Earlier, we wrote about Pivot and OHCW’s coalition for intervention in the appeal of McNeil v. Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver 2022 BCSC 2174. The case has significant implications on low-income communities facing economic and housing precarity, namely whether they will have access to justice through the RTB. We know that without RTA protections, it becomes difficult for individual tenants to challenge unlawful landlord policies and practices that undermine people’s ability to lead fulsome and dignified lives.
This is part 2 of a series on housing justice in so-called Vancouver, the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
What the public needs to understand?
1. The housing crisis is a crisis of colonialism.
The housing crisis is rooted in colonization, an ongoing process that denies Indigenous people their lands, resources, and traditional governance models, forcing them into private and profit-based systems which prioritize individual wealth over stewardship of the land and the security of communities. Meanwhile, white settlers and others upholding white supremacy continue to displace communities, seize their resources, pollute their water, and create a system that is hostile to both people and the planet.
We know that evictions are not race or class neutral – they are carried out against certain communities more than others... Indigenous communities experience higher rates of evictions, and are 1.7 times more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be evicted.
So called BC is the nation’s eviction capital – it has an eviction rate of 10.5%, twice the national average. We know that evictions are not race or class neutral – they are carried out against certain communities more than others – usually against Indigenous, Black and im/migrant communities as a form of social control wielded by white, propertied elites – it’s part of the same ongoing patterns of settler colonialism, enslavement and land dispossession.
For instance, a 2023 housing survey by UBC’s Housing Research Collaborative found that Indigenous communities experience higher rates of evictions, and are 1.7 times more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be evicted. In terms of group level housing stats, Indigenous communities in urban centres are overrepresented among the unhoused population both nationally (30%), and in Vancouver (24%). Such disparities in eviction rates are clearly products of systemic racial discrimination.
The colonial law centred on private property that is used to evict people day to day, was initially developed as a tool to justify and enforce colonization and land dispossession of Indigenous peoples. It reflects similar colonial tools, typically advanced through the disproportionate use of injunctions against First Nations communities, that is used to justify ongoing forced evictions of Indigenous land defenders from their territories today, such as the Wet'suwet'en and those at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island. Colonial legal tools like these are systematically used against Indigenous, Black and migrant communities, and poor, white communities racialized as social "Others" to repress and keep those communities in place.
While there are significant distinctions between the plight of individual tenants facing evictions and Indigenous land defenders defending their territories, it is important to name the structural legal underpinnings are the same. The threat of state sanctioned violence through state monopoly on police power is used to enforce “compliance” with colonial laws and more broadly, to repress movements for social change that challenge the privatization and hoarding of wealth, racial injustice and the ecological degradation of unceded Indigenous lands.
As OHCW member Herb V. says, the housing crisis is “not a bug, it’s a feature”. The capitalist driven housing system aims to concentrate wealth and resources for a few private developers. More people are feeling the impact, facing housing insecurity, evictions and the inability to afford market rent, but the roots remain the same. Solving the “housing crisis” and creating housing justice is fundamentally tied to decolonization, to respect for Indigenous sovereignty and for systems of care, and collective stewardship.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.
2. Needing housing support should not mean being denied tenancy rights.
Supportive housing in BC primarily serves low-income people – this overwhelmingly includes, Elders, people who use drugs, sex workers, and Black, Indigenous, racialized and immigrant communities. These are communities where tenants already face significant economic barriers in accessing permanent housing. They pay subsidized rents for housing in buildings that often lack basic infrastructure and amenities, and where individual tenants often face an uphill battle trying to convince landlords to fulfill basic maintenance and repair requests. If they resist and demand that building managers conduct elevator repairs, fix the bathrooms or take care of the property, tenants worry that there is nothing to enforce their obligations or prevent landlords from taking it out on tenants - as they insist that building residents have “no rights”. Despite these concerns of landlord retaliation, tenants have come together to form unions and organize for their rights in buildings throughout the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
RTA protections extend to tenants living in supportive housing in the same way that tenants in private rental market are entitled to provincial tenancy protections. There is no reason that needing housing supports – whether housing subsidies, programming, harm reduction or disability-related - should mean being denied basic tenancy protections. That framework is fundamentally ableist. Further, as governments continue to offload responsibility for housing onto non-profits, tenants of public housing that are overwhelmingly poor, racialized, Elders, and disabled groups get left behind. It means that the people who need the most care, are most easily discarded, evicted into homelessness or forced into undignified living situations.
3. The consequences of housing without tenancy protections.
While non-profit landlords maintain policies rooted in ableism and carceral politics both structurally and interpersonally, supportive housing serves as one response to the decades long and ongoing state retreat from the provision of public housing and social safety nets that are essential for people’s overall health and wellbeing.
In housing that lacks tenancy protections, it becomes virtually impossible to resist displacement, to stay housed and achieve a level of housing permanence that affords people access to better life choices, chances and health outcomes.
Even though supportive housing doesn’t adequately meet people’s needs, for some it is the safest of inadequate alternatives. Many tenants worry they will eventually be priced out, or, unlawfully evicted by landlords for breaking building rules that are imposed on them as a condition of maintaining housing. For instance, guest bans are amongst the many landlord policies that differentially impact sex workers, drug users and marginalized communities, particularly when imposed without any reasonable justification and without meaningful input from tenants themselves.
For sex workers, guest bans in public housing can be harmful in that they displace sex work outdoors and to other hidden areas, despite the fact that research shows that sex work can be practiced more safely indoors, allows for sex work collectivity and leads to better health outcomes. Similarly, guest bans impede essential public health guidance, by forcing drug users to use alone instead of with peers and other harm reduction supports.
Recognizing the discriminatory impacts of the policies and rules at the center of Elizabeth Fry Society and other non-profit landlord buildings, it is also important to acknowledge that people overwhelmingly want to stay put in their communities, as they value their friends, their community and other relationships that have been built over time living in neighbourhoods closer to public transportation, cultural, health and other supports.
In housing that lacks tenancy protections, it becomes virtually impossible to resist displacement, to stay housed and achieve a level of housing permanence that affords people access to better life choices, chances and health outcomes. Clearly, housing is a human right that can only be realized when people come together and collectively demand that landlords – private and non-profit alike - recognize the protections as tenants that they are legally entitled to have.
Stay tuned for part III in our series!