When it comes to housing, Vancouver and Israel have a lot in common because both are unaffordable, not just for lower income families, but for the middle class, too.
That was the message delivered at Gimme Shelter, a panel discussion presented at Vancouver’s Temple Sholom Synagogue Nov. 20, sponsored by the New Israel Fund of Canada and co-sponsored by the shul and Generation Squeeze, a Canadian campaign trying to address the issue of lower incomes and higher costs of living.
In Israel, for example, rental prices increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2011, noted Gil Gan-Mor, an attorney with the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and co-ordinator of its Right to Housing initiative. The rental increase led to more than 400,000 Israelis taking to the streets in 2011 to protest the cost of living and housing.
But it wasn’t always so, Gan-Mor said.
“In 1970, a quarter of all housing units in Israel were designated for low-income families or new immigrants, but today, only three per cent of units are designated thus. The situation is forcing low income families to spend up to 60 per cent of their monthly income on rent,” he said, adding that the result is that 70 per cent of the population is suffering from housing distress.
Penelope Gurstein, a professor and director at the University of British Columbia’s School of Regional Planning and Center for Human Settlements, painted a dire picture of housing affordability in Greater Vancouver.
“After the war, Canada used housing as a way of building our country, and government was actively involved, but since the 1990s, government policy has been about giving the private sector incentive to build housing,” she said. “They’re not interested in low-income or middle-class housing. The assumption today is that affordable housing in Vancouver should be just for the most vulnerable, and there’s no acknowledgement that the middle class – teachers, police officers, etc. – need it too.”
Both Gurstein and Gan-Mor said their respective communities are experiencing a generational crisis, because the ratio of income to housing cost is totally out of whack. “In Vancouver, you either invested in a home several years ago, or you’re one of the elite,” said panel moderator Paul Kershaw, founder of Generation Squeeze.
“You have to wonder how people are living here,” he said.
There’s no single fix for this problem, Gan-Mor said, but rather, different solutions are required for different populations depending on their needs.
“Share ownership might be a solution for young couples,” he suggested. “And we need rent regulation in Israel, because right now, landlords can increase their rent 20 to 30 per cent in one year. Basically, we have to look at housing as a right again, and when we build new neighbourhoods, we need to build them with an awareness of different sizes, needs and incomes.”
If that doesn’t happen, the result will be a polarized society in Israel, he warned, with people living on the periphery in pockets of poverty.
That polarization is already happening in Canada, where wealth is being concentrated in the cities and the suburbs are becoming more concentrated with low-income families, Gurstein said.
A national housing strategy is required, she added. “The co-op model worked well, but that program ended in the 1990s and today the waiting list for affordable housing in B.C. is huge. We’re approaching a major crisis.”
When the cost of housing forces Jewish families into the outlying suburbs, as is the case in Greater Vancouver, they can’t participate as actively in Jewish life.
“We’re recognizing we’ll have to address housing to maintain a viable Jewish community. A question acutely on people’s minds is, will the next generation of Jews be able to live here? We’ll have to do something,” Gurstein said.
Suzanna Kogen, director of the Tikvah Housing Project in Vancouver, said plans are underway to address this problem.
“We’re building family apartments and homes in Vancouver and Richmond, and we hope to be able to house families in three-bedroom homes with rents anywhere from $550 to $1,600 a month,” she said. In Richmond, Tikvah is working with the municipality and has other funders involved, too. Though more funders are required, progress is being made, she insisted, and the organization has “built really significant alliances.”
While these steps are encouraging, the panelists agreed that the issue of housing is associated with great personal shame for those who can’t afford the home they want.
“Full citizenship is associated with owning a home, and we need to reframe this as a societal issue,” Gurstein said.
Kershaw agreed. “There’s shame associated with people who can’t get a foothold in a city. Young people are asking themselves what they’re doing wrong, when it’s not their fault that wages are lower and the cost of housing has doubled. We need to address that anxiety.”