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"Grayed in" no more

March 31, 2011

My dad was born in 1923 in an industrial slum in Manchester, England.

If you’ve read Angela’s Ashes, you’ll know the scene: drunken dads, outdoor plumbing, freezing flats and windows caked with coal soot every morning.

But my dad’s stories of his boyhood were not tales of deprivation. In fact, I did not realize my dad was poor until I went to university, and heard his childhood home described in a class on slum housing. But then, I don’t think my dad thought he was poor either.

Being the problem others must solve

I think many of us are familiar with these “poor but happy” stories.  But have you noticed how many of these stories are about the past? Or take place in other countries?

Why is that?  It could simply be that we see our past through rosy lenses. But I’m not so sure. I think that the lives of today’s low-income Canadians are filled with petty humiliations that were entirely unknown to my dad.

To be poor in Canada is to be seen as a problem that needs to be solved – and solved by other people. You are dependent on others and their good opinion to get cash or services you need. If you try to strike out on your own you lose your place in the system; if you try to set aside a little cash, you disqualify yourself from services.

Most of all, you are seen to be marginal in a way that would have been totally foreign to my dad. He and his neighbours saw themselves as the salt of the earth and the heart of the nation. For them, it was the rich who were useless, invisible and expendable.

Grayed in, and gray.

When I started working in social housing 30 years ago, I had grand ideas about justice and equity, and decent, affordable housing for all. But now I wonder just how much I may have unwittingly – and with the best intentions – contributed to the life described in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, Kitchenette Building: “We are things of dry hours, and the involuntary plan. Grayed in, and gray.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I can think of half a dozen changes that would cost little — and might even save money — that would turn “gray housing” into places of opportunity.

  • We could start by transforming the social housing waiting list. No other housing in Ontario requires its residents to queue up. I can think of no other public service where wait times exceed 3, 5 even 10 years.
  • Then re-think the rules that restrict transfers within social housing. Why should social  housing tenants have to prove they are over-housed, under-housed, abused or ill before they can move? Why can’t they move when they want to, just like everyone else?
  • And what about rent geared-to-income subsidies – that bulwark against disaster, but also the trap that discourages people from earning a little extra, or moving up in the world.
  • And then there are the petty rules that discourage initiative and prevent tenants from enjoying their homes: no home businesses; no home improvements; no decorations to your unit door; no doing your own repairs – even when you know what you’re doing, and scheduled maintenance is months away.

I think about all the ways social housing residents are segregated from the rest of the city. I think of the word “housing” – a phrase that only social housing tenants use to describe their own homes.

I started this blog because I believe in social housing. But I also believe it needs a fresh vision.

I am looking for ideas that will revitalize social housing, and free tenants to enjoy the things my dad valued: ingenuity, camaraderie, adventure, and a certain joyfulness and vitality that is rarely associated with social housing these days – although I know it is there, waiting to be set loose.

Join me in my search!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2011 11:54 am

    The idea that RGI subsidy might represent a trap is not one heard much, if at all from housing advocates, but it nonetheless deserves consideration. Let’s first distinguish between those who are on permanently fixed incomes and those who are poor now but able to improve their circumstances in the job market. Now let’s be be more specific and ask if a guaranteed rent subsidy is a disincentive for the latter group. An economist will say that it is, because a rent supplement increases household income with no effort on the part of the household. Is it it a big disincentive? Probably not — it is not a deep trap. Social assistance is likely to be a far greater one if the barriers to job market entry created by the rules for social assistance benefits and income tax are not removed.

  2. Zainab Habib permalink
    December 27, 2011 1:52 am

    I, along with other activists I’ve talked to before, would certainly agree with you on needing a fresh vision for social housing. I really like your point on how social housing in Ontario restricts transfers. It certainly feels contrary to the right to mobility in Canada, something most of us would take for granted.

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