Making Vancouver affordable for elderly women
On a drizzly night in Vancouver’s West End, the Gordon Neighborhood House community room is packed with over fifty women, as former city councillor Ellen Woodsworth introduces the Women Transforming Cities (WTC) cafe on seniors and housing.
There are young women as well as seniors, university professors as well as long-time local activists and artists, a Farsi language table, one very debonair and slightly out-of-place looking young man, and a palpable buzz of energy -- the kind of strong political feeling that is quickly transformed into political will.
The event is called “Squeezed Out of Homes and Communities: Confronting the Affordable Housing Crisis for Women and Girls,” the second half of the Cafe on affordable housing hosted by the initiative Women Transforming Cities, Designing an Ideal City for Women and Girls.
We’re not talking about painting the lobbies of high-end condos pink. WTC has been hosting events, from City Hall forums to community centre cafes that foster dialogue between women scholars, policy makers, architects, city planners, activists and community members around gender equity in cities.
Holding the City accountable
The group’s intention is to hold the city’s feet to the fire on their commitments to women, ensuring that an inter-sectional analysis and gender lens is applied to city planning, budgeting, and design, with respect to food security, safety, young women and leadership, housing, transportation and childcare.
A panel of local scholars and activists unleashes a series of rapid-fire presentations, including UBC associate law professor Margot Young, who speaks on leveraging Charter rights and agreements made with the United Nations Human Rights Council to show how Canada is not holding up its obligations to women most effected by the affordable housing crisis.
It would chafe against the moral fibres of most Charter abiding Vancouverites to picture elderly women being forced from homes they’ve been in for years by sudden and dramatic rent increases.
It would go against the grain of what many people believe it means to be Canadian to imagine a single elderly woman being uprooted from safe, affordable housing and not be able to advocate for herself. And yet it is happening.
Older women adding value to communities
One of the dominant narratives around older women and housing is that women are a drain on the system because we live longer, and apparently have more costly health needs as they age.
Ingrid Kolsteren, a retiree and member of city's Women's Advisory committee, argues that it costs less to allow women to age in place than it does to facilitate frequent moves. This misinformation hides the ways in which women, especially when they are in stable housing and are able to age in place, add value to communities and to social life.
We break into six tables, each one hosted by one of the speakers. After half an hour of furious note-taking, our table has produced three pages of recommendations, including:
- The need to form a National Housing Strategy, as well as housing strategies at the provincial and municipal levels (with local strategies reflecting the actual demographic and city specific data collection)
- A commitment from federal and provincial governments to build ten thousand units a year of full-gamut social housing
- Improved residential tenancy provisions
- Create a spectrum of housing options, i.e., different forms of progressive/life cycling co op models (as co-ops are good ideas for seniors until they can no longer participate in co-op activities, and begin to lose out on the benefits of actively participating members.)
- Raise welfare rates
- Create accountability measures for Ottawa as a feature of the National Housing Strategy
- A return of the mandatory long-form census to include what percentage women are spending on housing and what kind of housing they are spending on, and connecting gender-lens survey data with market research to look for gaps
- A feminist perspective in data collection methodology, design and analysis (i.e., a process around gender disaggregated data)
- Quotas for women in politics and legislative assembly quotas
- More support for hospices, as we have a growing percentage of women seniors, and more women will be needing this service
- More support for support workers, both supported housing and home support workers (who are mostly women) because women lose housing without adequate social support. For example, at Save On Meats, there is a discount for police and fire and rescue workers. How about a discount for housing support workers in the area?
- Create a legal right to not be evicted into homelessness
- Studies that show the connection between quality of housing and health
- Tax bonuses for landlords who have long-time tenants
- More aggressive granting to make developers dedicate a percentage of their buildings to affordable housing
On what we can do, responses ranged from “Go to the streets!” to forming coalitions between grassroots housing projects and policy driven housing projects at all three levels of government, and finally, to connect these policy initiatives to arts driven housing initiatives like the Housing Matters Media project, connecting politics to storytelling, narrative and documentary.
Ingrid Kolsteren concludes her table’s findings with a statement that has the striking quality of what is both true, and forgotten:
“We have a right to basic housing and we should have housing for our whole lives. This is a social, economic and human right. It shouldn’t be a dream.”
As a volunteer with the Vancouver Hospice Society, I have seen how beneficial it is for seniors to have strong family and community support. It's always a painful moment to see the gaps between our professed ideals and the things that we are actually allowing to happen.
Working at the Hospice is uplifting because it is a place that embodies the highest ideals we have as a society -- that we assist each other, that we care for and protect those who are helpless, that we honour our elderly.
It's good to have a bedrock around which we can get out bearings in a city where elderly women are being squeezed out of homes and communities by landlords enforcing untenable rent increases.
Don’t miss the next Women Transforming Cities cafe: Young Women in Charge, hosted by Vancouver artist-activists Jen Sung of Vancouver's Queer Film Festival and Out in Schools, and Melanie Matining of Girls Action Foundation at Rhizome Cafe on Dec 15. See the Women Transforming Cities Facebook page and website for more details.