Recap of Not Back to Normal: Housing Post-Pandemic
Meg Holden and Aphrodite Bouikidis
SFU Urban Studies
The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Public Square or any other affiliated institutions in any way.
This webinar was part of Pandemonium: Urban Studies and Recovering from COVID-19, a lecture series presented by SFU Urban Studies in collaboration with SFU Public Square and financially supported by the Initiative in Urban Sustainable Development.
In the fifth session of the Pandemonium webinar series on January 27, 2021, panelists from Vancouver, Ontario, Ireland and Italy came together to share a range of insights about the impacts of the pandemic on housing and communities. The panel also discussed ways that we can adopt housing models and policies that address these impacts and reject responding in a way that treats as “normal” the pre-pandemic problems related to housing.
The panelists were Laura Colini, Senior Policy Advisor, EU UIA/URBACT, Niamh Moore Cherry, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University College Dublin, Erin Rennie, Senior Planner, Regional Planning and Housing Services, Metro Vancouver, Rebecca Schiff, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Health Sciences, Lakehead University, and Sierra Tasi Baker-Gesuqwaluck, Lead Indigenous Urban Designer, Sky Spirit Studio.
These panelists shared examples and lessons about housing models, the interconnectedness of housing with health, well-being, equity and decolonization, and policy recommendations from neighbourhood, regional, federal and even Europe-wide perspectives.
Opening remarks from Yushu Zhu
Moderator Yushu Zhu, Assistant Professor, SFU Urban Studies opened the evening with her reflections about the profound role of housing in our personal and social lives, and the crucial role of housing in particular in people’s ability to cope with the pandemic. She noted that this is the right moment for dialogue on the big questions about housing, communities, and cities post-pandemic, which she framed as: How can we as a society re-imagine the post-COVID world so as to recalibrate public policies to build decent homes, complete communities and resilient cities? The pandemic reinforced and spotlighted preexisting social fractures in the housing system, and massive job losses and economic slowdown now stand poised to entrench and exacerbate existing inequalities post-COVID-19. This raises critical questions for future urban development and city life, and for reprioritization within the mix of urban policies.
Senior Planner, Regional Planning and Housing Services, Metro Vancouver
Metro Vancouver was one year into the process of updating the Metro 2040 Regional Growth Strategy when the pandemic hit. As the senior planner tasked with leading this update, Erin Rennie discussed how the pandemic and its impacts are being considered as Metro Vancouver rethinks its strategy for regional development and coordination out to 2050.
Metro Vancouver is using population growth modeling to project new housing and job scenarios in the coming three decades. Housing affordability is a challenge that existed before the pandemic but has been amplified by it. Erin discussed some of the impacts of the pandemic on the wider community, on the Metro 2050 process, and on policy. The impacts of the pandemic also raise questions related to the housing system and what will happen post-pandemic: Will people want to leave the regional town centres, focal areas for growth in the region’s cities? Will there be increased pressure on the region’s urban containment boundary, and on agricultural and rural areas?
Adapting Metro 2050 to respond to the pandemic entails new energy and focus on questions of resilience and equity as core regional planning principles. Given the impact of the pandemic and the uncertainties and questions it raises for the future, the work of long-range regional planning is now more important than ever. Erin shared how a complete communities strategy and an expanded approach to housing policy are being developed within Metro 2050, with equity and resiliency principles, and consideration of interconnected issues like health and climate change.
Erin mentioned some of the ways people can be engaged with the Metro 2050 update process, including a Metro 2050 comment form, comment period Summer / Fall 2021, the Regional Planning E-Bulletin, and upcoming webinars. More information is on the Metro Vancouver website: www.metrovancouver.org/metro2050
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Health Sciences, Lakehead University
Joining from Ontario, Dr. Rebecca Schiff discussed how the pandemic emphasizes the importance of housing as ‘more than a roof’, and the lessons we can learn from the community housing sector about healthy housing and resilience. The impact of COVID-19 includes lessons in the importance of secure shelter for health, and that community well-being and social inclusion factors are key ways to understand the social determinants of health. In Canada, the federal government recognized this and instituted new housing and homelessness supports. These supports, notably the Rapid Housing Initiative, are primarily in financial and physical – making sure people have a roof over their heads.
Quality and healthy housing, where people are supported and connected, is critical to people’s wellness during the pandemic. This was already understood in the Community Housing (CH) Sector. This sector encompasses a variety of different models, and is also referred to as “social” housing (public ownership or support) or “affordable” housing (below market rents); housing that is designed to accommodate the 1 in 8 Canadians who need support in obtaining a safe, affordable and adequate home.
Rebecca shared some early findings from a recent Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada survey, suggesting that cooperative housing residents seem to be more financially resilient and less negatively affected by the pandemic overall than those living in market housing. Additional research on the impact of the pandemic on households in different housing types is needed.
Moving forward from the pandemic, and to avoid returning to the “normal” of the pre-pandemic housing challenges, Rebecca emphasized the need to recognize the multiplier effect of community housing and to provide more supports for this sector.
Area of Inquiry IV: Understanding and evaluating models of community housing – Community Housing Canada
Sierra Tasi Baker-Gesuqwaluck
Lead Indigenous Urban Designer, Sky Spirit Studio
Sierra Tasi Baker reflected on the process of colonization on urban design and development and how recentering Indigenous ways of knowing and values in our society can lead to solutions for better ways of living. She offered a reminder that Indigenous nations have confronted numerous epidemics since colonization, and have insights on resilience and community support. Indigenous experience is also a source of wisdom when it comes to community housing models, as this was the form of housing that they had for thousands of years pre-contact. Important new Indigenous-led housing development projects are opening doors for this deep-seated wisdom to come through in new urban housing models.
Thinking back on the MST Futurism Panel she organized in December 2020, she emphasized that Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh have lived in these lands since Time Immemorial and have never ceded these territories, meaning they never gave up title or right to this area, and they never agreed to the city being built around them, erasing their own planning and community structures.
Sierra advocated for recentering Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations as hosts of these territories, not only in a ceremonial way but also to recognize the contemporary value of Indigenous knowledge about better housing and community models for these lands. The Host Nations have great knowledge for improving the health of the environment and ensuring that people are treated well, with dignity and humanity.
As the new co-chair of Hiy̓ám̓ ta Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Housing Society (translates to: “the Squamish are coming home”) Sierra shared some updates about the strategic plan and new housing developments in the Squamish Nation. She spoke about six development sites approved on the Squamish reserve for mixed low-rise and high-rise development to help alleviate the housing crisis affecting Indigenous people first, and to create the biggest surge of affordable rental housing in the history of the reserve.
Niamh Moore Cherry
Associate Professor, School of Geography, University College Dublin
Niamh Moore-Cherry considered the intersection of public health, urban vulnerabilities and neighbourhood planning through the experience of an inner city neighbourhood in Dublin during the pandemic lockdown. The experiences and lessons from this neighborhood in Dublin have parallels to issues and challenges we face in Canada, as fundamental forces like financialization of housing and gentrification of communities drive a lot of housing problems. Niamh shared insights from her work with colleagues Dr. Carla Maria Kayanan and Dr. Alma Clavin from the UCD School of Geography that will be published in a forthcoming book chapter.
In the Dublin 8 neighbourhood, a large proportion of residents are vulnerable and live in social housing complexes, housing blocks with few quality internal spaces, without private external gardens or balconies, and limited green and open spaces. The stay-at-home order during the pandemic pre-supposed a safe and adequate home environment without taking the different experiences of home into account in Dublin 8 and many urban neighbourhoods like it. Already disadvantaged communities saw compounded vulnerabilities during the lockdown. Niamh also discussed how the housing market in Dublin increasingly operates through a process of financialization, in which housing is perceived as a market commodity more fundamentally than a social good, equally by local authorities as by private sector developers.
The experience of the Dublin 8 neighborhood reveals lessons about the importance of looking ahead now so that we do not return back to “normal” post-pandemic. The lessons are about how housing planning and policy, like urban planning writ large, need to protect public health at their roots, about the importance of considering the lived experiences of households and communities within a city and recalibrating planning practice to focus on social well-being; and that local authorities do have the ability to ‘take on’ private interests when needed in relation to housing.
Senior Policy Advisor, EU UIA/URBACT
The discussion moved further into Europe with a presentation from Laura Colini about the current and pre-pandemic housing situation in European cities, as well as trends and uncertainties that pose challenges for housing during pandemic recovery. Colini introduced the Cities Engaging in the Right to Housing initiative that is launching as part of the Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) initiative and URBACT European program, that together involve about 500 cities across Europe. The initiative also aligns with the European Union (EU) Urban Agenda, a process started in 2016, bringing together cities, member states and international partners to coordinate common action.
Housing challenges and homelessness were increasing in Europe before COVID-19. For example:
- According to the annual report of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), 70% more people are sleeping rough in Europe than was the case a decade ago;
- 17.1% of the EU-27 population lived in overcrowded households;
- rent and related rental costs are skyrocketing in major cities like London, Amsterdam and Madrid; and
- tourist numbers that are five to 10 times the number of long-term inhabitants result in short-term rentals putting pressure on housing in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venice.
As the pandemic has exacerbated housing-related issues, countries introduced an array of relief measures, such as suspending evictions, forbearing mortgages, suspending utility bill payments, providing emergency shelter, and more. At the EU level, Members of European Parliament (MEPs) adopted a resolution to recognise access to decent and affordable housing as an enforceable human right and to push for measures to eradicate homelessness. A European Recovery Plan will provide 1.8 trillion Euros to member states, and part of it will be dedicated to housing. At the same time, the cost of housing is rising, and the potential for financialization of the real estate market and investors profiting from the current crisis is high.
Information about the EU Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI) https://www.ourhomesourdeal.eu/affordable-housing-initiative
Find articles, podcasts, videos and good practices on the Cities Engaging In The Right To Housing Platform:
The discussion continued with questions and perspectives on how to develop complete communities in an intersectional way, defining and valuing mixed-use development compared to multifunctional neighbourhoods, the role that researchers, advocates and activists can play in pushing for systemic change, ways to support and empower communities, and the impact of current planning and zoning bylaws, land use designations and urban planning practice.
Additional Resources mentioned:
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