Jonathan Bird, Regent Class of 2000 Exec. Director, CityGate Leadership Forum
For almost a generation, missiologists like Ray Bakke and Charles Ringma have recognized the growing strategic importance of Vancouver as a gateway city between East and West on the Pacific Rim: we are a crucible forging 21st globalized culture. Ten years ago others starting taking notice too and began consistently ranking our city as one of the “most livable” on the planet. Urban planners the world over come here on pilgrimage to discover the secret to our success, recruit our architecture firms and poach our municipal planning staff.
But we are fast becoming victims of our own success. Vancouver now also tops the annual rankings of the world’s least affordable cities. I believe that one of the key missional callings of God’s people in Vancouver is to lead innovation in urban homeownership and land use. The most pressing reason to recognize and pursue that call is concern for our low- and moderate-income neighbours, who are being pushed onto the street or out of town by the high cost of housing.
We can pursue housing justice to its true end, however, only if we pay attention to the way that the grand sweep of the biblical story, from the garden in Genesis to the garden city in Revelation, urges us to “seek the shalom of the city” as a whole (Jer 29:7). If we can do that – starting with God’s command a few verses earlier in Jeremiah to build houses, plant gardens, have many children and grandchildren, and pray for the city where we are investing ourselves – then we may help to transform much more than just people and places in our neighbourhoods. Given how much attention is being paid to Vancouver as a kind of utopia, we could quite possibly improve the future of cities and urban mission everywhere.
The Affordability Crunch
Between 1979 and 2008 the median income in Greater Vancouver grew by 9%, while the median sale price of a house grew by 480%. According to the annual report released in January by Demographia, our region is the third most expensive housing market out of 325 markets in the English-speaking world
and Hong Kong. The median price of a home inVancouver cost 9.5 times the median household income (Sydney was 9.6, Hong Kong 11.4). The threshold for being “severely unaffordable” is 5.1 (Toronto, Seattle). The target number is 3.0 or less – basically equivalent to the 30% of gross income that mortgage lenders and policy makers have historically used to define housing that is affordable.
Nearly one in three households in Greater Vancouver are paying more than 30% of their income on housing. Seven percent – 55,765 – are paying at least 50% and are therefore considered to be imminently at risk of becoming homeless. In the City of Vancouver, 70% of these households at risk are renters.
As the middle class gets priced out of homeownership, they in turn price out lower income households from the limited supply of rental units. This cascading effect is the real driver of homelessness in our region – not addiction or mental illness. Students and the working poor have begun displacing the disabled and the unemployed in the residential hotels of the Downtown Eastside.
Between 2002 and 2008, the number of people in the City of Vancouver living on the street or in shelters increased 250%. Today, the number of homeless persons sleeping outside in the City of Vancouver is dropping significantly as temporary shelters and newly built permanent supportive housing open. Nevertheless the overall number of people living in shelters or on the street in the City has continued to climb to 1,715. Figures for the region as a whole will be available after the tri-annual Homeless Count on March 16th. Regional numbers tend to be roughly double those for the City, and the trend has accelerated fastest in the suburbs, where the poor are being forced to migrate and there has not been nearly the same level of new construction.
People at greatest risk tend to be:
•suffering a serious mental illness or brain injury
• severely addicted to alcohol or drugs
• abused or sexually exploited women and youth
• single parent families
• youth exiting the foster care system
• low income seniors living alone
• refugees and recent immigrants.
A Sustainable Continuum of Housing & Support
The core concept of the Greater Vancouver Regional District response to homeless and affordable housing is “sustainability.” This social planning vision is neatly summarized by City of Vancouver official policy: the City is to be “a place where people live, work and prosper in a vibrant community of communities. In such a community, sustainability is achieved through community participation and the reconciliation of short and long term economic, social and ecological well-being.” This policy resonates with biblical notions of community and justice captured in the word shalom, the holistic well-being that results from the equitable interdependency of everyone and everything in a given place.
To stabilize people in crisis and then bring them into sustainable housing, most municipal homelessness plans follow the Regional District’s plan Three Ways to Home. This plan calls for “a continuum of housing and support” consisting of three elements:
• a continuum of safe, affordable housing
• a range of support services
• and adequate income.
These elements are interdependent. If only selected parts receive attention, they won’t work well and sometimes not at all.
The continuum of housing begins with emergency shelters and goes on to transitional housing (stays of up to 2 years), supportive housing (no limit on length of stay), non-market rentals, and then market rentals and entry- level homeownership. Nearly all of the public and charitable dollars being put toward affordable housing are for the first three rungs of the “ladder.” Despite comparatively massive investment in the last five years, the projected shortfall of supportive housing in the City alone will be 400 units in 2013 and growing. That’s because 1,500 rental units need to be built every year until 2021 to eliminate the cascading effect mentioned earlier.
Such numbers of non-market and market rentals cannot be built unless the federal government re-instates tax incentives that were removed in the 1980s, and adopts a national housing strategy and funds it. Canada is the only G8 economy that doesn’t have such a strategy. It would cost about 1% of the federal budget annually. Necessary support services range from things like prevention, outreach, mental health and addiction treatment, and ultimately to informal friendship and mutual aid networks. These supports are vital because poverty is far more complex than mere low income or net worth: it involves every aspect of personhood and environment.
No permanent solution to housing affordability is possible without assured access to adequate income. The crucial first stage in achieving this goal is to enact legislation that guarantees workers a living wage and welfare recipients a shelter allowance that reflects the actual cost of the housing market. After adjusting for inflation, wages among middle-income earners in BC dropped 11% between 1980 and 2006; the least paid workers saw their earnings fall more than 25%. Generally, people are poor because they are poorly paid, not because they are lazy.
Welfare rates were not raised for 16 years, even to adjust for inflation, until April 2007, when both the shelter and living allowances were bumped up $50. These increases are welcome but not very meaningful, since they boost welfare to only 35% of the poverty line and afford lessthan1%oftherentalunitsinGreater Vancouver.
Ultimately, we need to move past tired paradigms of capitalism and socialism, into holistic community economic development. Social entrepreneurialism can create jobs, businesses and markets by acting like a specialized support service to neighbourhoods and the region as a whole. Bottom line, what truly adds to my “net worth” is what adds to everyone else’s.
Christians Are Responding
Christians are busy in every municipality, advocating for and working toward housing justice. Four well-organized groups are Streams of Justice, End Homelessness Now, Richmond Faith Forum on Housing, and North Shore ShalomSeekers. Many other church and parachurch groups are highly effective on local “tables” under the Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness. If you want to contact the one closest to you, ask me: City Gate Leadership Forum represents the Christian community on that Committee.
The Regional Steering Committee organizes Homeless Action Week every October (www. stophomelessness.ca). Homeless Connect Events are a big part of that week, and bring a large range of advocacy, health and other forms of assistance into one location for a day. Gate is working with the Committee and Vancouver City Hall to mobilize more faith communities to host Connect Events not only during that week but several times throughout the year.
About every two years, City Gate Leadership Forum coordinates The Church & Affordable Housing Conference for several hundred participants representing the full denominational spectrum as well as the nonprofit sector and all three levels of government (look for it this October). From these gatherings and research we’ve conducted (www.cglf.ca), we know that Christians are heavily engaged in the Three Ways to Home and have appetite and resources to do much more.
Over 70 Christian organizations in the Lower Mainland own and/or manage close to 7,000 units along the entire continuum of housing, including the large majority of emergency housing in the region. Some of these, such as More Than A Roof and Baptist Housing Ministries (to name just two), are among the finest housing providers in the province.
Christians are extending an even greater number and wider array of support services. Many of these are necessarily professional in nature. Many more involve less formal relationships that intentionally blur the distinction between “helpers” and “the helped.” The point is not simply to bring marginal people into the centre but to allow their experience and talent, their divine gifts as people made in God’s image, to improve the centre. The goal is mutual transformation in the way of the Kingdom that Jesus has begun in our midst.
Regent’s Marketplace Institute wants to become a global nexus and training vehicle for Christian social enterprise, both the for- profit kind and the not-for-profit kind. Social enterprise is a rather new but fast growing trend in Metro Vancouver and Canada. Four local charities that are breaking new ground in this regard are The Banqueting Table, Just Work, MP Enterprises, and Servants Anonymous. These and other faith-based charities would welcome Regent interns and graduates to help expand their businesses and plan new ones.
Last August, City Gate and a small task force that formed during the 2008 Church & Affordable Housing Conference incorporated a not-for-profit society called The CEDARS Group. CEDARS stands for Community Economic Development and Regional Sustainability. CEDARS is not a charity. Instead, we are leveraging market forces into a self-sustaining financial ecosystem for community-based social housing, social lending, and social business.
Although this article is long, much more can yet be said about housing needs and Christian responses to those needs in light of the gospel and global urban ministry. Please email me (email@example.com) if you want to discuss more (perhaps in a group setting?), to get involved, or to tell me about great work being done by your favorite organization.