Friday, April 20, 2007

Public Housing, Public Lives

As you can tell from prior entries, I offer a different viewpoint on many "social issues". I try to view "social issues" from the perspective of the person who must live with them. I try to educate the uneducated, or if well-educated, to provide a fresh perspective.

I recently attended a forum on housing issues in my Region. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, because I was not one of dozens of providers of "services" ranging from emergency housing to transitional housing to subsidized housing to supportive housing, etc. I attended as an interested party, probably showing my bright red Tory colours as I walked in the door with about three dozen faces all staring at the lunatic who first did not even know where the forum was. I get lost easily; I am poor at remembering directions and couldn't read a map if it were spelled out for me.

Anyways, besides being a lightning rod for potential criticism, I did find some people there I was pleased to see there and the information provided was not that out of place for me. After all, I am a service provider of a different type: legal services for poor, disabled, injured as well as other citizens. The sad fact of the matter that even somebody like me, who does not get paid a cent for what I do with society's unwanted/stigmatized/abused, etc., is usually the one whose views are attacked as smarmy and a tad to the so-called right. One of these issues where I often find myself at odds with the government-funded agencies or social workers that work there, is housing policy.

To me, housing affordability problems are an income problem first; then, if the income situation were corrected, then afterwards, we can see what else we need. Housing advocates, as they call themselves, are always bleating on the liberal bandwagon about the need for the government to build thousands upon thousands of more housing units ... in particular, a critique of the recent Liberal budget was that monies allocated in this budget were essentially the same monies the federal Liberals dished out to Ontario during its dying days of the January 23, 2006, election and no new monies were involved. They point to a provincial total of 122,000 on various wait lists across Ontario for "affordable" housing. They also estimate that 600,000 households are in "core need", defined as paying more than 30% of their total income on housing/shelter costs.

Given the definition of "core need", I know I fit this definition, as well as many other people I know that currently live in so-called market housing or own their own homes. However, there's many reasons why not all 600,000 families are beating their paths to the wait lists for so-called "social housing", even if the lists weren't that long ... families in Toronto, for example, can well wait for their baby to grow up and leave home before they arrive at the top of this list.

However, I, like many other homeowners of fixed or lower incomes, prefer to remain in our own premises. If I want to move, I want to choose when and if I do, I want to profit from the move. In public housing, you do not profit from any move, although you can be made to move multiple times, as your family size decreases by one each time a child leaves home. In public housing, they tell you what your housing needs are, not the other way around ... For a typical academic like myself, I am typically underhoused even if the number of bedrooms meet my family's size. I can't be comfortable living in cubicle-sized living quarters that were likely originally designed to meet the needs of one person, but were rebuilt to add bedrooms to house families. I think of being trapped inside wanting to go outside and get away ... fast!

Besides their size, public housing can create major eyesores for neighbourhoods and communities if too many people in these projects come from low-income families. There are numerous studies that have shown public housing eventually deteriorates to sites of concentrated poverty, domestic violence and crime. In my own city, well-meaning social workers want to develop housing programs for former substance abusers or people with mental health problems. Did they ASK people first if they want to live with or beside other people with similar or possibly worse problems than they have? Just because somebody has had a substance abuse or mental health problem does not mean they want to live with and work with others who exclusively have the same problems ...

In another life, I created among other programs, a substantial pilot project that developed six independent agencies that trained and supported people with disabilities in starting and operating their own businesses. Almost ten years, five of six of these agencies are still operating and have a strong track record of success. Later, I provided services under contract to the provincial government to assist others to do the same thing. At my first round, I encountered people who wanted us to develop and fund consumer-controlled business co-operatives, which would give jobs to anybody that wanted a job and was reliable for at least a few hours a week. After consulting with the people and organizations I developed the pilots with, there was not a strong interest by people with disabilities working with others with the same problems in a business; however, there was substantial interest by many individuals in starting and running their own businesses. There were individuals who were interested in entering into partnerships with others, but the choice of partner or partners was theirs and theirs alone. Besides that, most of these prospective businesses planned to compete in the regular marketplace and having a disability or being known as a psychiatric survivor is not necessarily a strong selling point ... so why would I set these folks up to be any different than any other prospective entrepreneur? Why would it be any different for where someone lives?

Finally, public housing policies entrench poverty. Let me say this again: public housing policies entrench poverty. When I refer to public housing under this category, I am particularly referring to "rent-geared-to-income" housing. Rent-geared-to-income housing under Ontario's Social Housing Reform Act requires that rent subsidies be geared to a person's income. While this sounds simple, it really is not. I used to live in co-operative housing, where our property was then placed under this Act (against the wishes of the co-operative housing associations, mind you). Your rent subsidy for example differs if your income came from working, than if it came from social assistance benefits. The reason I was told was because when somebody works, their income comes to them in weekly or biweekly implements, while social assistance is paid monthly ... therefore, just by working itself, your rent would increase. As you continue to earn more money, your rent increases even more. I believe the standard they keep is 30% of one's net income. This is not a bad policy if you always earned the same amount of money month after month, but we all know this doesn't happen.

Social housing residents are supposed to report any changes in their income (up or down) within ten (10) days of becoming aware of the change. That means if your income varies from one month to the next, you have to report your income each and every month to your social housing office. If you are also receiving social assistance or Ontario Disability Support Assistance (ODSP), this situation becomes even more interesting. Whenever somebody on social assistance or ODSP earns money in Ontario, they must report their earnings before the 7th day or 22nd day of the following month, respectively. For somebody who runs a small business for example and is on ODSP, reporting requirements are slightly different and one's file is annually reviewed. However, if that same person lives in social housing, they must report month after month what their new and varied income is, which if it differs by as much as $100 a month (which I think still applies), your housing charge goes up or down accordingly. If you are on social assistance or ODSP and this agency covers your shelter costs, you have to declare any change in shelter costs as they occur. It is too easy to fall into a trap where you can end up in substantial arrears to social housing if this situation is not kept in check. I know this - I've represented many of these tenants before the Landlord and Tenant Board.

Another major issue is the subject of clawbacks. ODSP recently changed its legislation to allow people to keep up to 50% of what they earn, as opposed to their old formula which many of its recipients found too complicated to keep up with. A simple 50/50 split is easier for recipients to calculate, plus if there are earnings in a given month - the recipient would receive an additional $100 (called work-related allowance, but no receipts are required). This is actually a positive change for many ODSP recipients. However, if that same ODSP recipient lives in public housing, they don't only endure the 50% clawback, but also endure an additional 30% clawback from an increase in their housing costs simply as a result of going to work. Add in work-related expenses that are not generally covered by ODSP and one is simply being clawed back $1.00 - $1.20 for every $1.00 earned! Is it any wonder why many people living in public housing do not even bother to look for work?

On the subject of working, I do believe that individuals living in subsidized quarters are still disallowed from running a business out of their home. Small business run out of a person's home is the start of at least 75% of small businesses that eventually move out of the home and grow. For those so inclined, this is yet another disincentive to move up the social ladder. I am currently representing an individual who has been in trouble repetitively with the social housing department for operating a small business out of his home. Because this individual is incapable of working for an employer, this is his only option to earn a few extra dollars; nevertheless, he has also encountered the double jeopardy bureaucratic triangle I described above with respect to variable incomes each and every month as well. I know for a fact many of these people would be in far deeper trouble than they would be if they did not have access to our office for support and advocacy. There will be more on the battle that we paralegals are facing later. However, none of the successive governments that worked with social housing issues have ever tried to correct the double jeopardy bind I describe herein. More importantly, none of the so-called housing activists that push for more and more housing of this type appear to be aware of this double jeopardy trap or they just don't want to talk about it - feeling that bringing too much attention to it might discourage already reluctant government partners from building more of this housing, or even more cynically - to creating more social work jobs.

Finally, there is an element within the social housing movement that bothers me more particularly than any of the above issues. There are proponents that want to put anybody with mental health issues into supportive housing, people with substance abuse issues into supportive housing, and so forth ... in a society where we once valued integration and privacy, these same proponents want to throw all of that away and create projects specifically for people with mental health issues. To me, when I once worked with consumer/survivors as executive director of a local agency, I never heard any of the consumer/survivors I worked with tell me or anybody I worked with that they wanted to live in segregated housing where all their neighbours would also be consumer/survivors. I personally think this is a recipe for trouble and further stigmatization, if you ask me. People with mental health issues want to be left alone and the best kind of housing for them is the same kind of housing that is best for anybody else seeking to find the same -- one that is clean, safe and well-maintained.

Back to me ... my family is one of the supposedly 600,000 families in "core need" because more than 30% of my income is spent on housing-related necessities. However, even if there were no wait list, why would I want to move to a residence that is not mine? Why would I want to turn my life upside down and force myself into what can be a sentence to perpetual poverty? Why would I want to have neighbours that have similar problems, perhaps worse? Even at my co-op, which was only 30% subsidized, the police were there all the time ... a resident was murdered there many years back and in the year prior to my purchase of my present home, a resident committed suicide. Many others have also died of unnatural causes. They were all good people and in many ways, I miss the bunch of them ... however, I was no longer able to afford above average market rent hikes year after year, along with hydro, cable, gas and everything else we had to pay, while not having the benefit of ownership. While my housing where I live still costs about the same as it would have in the co-op, perhaps a bit less, it is mine.

Rather than go after the government for issues of supply and demand, why not ask the government to ensure that people on assistance and working poor are in a financial position to afford to pay for reasonable housing in the marketplace, as opposed to having to queue up for what looks like an awful long time on the road to nowhere?

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