The labour movement and the housing crisis: long-separated struggles

Photo by Guilhem Vellut

“I am working class person, not making millions,” said Martin Fernandez, a former resident of a Burnaby apartment building set for demoviction, talking about his new apartment. “Paying that much there is not much left in my bank account or my pockets, so I have to restrain my kids from buying things that they like.”

He pays $400 more a month but he really had no other choice. His previous home, the low-rise apartment building at at 5025 Imperial Avenue, was occupied by a dozen of his former neighbours since July 9, barricading themselves on the top floor, protesting the housing crisis in general and the demoviction of this building in particular. On July 20, the RCMP smashed windows to gain entry and arrested seven, ending the occupation.

They were resisting efforts to demolish the building to make way for a condo development unaffordable to the working poor. The property is owned by Amacon Developments, which is also preparing to demolish three other buildings.

Residents and supporters promised to remain until they’re forced out, with Stop Demovictions Burnaby providing outreach volunteers to talk with neighbours about the issue, while calling for a halt to the disappearance of affordable rental units.

Their concerns echo those of many others in the Metro Vancouver area.

In the Downtown Eastside, a tent city has emerged on land owned by the city at 58 West Hastings St. The empty lot, the residents of the tent city say, should be turned into social housing at welfare and pension rates. And on July 19, members of the Grandview-Woodland Area Council (GWAC) of Vancouver spoke at City Hall to oppose the city’s Grandview-Woodland Neighbourhood Plan, a document that details a long-term development project for the area. “At the meeting, renters were particularly fearful of losing both their homes and their communities as a result of demolitions leading to new buildings that will rent at 50 per cent to 100 per cent higher rates than current neighbourhood averages,” says a GWAC press release.

The housing crisis is confronting the working class head on in Vancouver and the research is revealing just how extensive it is.

On June 29, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report called Working Poverty in Metro Vancouver by Iglika Ivanova. The study is a co-publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office, the United Way of the Lower Mainland, and the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition.

The report noted that the working poverty rate in Metro Vancouver (which includes Burnaby and other suburbs) is the second highest in Canada, and has grown steadily since 2006.

British Columbia has the lowest minimum wage in Canada, with workers securing booming profits for an economy that relies on “low-paid workers to provide security, catering, cleaning, administration and other services.”

According to the report, a member of the working poor is of working age, earn below Statistic Canada’s Low Income Measure (LIM) but more than $3,000 a year, and isn’t a student.

8.7 per cent of the working-age population is being defined as working poor. “Another 167,500 people (13.8 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s working-age population) were poor but not working,” says the report. “This number includes people receiving welfare and disability assistance, as well as people who were unemployed or out of the labour force but did not receive social assistance.”

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Working poverty is determined strictly against an individual’s or a family’s salary. It doesn’t consider their costs of living. That gives us a distorted picture since Vancouver is one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. “[T]he median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Metro Vancouver or Toronto,” says the report, “was almost double the median rent in Montreal ($1,150 and $1,111 per month, respectively, compared to $660 per month).”

The stats also don’t reflect the process of gentrification. The rate of working poverty actually fell in certain neighbourhoods, including in the City of Vancouver and Burnaby, but “the data do not tell us whether these trends represent improvements in the incomes of families that were working poor and living in those neighbourhoods in 2006 or whether they simply reflect an influx of higher-income residents (and the departure of lower-income residents) in those neighbourhoods.”

But since working poverty in Metro Vancouver overall didn’t fall, it looks like working poor people were just pushed farther away into the suburbs. For instance, the numbers show that the working poverty rate fell in the gentrifying region of Burnaby where the evicted residents occupy their building.

The report goes on to list a number of measures to reduce working poverty, like reforming Employment Standards and increasing the minimum wage. And it discusses the provincial government’s negligence regarding housing. There’s the province’s Rental Assistance Program which provides an inadequate monthly payment of $765 to working families with children earning less than $10,000. The Program also isn’t available to those who live alone or in families without children. Their alternative is subsidized social housing and the supply has, according to the report, increased by only 316 units between 2006 and 2012 while the increase in poor working-age adults in the province is 33,500.

This raises important questions for the labour movement. The traditional focus on the workplace clearly doesn’t help workers, and the working class in expensive cities like Metro Vancouver. A union can increase wages, ensure job security, and empower workers in their shops, but that won’t protect anybody from being the victim of gentrification and ballooning rents. Connecting these struggles will take a lot more effort. CUPE BC invited Gregor Robertson – mayor of Vancouver with the developer-friendly Vision Vancouver, a party which has accelerated the process of gentrification – to be their convention’s keynote speaker in the fall of 2015. That spoke to the deep divide.

But there is another way.

“[S]ocial movement unionism,” writes David Camfield in Canadian Labour in Crisis, “is about building a class-wide movement.”

It’s been done before. In 2001, with the election of a right-wing Liberal government in BC, members of the Victoria Labour Council, the Communities Solidarity Coalition, and HEU organized with other unions, students, and seniors’ groups to challenge austerity measures.

nions and such organizations really are all part of the same movement and should work together,” writes Camfield. “The aim is to work to overcome the separation of “labour” and “community” by promoting unity and solidarity among the various organizations of the working class.”

This article originally appeared on RankandFile.ca.