AUPE’s “COVID-19 is just the tip of the Iceberg” series explores how the coronavirus – in all its unprecedented destruction - has shed a harsh light on very old problems we can’t afford to ignore any longer.
In this issue, we look at how a series of government failures have struck at the heart of Alberta: our housing.
If the pandemic has proven one thing, it’s that quality, affordable housing is in short supply in Alberta, and it’s hurting everyone: homeowners, renters and the homeless alike, including AUPE members.
Not only are about 79 of us on the frontlines of Edmonton’s affordable housing services at Capital Region Housing, but we’re close to 96,000 renters and homeowners strong.
In the face of callous cuts to public funding and pandemic-related layoffs many of us risk missing rent. Those of us who own a home, risk missing mortgage payments. And some members will get hit twice by the housing crisis - consider Black members whose ancestors were red-lined and denied equal access to quality housing for years; they haven’t benefited from the same wealth transfer and financial padding generations of quality home ownership provides.
All-in-all, housing as an “investment first, home second,” is a flawed design the UCP have exacerbated by neglecting social housing, and Albertans know firsthand it needs to be fixed.
In 2018, approximately 5,735 Albertans experienced homelessness, leaving them exposed to the elements and cut off from resources that protect against all kinds of dangers, including illnesses like COVID-19.
As cases of the novel coronavirus rose in Alberta and beyond, politicians across the country started telling the public to wash their hands and stay home - a near impossible task when you live on the streets. (Try social distancing in a jam-packed shelter, or washing your hands when you don’t have 24/7 access to clean water!)
Eventually the Alberta government had to acknowledge the homeless community’s realities, or admit paying lip service to their own advice. After days of prodding, the UCP finally gave the green light for Edmonton to open the Expo Centre as a shelter and Calgary to open hotels up for the homeless.
The mad dash to get people inside before the pandemic peaked raised serious questions though. Why did our leaders need a crisis to take the basic human right to adequate housing seriously?
As a politician, it’s one thing to be charitable in a time of crisis. It’s another to provide solutions that stand the test of time, and so far the UCP have failed to deliver. For instance, shortly after Premier Kenney gave a $4.7-billion tax break to rich corporations in 2019, he turned around and slashed $53 million over three years from the affordable housing maintenance budget, a move that is pushing housing providers to close units.
To make matters worse ghost homes are on the rise in rural Alberta as they are across Canada, where 8.7% of homes sit vacant, collecting dust or serving the purposes of rich speculators while everyday people are left out in the cold.
It doesn’t add up, and it’s not just the homeless or the Albertans in transition who are feeling the strain. Homeowners and renters are struggling as well. Many AUPE members have to work multiple jobs to pay their rent and make ends meet. Getting laid off does not alleviate the pressure.
AUPE members are in the perfect position to fight for a fairer housing system and call for:
- Rent control
- Fairer policies on vacant housing
- Bans on renovictions and evictions
- Social housing funding
- Mixed income housing
- Putting the onus on banks to pay property taxes on the portion of your homes they own
Right now communities across the province are rising up against state violence towards Black, Indigenous and other racialized residents. Everyday people are asking how public dollars can be better spent - what services need a boost, so everyone has equal access to the supports they need?
As the frontlines of the provinces most crucial public services, AUPE members have some ideas.
Solidarity is key though, and it works. In Connecticut for example, members of the Stamford Organizing Project brought unions and community members together to fight for a number of social changes, and by 2001 they won $15-million for improvements to public housing (as well as a slew of collective agreements for newly organized workers).
When it’s safe to hold rallies and events again, allies such as the Renters Action Movement Calgary or the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights are just some of the groups AUPE members can invite to help build momentum on this issue that affects us all.
In the mean time, we will continue to remind the UCP that if they really wanted to mitigate the risk of another outbreak, they would address housing issues. They would reverse their budget cuts for housing maintenance; they would place all the families and individuals on waitlists for an affordable home in one, instead of kicking them off; and they’d ensure wages catch up to the cost of living.