Wednesday, August 13, 2014

DTES activists dispute my claims...and my response

Jean Swanson and Tamara Herman of the Carnegie Community Action Project did not like what I wrote last week. Here are their letters to The Courier:

To the editor:
Gee, I wish I was as powerful as Michael Geller suggests: “It is worth noting that [the welfare shelter allowance] was fixed at $325 in part because Downtown Eastside activist Jean Swanson ‘did not want to put more money in landlords’ pockets.’”  

I actually worked for many years to get welfare rates raised, both the shelter and support portions which total a mere $610 a month today.

I am still working to get them raised.  If I were the government, I wouldn’t set up welfare shelter rates as they are set up now, with people getting a maximum of $375 per month and less than that if their rent is less, because then tenants have no incentive to look for a place that is less than $375 and slumlords charge couples $375 each for one lousy room with the tenants having no reason to object because the only way they can get the $375 is if they give it to their landlord.

However, since the $375 has been frozen for seven years, virtually no places exist for $375.  
This amount needs to be increases substantially if people are to be able to eat, pay rent, look for work and buy necessities.
Jean Swanson,

© Vancouver Courier

Here is Ms Herman's response: 

Please tell me this is a joke. The welfare shelter rate is fixed at only $375 because housing advocate Jean Swanson didn't want to put more money in landlords' pockets?! Either Michael Geller is hugely misinformed or has an absurd sense of humour. 

Jean Swanson has been advocating tirelessly for higher welfare rates for decades, while Mr. Geller certainly has not. What I imagine Jean said is that without rent control, higher shelter rates will mean landlords can raise rents proportionally, leaving people with just as little to spend on basic necessities.

Michael Geller routinely misconstrues arguments to advocate for policies that keep poor people poor and make wealthier people wealthier. But this one takes the cake.

Here is my response  which I emailed to my editor at  the Courier with copies to Ms Swanson, Ms Herman, and Wendy Pedersen, as well as my 2008 DECLUP colleagues.

I was both surprised and disappointed to read the comments from Jean Swanson and Tamara Herman in today's Courier, in response to my August 6th column.

While I do not intend to continue a debate in the Courier, lest you, like Ms Herman wonder if my column was a joke, attached is the draft op-ed that I prepared in early 2008 following my initial discussion with Jean while a member of DECLUP .
DECLUP was the original name for what today is the Building Community Society. At the time, other members included Michael Clague, Mike Harcourt, Joe Wai, Ray Spaxman, Gerry Zipursky, and the late Milton Wong.

I was shocked when I first learned that the shelter component of welfare had not increased in 14 years and I hoped to use my profile as a developer and member of DECLUP to try and change this.

At the time, my thinking was an op-ed piece signed by such odd-bedfellows as Jean and me might attract media and government attention and lead to an increase in the shelter allowance.
Initially Jean was supportive of the joint op-ed. However, Wendy subsequently disagreed, saying that if we were going to publish anything, it should support an increase in welfare rates, not just the shelter component. I was not prepared to do this.
Jean subsequently backed down, arguing that raising the shelter component of welfare would only put more money in landlord's pockets. She has subsequently clarified that she believed this would happen unless there were accompanying rent controls.
In fact, there were rent controls in place at the time.

I am sending this to you and other parties involved to demonstrate that my remarks were not a joke....nor a fabrication. 
As for Ms Herman's suggestion that I routinely misconstrue arguments to advocate for policies that keep poor people poor and make wealthier people wealthier....I will leave that to others who know me to decide.

Below is the draft OP-ED initially prepared for both Jean Swanson and my signature, which was subsequently modified to go under my signature, but never sent:

Draft ‘sound-off’ or ‘op-ed’ piece for the Vancouver Sun.

I first came across Jean Swanson over 30 years ago, when I was the Program Manager of Social Housing for CMHC.  She spoke out for the poor, and especially for those who were the 'hardest to house' in the Downtown Eastside.  As a result of her efforts, and the efforts of others like her, CMHC financed and built a number of developments in the area, including Oppenheimer Lodge, Cordova House, and Antoinette Lodge. 

In the subsequent years, I went on to do other things, while Jean continued to be an activist for the poor.  I often questioned the tactics she and others used to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and downtrodden, as reported in the media. I found it very hard to relate to what they were doing.

However, Jean Swanson and I recently crossed paths again.  She continues to be an 'activist' trying to bring government attention to the plight of the homeless.  This time, I am a volunteer with a group called DECLUP which is trying to assist the DTES community and city planners in developing a land use plan and other housing strategies for an area that is facing significant outside real estate pressures. With the price of land and housing rising throughout the city, many developers see this as the next neighbourhood in which to start building condominiums.

In reviewing the many housing reports produced by the city and others, I have come to the conclusion that one issue contributing to the current situation is that the shelter allowance for those on welfare is much too low.  It is astounding to report that from _____to 2007, when the cost of renting an apartment increased by 30%??? the shelter allowance DID NOT INCREASE AT ALL!  While it did increase to $375 in 2007, this amount is completely inadequate to cover the cost of decent shelter.  Anyone offering a basement suite for rent knows this. 

If we want to encourage the supply of more decent housing for those in the lowest income groups, we will have to further raise the shelter allowance to a level that will cover the cost of the most basic accommodation, and ensure that it continues to increase in step with the market.   

While some will argue this will only put money in the landlords' pockets, I believe there is nothing wrong with this, as long as the landlords improve the quality and maintenance of the housing being offered for rent. 

From reading the stacks of housing reports, I now have a better understanding of why Jean Swanson and her colleagues have been yelling and screaming and staging protests.  And it is a shame that few of us were paying proper attention to what they were saying.  

While I don't condone what they did, and their continued criticism of the City and Province, I now want to add my voice to theirs in calling upon governments and others in the housing industry, to continue to increase the shelter allowance component of welfare to more realistic levels. Hopefully, some of the CMHC officials in Ottawa will also hear what she is saying.

It's time for the Federal Government to get back into the business of helping those in greatest need in our cities, just as we did 30 years ago.

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