Blog: Towards an anti-racist housing agenda: Some thoughts on white supremacy and policing in housing

Photo credits: Loren March

**This collaborative blog entry contains work from several members of our core group. Posting it has taken slow consideration for several reasons. We have taken time working through many conversations along the way. We are not all in perfect agreement around how to get there, but feel that getting to another, better world is both necessary and possible. It is not our intention to take up space better occupied by Black scholars and activists, but rather to speak out against anti-Black racism in housing, to share information we are privileged to have, to share what others have said, and to encourage others to think through racial justice and housing justice together. Please take our words here as an offering in solidarity with the struggle against white supremacy.**

A recent wave of police brutality in North American cities, including the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor, and most recently Rayshard Brooks, in the United States, has ignited what we might consider a global uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality. In Canada, the tragic deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, and Chantel Moore, all left dead following police-conducted “wellness checks,” have also ignited large protests condemning the systemic white supremacy underpinning policing in the country, connected to a broader movement for Black liberation. All of these protests have popularized calls to defund the police, with proponents arguing armed police have no place performing key social services which could be administered more safely and effectively by dedicated social support and crisis workers bringing specialized training (including de-escalation training) and an ethic of care, and that affordable housing and direct community resources and social services ought to be funded instead.

In response to such calls, we’ve seen city councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam put forward legislation that would cut the Toronto police budget by 10%, yet Toronto activists, including Desmond ColeRobyn MaynardSyrus Marcus Ware, and Sandy Hudson have insisted that such a cut is sadly insufficient in terms of eliminating violence and meeting the broad goals of redistribution of funding and radical reimagining of community care and safety that are the horizons of abolition. While this cut would reduce the police budget by approximately $122 million for the year, it is important to consider that the police budget request for 2020 was already increased by 3.9% from 2019 to an astounding $1.2 billion. In fact, the slice of the pie going to policing has been steadily increasing in cities across Canada for over two decades, where funding commitments towards addressing crime have continued alongside austerity efforts to “balance the books” with cuts to key social services like housing. Going back further, the Ministry of Public Safety shows that in the years between 1997 and 2013, the cost of policing more than doubled while the average salary of a police officer increased by almost fourfold compared to the average employed Canadian. In Toronto, this trend continues today where the 2020 budget includes a contract with police to raise salaries by 11.1% over 5 years (ending in 2023). According to the Toronto Star, this represents a far bigger raise than given to the majority of other city employees.

Austerity itself is a process that dovetails with and relies upon racialization while producing and reinforcing racial hierarchies. Historically, cuts to social services and the retreat of the welfare state from the provision of care and support has had disproportionate consequences for low-income and racialized groups experiencing oppression and marginalization. As such, they have been long been denied access to the amenities and services that many white people take for granted. Exacerbating these circumstances, the police – who are at their root a fundamentally racist and colonialist apparatus, enforcing ingrained racist and colonialist state laws and policies – have in many ways become the main front-line workers addressing urban social problems. Thus, as neoliberal austerity has progressed, and cities’ more supportive capacities have been reduced, the police have been called upon to administer a range of social service roles that they are inadequately trained and ill-suited to fulfill. Over the years, this approach has manifested in the increasing presence of police in our schools and the criminalization of mental health and drug use, in turn justifying a renewed expansion of our prison system. Critical scholars and a range of community activists have long decried this growing police presence, and particularly its negative impacts on racialized groups, in particular Black communities. This gross imbalance of spending in the U.S. context was recently highlighted in an article in The Atlantic, suggesting that the police state has grown significantly as the social safety net has been thinned. Here in Canada, graphics of the Toronto budget are being widely circulated online by people questioning the disproportionate spending on policing in comparison to valuable areas such as education and housing.

Those urging the defunding and dismantling of police forces as we know them insist upon the redistribution of these resources into community-led solutions and into other important sectors as a preventative way to address urban problems. In addition to other community supports, an excellent place to eventually reallocate some portion of this funding is, of course, towards long-term, accessible, affordable and equitable housing. Yet, we must consider that we cannot simply funnel money into housing and expect that this is, in itself, a path to justice and equity. Our argument here aligns with abolitionist perspectives in suggesting that, in a context of pushing for broad systemic change, it will be important to recognize how even housing itself has been and continues to be a site of white supremacy, surveillance, state violence, policing, exclusion and racial injustice, and to pointedly try to address these issues as well. As scholar activist Robyn Maynard has said, “what anti-Black racism means is that… for us policing is everywhere.” Housing is certainly not free of it, and therefore might not offer everyone all the safety and security that many white people might presume it inherently implies. Recently, this has been made especially clear in calls to reevaluate police “wellness checks” which too often end with people of colour dead in their own homes.

Indeed, housing development itself – while often thought of as a kind of neutral practice – is deeply racialized and significantly affected by government policy. Starting in the 1990s, around the same time we see the doubling of police spending by jurisdictions across the country (1992-2015), housing spending was undergoing a process of government disinvestment. Central to the dynamics of ownership and “growth” in Toronto’s housing sector during this time was a broader shift in government policy across the country towards what some scholars call an individualized or “asset-based” form of welfare. Where previously, the debt burden for costs associated with personal safety and security (like housing, retirement savings, among other things) was a relatively communal affair, with this responsibility being taken on largely by the state, things have shifted such that access to the various resources needed to ensure one’s personal safety and security is now disproportionately premised on the accrual and management of assets (like housing) that are expected to rise in value in perpetuity. This shift towards asset-based welfare is often pegged at 1993 in Canada, when the federal government under Chretien chose to officially absolve itself of any direct responsibility for social housing production. Soon thereafter, following on the federal government’s heels, the Mike Harris administration eradicated the Ontario Housing Corporation and downloaded the province’s social housing responsibilities to the cities. Since then, social housing in Toronto has largely been a matter of managed decline as TCHC units have slowly fallen into disrepair while the existing stock of affordable units in aging private apartments are now targeted by real estate investment corporations interested in evicting and refurbishing their units to attract higher income tenants.

As a consequence of this deeply embedded emphasis on individual homeownership, Canada’s urban housing is now among the most expensive in the world, while Canadians are among the most indebted. And as Simone and Walks (2019) show, these debt burdens are highest among neighborhoods with larger numbers of lower-income newcomers and racialized people. This functions through a process akin to “reverse red-lining” in which racialized and low-income communities are more likely to be targeted with predatory loans that put them at risk of losing their assets in the event of unexpected disruptions to their income. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has characterized this process as enacting a kind of “predatory inclusion” of Black people in housing markets. Many are aware of the history of red-lining, racial covenants, and other racist and exploitative real estate practices in the United States, which geographer Clyde Woods called ‘asset-stripping,’ however similar practices in Canadian cities are too often ignored.  

Racism also prevents people of colour from accessing affordable or desirable rental housing. Black applicants – and in particular immigrants and refugees – continue to face serious barriers and discrimination in terms of finding affordable housing in their neighbourhoods of choice. In spite of human rights legislation that prohibits this practice, landlords, who currently hold the upper hand in the Toronto rental market, often make decisions about who rents their units based on racist biases. There is a longstanding and widespread history of discrimination in Ontario’s rental housing and mortgage markets, but the City and province do not collect data on these issues. In addition to all of this, in September of last year, the provincial government gave the green light to the Toronto Community Housing Corporation to refuse housing applications from anyone who has been evicted during the past five years for an “illegal act.” Mayor John Tory praised this move, saying it sends a “strong message to criminals who choose to threaten families and seniors in their homes.” Yet this move serves to punish people who have been disproportionately criminalized, targeted by racist policing and a racist justice system, and to deny housing to folks who potentially need it most. The policy has been criticized for cutting social supports without addressing root problems as it can be used to deny social housing to already-marginalized people and their families while wrenching last-resort social supports away from people who need them.

Simultaneously, the “return” to living in the inner-city by a Canadian workforce increasingly employed in office work and services has seen racialized and poor communities displaced to the suburbs as downtown property values have ballooned through various efforts at inner-city reinvestment and gentrification. In some cases, efforts to revitalize and privatize public housing in Toronto’s downtown are understood by scholars as both a form of state-managed gentrification and a process akin to “recolonization,” a characterization that strongly reminds us that all housing in the city is built on stolen land. Gentrifying neighbourhoods also tend to be disproportionately policedStudies conducted in the United States have also indicated that cities which have economically relied upon the growth of housing prices while simultaneously cutting back on social service spending have also seen the largest increases in law enforcement expenditures – budgets which are funded primarily through private property taxes.

When it comes to alternatives to the private market, subsidized forms such as public or social housing have long faced a kind of “territorial stigmatization” and been demonized as “slums” and spaces of “evil and danger,” thus legitimizing higher levels of policing, surveillance, and often even removal via demolition and revitalization. These spaces are actively socially marginalized. This has much to do with their connection to racialized communities. Policing interventions (for example street checks and carding or the “surge policing” methods of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) have targeted and criminalized non-white and low-income communities across Toronto. Even beyond formal policing practices, Black and Brown residents have continuously been targeted by other modes of spatial control in the places they live. For example, as Martine August (2014) has pointed out, Toronto’s mixed-income public housing redevelopment schemes have seen many instances of more affluent, white residents surveilling, excluding and exerting power over lower-income, racialized residents. Policing and security are often a central concern for white people, whose calls for policing of “improper” use of public spaces, and the “improper users” therein, primarily fall on racialized people (August, 2014, 1164). As the Black residents in August’s research point out: “People call the police every time they see Black people outside” (2014, 1171).

Finally, urban planning itself, in both the United States and in Canada, has been a largely white-dominated practice that has centered white needs and desires. This has limited its potential in terms of supporting the flourishing of Black residents and people of colour in cities. Recently, an open letter addressed to the Ontario Professional Planners Institute has been circulated, recommending that, in addition to planning more inclusive communities, strong action be taken to support and advance the work of Black planners specifically. Planning continues to be an area in which there is much work to be done in terms of accountability around historical and ongoing white supremacy, and in terms of making adequate changes that would bring more Black practitioners to the front. We say this as non-Black critical scholars who work around issues of urban space, planning and housing, who ourselves wish to do better to lift and platform the many Black thinkers, practitioners and voices operating in the field, and seek to promote an anti-racist housing agenda.

All of this is to say that white supremacy is deeply entangled with housing, and there are overt and covert forms of policing and structural racism that are constituted by this. These issues all demonstrate that it would not be acceptable to only reroute money from policing into something like affordable housing, but that broad systemic racism in housing must also be addressed if we are to contemplate more racially and socially just alternative forms of community-based governance and affordable housing communities. In some cities, the complex and diverse forms divestment and anti-racist city planning might take have already begun to show themselves – from Minneapolis voting to dismantle their police department to Black Lives Matter LA supporting the community-generated People’s Budget and encouraging LA City Council to adopt it. Demands are largely place and context-specific, but there are many areas of overlap. In terms of budgets in particular, activists point to mental health services, education, community programming, and housing as important areas that have been gutted by austerity that need a return of significant funding. Black Lives Matter has also put forward particular demands around funding and policing. BLM in Hamilton put forward a list of demands on June 2 that called for justice and immediate action on the part of the City, including ending publicly funded police surveillance of Black communities, of Black students, and Black people experiencing homelessness. In Toronto, BLM has demanded the redirection of public money into supports that can enrich Black lives in the city and the radical imagining of a “new normal” in which the terrorizing of Black communities is ended.

We suggest that if any process of restructuring or defunding of police is to occur, some municipal funds ought to be rerouted to the better provision of affordable housing, more direct social and community services, more community control over justice and the dismantling of racist housing practices. We also insist that myriad forms of white supremacy and anti-Black policing (from policy to actual cops to racist neighbourly surveillance) must be painstakingly worked out of housing. Navigating these issues will be a long process, and a difficult one to address, but now is the moment to dig in our heels. Planner, scholar and placemaker Jay Pitter has insisted that urban thinkers must begin to engage deeply with these issues, while BLM activist and artist Syrus Marcus Ware tells us that now is a chance to take an imaginative leap with the many people on the ground who have long been doing the work and pushing for systemic change. For a start, those of us working in the field might begin by centering questions of race and inequity in work around housing. We might participate in Black-led conversations around how housing might be re-envisioned to be truly inclusive and safe. We must also push for the involvement of and center the voices of more progressive Black urban planners and policy-makers in city-building processes, and particularly in all areas related to housing. Finally, we must also push back against commonly held notions that “solving” our housing crisis is simply a matter of providing more supply. In fact, questions around physical type of supply, ownership, spatial distribution and the preservation of existing supply must be at the centre of our concerns. We must dream bigger than we have thus far. Care, critical thinking and anti-racist politics will have to underpin every step of any process of redistribution. 

Loren March is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning

Sean Grisdale is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning

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