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Mental Health

Redefining Social Housing

Words have power for good or bad

Jim Spinelli

Reprinted from "Housing: Discrimination and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (3), p. 28

The terms that are casually used to describe housing and its tenants need careful examination and discussion. Many of these terms potentially stigmatize both the housing and the tenants. Among the most loaded terms are “wet housing,” “low-barrier housing,” “people with persistent multiple barriers,” “the mentally ill and drug addicted,” “hard to house” and “street entrenched.” Even terms such as “homelessness” and “homeless person” tend to have negative connotations.

This terminology associated with people in need of housing has provided convenient ‘red flags’ that have been used to justify community opposition to affordable housing. The language may also directly contribute to discrimination against the individuals who are being housed, by restricting their opportunity to be accepted as full community members.

Additionally, loaded terminology may divert public and mass media gaze away from the failures of our public social and housing policies, focusing instead on the individual tenant and whatever issues he or she might face. Public policies surrounding issues such as the lack of affordable housing, insufficient shelter allowance and inadequate health services need to be kept in sight.

Consider this example: The generally accepted definition of the term “low-barrier housing” is housing where mental illness or addictions are not reasons for exclusion from tenancy. I’ve lived in rental housing for most of my adult life and have been a landlord for the last 17 years, and I’ve had people with mental illness and who were substance abusers as neighbours many times. These issues are not relevant to tenancy, whether in subsidized housing or market housing.

Landlords have three basic concerns about prospective tenants: Will they pay their rent? Will they respect their neighbour’s right to peaceful enjoyment of their homes? Will they refrain from damaging their apartment?

Given that all rental housing puts up these same three ‘barriers,’ why do we apply the “low-barrier” label only to affordable housing? In other words, even though every tenant has these same barriers applied through the BC Residential Tenancy Act, we label only one group of tenants.

Perhaps a more important concern is that using terms like “low-barrier” in public discourse not only brands the housing, but also inappropriately labels each and every tenant as having mental health or substance use issues when poverty, lack of affordable housing and effective health services are the real issues.

Another term, “wet housing,” is often used to put a negative spin on social housing. What is “wet housing”? The term originally came into use to describe housing where alcohol was provided to tenants as a harm reduction strategy. It has been redefined to label housing that is not “dry” or where abstinence from alcohol is required as in substance abuse treatment programs. I don’t know very many communities or neighbourhoods—or many households—that are “dry.” We don’t refer to our own homes as “wet houses”; why do we apply this label to social housing?

In reality, there is no single reason why people end up losing their homes. Some people lose their homes because they are fleeing domestic violence. Some lose their housing for economic reasons such as deteriorating health, disability, loss of employment and so on. Others lose their housing because of their own bad behaviour or budgeting choices, others etc.

For many, it’s the financial pressure of trying to afford market rental housing on a government-provided housing stipend of $375 per month. There are over 4,000 individuals in Nanaimo who receive this level of support, and there are only about 500 subsidized housing units available for that amount.

The Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society develops and operates inclusive housing communities that support tenants in achieving and maintaining stability and well-being. Prospective tenants aren’t asked if they consume alcohol or drugs or have a mental illness. Even when that information is available or offered, the major concern is whether or not the individual will be a good tenant. So far, no tenant has ever faced eviction for substance use or for getting ill (either mentally or physically). In both instances, referral to the appropriate health service is the alternative.

The dialogue about housing terminology needs to begin in earnest. A good initial step will be to clean up discriminatory and misleading language. Let’s not put people in labelled boxes. Let’s get away from blaming individuals and deal as a community with the lack of health resources and affordable housing stock.

Let’s change the dialogue and talk about appropriate, safe, affordable housing for all!

*This article is adapted from an op-ed that originally appeared in the BC Non-Profit Housing Association’s newsletter InfoLink in June 2011.

About the author
Jim has been Executive Director at Nanaimo Affordable Housing for 17 years. He is serving his fifth three-year term as a director on the board of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, which represents over 500 housing organizations in BC. Jim worked in Edmonton’s Inner City for 10 years before relocating to Nanaimo

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