Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shelter allowances, and the government as slum landlord

The CBC report on terrible problems in public housing in Vancouver's core is worth reading here.
It's shameful for government to be a slum landlord, taking 57 per cent of people's income for dirty, dangerous accommodation. The CBC reporters went into the BC Housing buildings, run by non-profit Atira Property Management, and found cockroaches and feces and dirty needles, doors with no locks and other problems.
The situation appears to be worst in three downtown buildings BC Housing bought five years ago, promising to renovate them. The promises weren't fulfilled. They haven't been fixed up,and there's not enough money to manage or maintain them properly. (The government announced a federal-provincial reno plan in the spring.)
The report also notes a potential conflict. The buildings are among 13 managed by Atira. Its CEO is Janice Abbott, who is married to BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay. The management contract has never been tendered. (The relationship began after the contract was awarded.)
Housing Minister Rich Coleman says Ramsay plays no role in any decision about Atira. But he's less clear about who does - people who work for Ramsay, or with him?
It's a problematic situation on other levels. Any organization dependent on government funding is reluctant to sound the alarm when things are going terribly wrong, fearing reprisals. But Abbott and Atira are in an even more complex situation, given the personal relationships.
But I wouldn't blame Atira. No one would could run these buildings with inadequate funding. The tenants are, to put it mildly, difficult, many with addictions and mental illnesses, diagnosed or not. The buildings are substandard.
There's another major issue here. Atira's residents are on disability or income assistance. They sign the shelter portion of their allowances over as their rent.
But those allowances are obscenely inadequate. A single person gets $375 a month for housing. As this case demonstrates, landlords - even subsidized nonprofits - can not even provide a desperately grim slum room at that rate. (Families are as badly off. A disabled mom trying to raise two children gets $660 a month for housing. Those kids are going to grow up in a dangerous, crappy apartment in a rundown building.)
The shelter allowances haven't increased since 2007. The Liberal government actually cut them in 2002. Rates today are basically where they were in 1995, despite soaring housing costs over the last 17 years.
Speaking of obscene, it's useful to look at what MLAs think they need for a second home in the capital. (The legislature met for 48 days last year.) MLAs voted to give themselves up to $1,583 a month for housing in Victoria. They think a disabled British Columbian should be able to find housing for $375.
If government wants to fix the problem, a start would be shelter allowances that reflect reality. That in turn would allow landlords - whether nonprofit, like Atira, or private - to cover their costs and offer something above slum-level housing.


Anonymous said...

Why does Rich Coleman's name always appear when this sort of stuff comes up?

"The buildings are among 13 managed by Atira. Its CEO is Janice Abbott, who is married to BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay. The management contract has never been tendered."

btw: BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay received $315,034 in fiscal year 2010/11.

scotty on Denman said...

The slum landlord loves welfare recipients: their rents are secure (if they're late paying, the landlord can apply to have his rent thereafter direct-deposited in his bank account.) The less the landlord spends to operate and maintain his rentals, the more money he makes. Anyone who cares to look will see how squalid living conditions are in DTES rentals. Landlords complain they aren't making enough money to adequately maintain and operate their rentals but that money can only come from tenant's social assistance cheques. Landlords might feel for these unfortunates but business rules are business rules, right? Profit motive trumps humanity.

The BC Liberal government seems to sympathetically confirm this priority. Can't expect a a simple, law abiding businessman to lose money. So Rich Coleman administers a little public social expenditure by actually buying some of these old, squalid hotels... but instead of acting like government, it continues the privateer ethos: the ministry is getting its welfare money back through rents and minimizes operating and maintenance costs to achieve financial, not social, goals. This government is ideologically sworn to be anti-socialist in every way.

At the political root of this ethos is the all too prevalent prejudice that tenants in these rundown hotels deserve the low level of service they get (or, conversely, they don't deserve better.)

Once the right used to say government should get out of the way, let businessmen run businesses and government stick to its own knitting. Eventually the right extended the idea: government should be run like a business and, finally, if it is run like a business, who better to be in charge than businessmen? That's what Coleman has done: the new (government ) landlord of of these dumps is behaving just like private, for-profit, landlords. It's only business, right?

So what's the point of the public buying these tenements when privateers did as good a job? Like the safe-injection site, ideology had to be set aside to prevent an inevitable explosion of violence and death which follows a critical point that was getting uncomfortably close. Coleman had to do something to prevent not human suffering but the plain illustration of socially destructive neo-right policy. While taking credit for caring, the recent government hotel purchase are really just stop-gaps to prevent the whole situation making the moribund BC Liberal government look bad or from calling neo-right ideology into question.

The fact that the government has neglected to maintain and operate these hotels in a safe, convalescent manner proves it. Right wingers never want to talk about how social programs benefit everybody in many ways. They want to preserve the power to dictate who deserves wealth never and always.

One good thing: the BC Liberal crooks probably won't be able to fire-sale any of these places before the NDP takes them over; they're focused for the remaining time left to them on selling Liquor Distribution. In opposition, they'll howl at how much money the NDP spends properly running these potential social housing projects.