the purchase of a motel. Additionally, the only low-barrier shelter in the municipality closed in May, 2017 leading to the establishment of the Anita Place tent city. Homeless campers who could have been housed more than a year ago are still cold and wet, facing harassment and threats of violence from local residents, and living in constant fear of eviction from the camp they have made their home.


(Photo credit: Peter Kim, Anita Place tent city, 2017) 


The City of Vancouver recently completed required public consultations and approved a provincially-funded modular housing project in Marpole. Housed people rallied against the project and attempted to physically block construction, forcing the City to obtain an injunction. Those residents are now taking legal action against the City to permanently prevent the installation of modular housing. 


On December 5, the City of Chilliwack rejected an application for a temporary use permit to operate a six-month shelter project for homeless women in their downtown core. At the public hearing, comments from business owners opposing the shelter focused on everything from a concern that the downtown core is too dangerous for the currently homeless women living in and around the area, to the toll that they imagine the project would take on their businesses. Had it been approved, the project could have been up and running within a matter of days. Instead, those women will continue to live in the alleys, streets and bushes of downtown Chilliwack, cold and at risk of violence every day.


Earlier this fall, the District Council of Sechelt rejected a proposal from BC Housing to lease land for modular housing to meet the needs of homeless residents in that community. Last week, Council also delayed the possible operation of a local hostel as a temporary shelter, claiming in part that the hostel would need to be rezoned to accommodate homeless people as opposed to the “travelling public” or “tourists” it is currently zoned to serve.


A modular housing project is being delayed because a group of business owners raised concerns about the aesthetics of the development, stating, “the business park adopted a set of design principles,” and the modular housing, "really goes against the city's own development permit guidelines." While their design concerns may be genuine, nowhere were the lives of the people on the streets balanced against these aesthetic quibbles. We’ve often observed that, upon scratching the surface of design, traffic, or density issues, prejudices against the intended users of a service are exposed.

I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this is a life and death situation.

Less than one month ago, a woman in Chilliwack was badly burned trying to keep herself warm in her tent. Two weeks ago, a man died trying to keep himself warm in a derelict boat near Sechelt. Across the province, people are admitted to hospital everyday with illnesses caused by exposure. The reality is that many of the people at risk of injury, illness, and death could be sleeping inside tonight but not for the discrimination from people with homes and living in relative comfort.

For years, we have heard patently discriminatory and objectively false statements go unchallenged during community consultation processes. In some cases, these statements are even met with cheers from the audience. The visible effects of homelessness, such as people carrying all of their belongings in shopping carts and seeking refuge in doorways, are recast as evidence that housing projects or shelters should not be built. But these are symptoms of homelessness that will not abate until housing is provided. We have seen homeless people experience verbal abuse and harassment while projects are under consideration. We have also seen housed residents and business owners delay projects, insisting on further consultation, even though there is no new information to consider.

Over years and across jurisdictions throughout BC we continue to find one rotten root at the base of these processes: inadequate laws. Specifically, BC’s Human Rights Code does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of social condition even though deep poverty and homelessness are real and specific sources of disadvantage in virtually all aspects of life. Because much of this discrimination that occurs in zoning and other local public consultation processes is based on social condition, the individuals impacted have no clear legal recourse. We believe that needs to change. 

It is important that all British Columbians have opportunities to freely express their opinions on matters of public policy, and, we must in turn ensure that public consultation processes, and the policy decisions issuing from them, are grounded in evidence and respect for human rights.

In 1998, the then-BC Human Rights Commission recommended that the Human Rights Code be amended to include protections from discrimination based on “social condition.” Government ignored this call and nearly 20 years later we continue to suffer the impacts of that folly.

Last week, we received a copy of A Human Rights Commission for the 21st Century: British Columbians Talk about Human Rights, outlining recommendations for re-establishing the BC Human Rights Commission. We are relieved that BC will once again have a Human Rights Commission and glad the report recommends beginning a process to consider amending the Human Rights Code to include “social condition.” However, now is not the time for more consultation. We’ve known for 20 years what we need to do. The BC government cannot afford to wait if it is serious about combatting the life-threatening housing crisis plaguing our province.

BC would not be the first jurisdiction to protect people from discrimination on the basis of poverty, income source, or housing status. Since its inception in 1975, the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms has protected against discrimination and harassment based on social condition. New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories also include social condition in their human rights codes, and there is currently a bill before the Legislative Assembly that would amend Ontario’s Human Rights Code to include social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination. British Columbia has an opportunity to take swift and meaningful action to address homelessness by joining these provincial and territorial leaders and protecting the human rights of some of our province’s most disadvantaged residents.