Making the Pivot: Designing Participatory Action Research for Housing Justice in Edmonton, Alberta
Like water, food, education and healthcare, adequate housing is essential to human dignity and wellbeing and is therefore a human right. This was recognized nearly 75 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, in Article 25, that:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
The moral sentiments expressed in Article 25 were given legal force through the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which the Government of Canada ratified in 1976. Article 11 of the ICESCR states that signatories agree to recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of these rights. In addition, Article 2 of the ICESCR states that signatories, like Canada, should use the maximum of its available resources, take appropriate means, and adopt legislative measures to realize these rights. The latter (legislation) was only implemented very recently, in 2019, when the National Housing Strategy Act became law in Canada. This legislation recognizes the right to adequate housing as a fundamental human right. It states that:
it is declared to be the housing policy of the Government of Canada to (a) recognize that the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law; (b) recognize that housing is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person and to building sustainable and inclusive communities; (c) support improved housing outcomes for the people of Canada; and (d) further the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
This legislation directs governments in Canada to align housing policies and programs with the recognition of the right to adequate housing as it is understood in international human rights law. This requires that governments urgently take reasonable action and give priority to those groups in greatest need of adequate housing (The National Right to Housing Network 2022). The human rights approach outlined above calls upon leaders in all levels of government to recognize the housing crisis in Canada as a human rights crisis requiring urgent action. But what is needed goes beyond recognition:
- What actions might help shift Edmonton’s housing system towards the realization of the right to adequate housing?
- What knowledge gaps or practical tools are required to support these actions?
- What role is there for research in this process?
In the fall of 2021, the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab (AHSL) implemented an equity-centered public engagement process to address these questions. The AHSL called this process “The Pivot.” This process takes its name from the idea that Edmonton’s housing system needs to ‘pivot’ in a different direction, one that ensures the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing for all.
A full summary of the rationale for The Pivot process, activities undertaken, and the input received thus far can be found in the interim report:
The overarching goal of The Pivot was to (a) identify collective actions that support the realization of the right to adequate housing and (b) identify ways in which the AHSL can support these actions through community-based research activities. Input gathered through activities completed thus far provided the basis for the identification of six general areas for action. These areas for action address the root causes and/or systemic barriers contributing to housing injustice in Edmonton. These areas for action are:
- Expand Supply and Increase Accessibility of Non-Market Housing
There is an extreme shortage of subsidized, non-market housing in Edmonton. This supply deficit is the result of years of government underinvestment. In addition, there is a critical shortage of affordable rental housing that is accessible to people living with disability in Edmonton. This supply deficit is the result of ableist attitudes that shape decisions regarding building design and accommodation. To address the shortage of affordable and accessible non-market rental housing, governments need to protect, renovate and grow community housing (public housing, non-profit housing, cooperative housing), especially the supply of deeply subsidized units (rent-geared to income) that are universally accessible.
- Regulate the Private Rental Market
The private rental market is not providing a balanced supply of adequate housing. Housing is increasingly now seen as an investment and this has encouraged the financialization of the rental housing market via REITs producing outcomes such as ‘renovictions’ and price inflation. Where affordable rental housing can be found it is often substandard and poorly maintained. This harms low-income groups seeking housing in the private rental market. To address this market failure, governments need to introduce regulations that protect renters from price gouging, prevent further loss of affordable rental housing and ensure that the existing stock is physically safe and protects against the cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, other threats to health and structural hazards.
- Empower Tenants
In Alberta, there is no limit on the amount by which a landlord can raise the rent. Moreover, landlord discrimination, harassment and negligence is occurring, especially among vulnerable populations, and individuals have been evicted into homelessness, even from community housing. Participants noted that existing legislation and institutions provide minimal accountability for landlords and little recourse for tenants. These stand as reminders that some Edmontonians lack basic security of tenure, a fundamental component of the right to adequate housing. To address this systemic insecurity, the Alberta Residential Tenancies Act needs to be changed in a way that protects security of tenure for tenants, especially in terms of eviction. In addition, governments need to genuinely engage with affected groups when developing housing and homelessness laws, policies, and programs.
- Engage and Educate Landlords
Exclusion, denial of property restitution, and harassment are common experiences among vulnerable populations living in Edmonton. Landlords – both private and social – bare responsibility in ensuring that the provision of housing and housing-related services is non-discriminatory and culturally adequate. This responsibility is defined in the National Housing Strategy Act and in other federal, provincial (for example, Alberta Human Rights Act) and municipal laws. To address this responsibility, landlords – both private and social – need mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training as well as training in trauma-informed practice to fulfill duties under existing laws.
- Continue to Organize and Advocate
Actions such as expanding supply, regulating the private market and empowering tenants will face resistance. Facilitating these actions will require the support of an effective coalition of community organizations, advocates, experts, and the citizenry at large which can put pressure on all levels of government to progressively realize the right to adequate housing. Edmonton has a long history of advocacy and organizing with regard to housing and is in a position to build upon these strengths. Continued efforts are needed to scale up and nurture an understanding of housing as a human right and why it is a matter of public concern. Moreover, continued community organizing and advocacy is required to keep systemic issues in the limelight and show that more effective housing approaches are within our reach.
- Monitor Progress
Edmonton’s understanding of the housing system is limited by gaps in knowledge. Moreover, accountability when it comes to systemic issues is often limited or lacking. Both of these deficiencies are barriers to the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing in the community. Local and regional monitoring and accountability mechanisms are needed to determine whether or not a government is meeting its human rights obligations. In addition, governments need to be adequately resourced so that they have the capacity to implement these monitoring and accountability mechanisms.
The areas of action outlined above provide direction while also raising questions such as what might specific actions look like in each of these areas and what types of knowledge, information and tools are needed to take these actions?
On March 25 2022, the AHSL will facilitate a final virtual workshop to engage the community in conversations regarding these questions. Input gathered during this event will inform the design of community-based action research projects supported by the AHSL in 2022 and 2023.
You can register for the March 25 event now: