Why unions should call for new green housing investments

Construction-workers-build-single-family-homes-in-San-DiegoBy James Wilt

In recent years, many unions have started calling for a “just transition” for workers.

That tends to include pushing for direct public investments and retraining efforts for sectors including renewable energy, public transit, energy efficiency  and high-speed rail. The goal is to prepare workers for the massive changes that will occur in coming decades due to catastrophic climate change and widespread environmental degradation.

Yet many unions have been strangely silent on one very obvious and related issue: the huge opportunity and need for immediate public investments in new green and affordable housing.

Union push must include new and affordable housing

It’s effectively a kill three birds with one stone scenario.

Workers need affordable homes. Workers also need stable and properly compensated jobs, especially those transitioning from work in oil, gas and coal production. And those homes will have to be built in ways that reduce heat loss, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for dramatically increased weather-related damages from flooding, winds and hail.

Sure, existing homes and buildings can easily be retrofitted with improved insulation, windows, furnaces, appliances and hot-water heaters; most jurisdictions have programs in place to provide subsidies or rebates for such upgrades.

There are lots of good jobs in that field too: the One Million Climate Jobs — a collaboration between the CLC, Green Economy Network and Climate Action Network — estimates it could account for the creation of over 400,000 “person job years.”

But unions can and should be far more ambitious than this. After all, Canada is in the midst of a massive affordable housing crisis, a crisis that will only be resolved by the construction of thousands of new homes that the aforementioned retrofit programs won’t apply to.

Over half of young voters in B.C. rank housing as number one issue

Over 170,000 households in Ontario were waiting for affordable housing back in 2015. That same year, it was calculated that 40 per cent of Canadian renters were spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, which the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation deems as the threshold for “affordability.”

Just last week, CBC journalist Angela Sterritt documented over 200 people lining up to see a $1,200 co-op suite in Vancouver.

There’s a huge appetite for change too. In a recent Insights West poll for the upcoming B.C. election, 38 per cent of people identified “housing / homelessness / poverty” as the “most important issue facing British Columbia today,” including 51 per cent of voters between the ages of 18 and 35. To compare, the second-place issue of healthcare came in at 19 per cent.

Federal Liberals fail to follow through on pledge for affordable housing

The federal Liberals have certainly talked big about green and affordable housing. To be fair, the next update to the national building code in 2020 will include climate-specific requirements, likely including mandatory hurricane straps, backwater valves and improved roofing materials.

Yet there’s still no real money for public housing. There’s been nothing to actually address the decades-old housing crisis; come budget time, the Liberals pulled a classic move and deferred the release of most of the $11.2 billion investments in affordable housing until well after 2022. It was a very predictable move given the government’s ties to Bay Street and obsession with privatizing public assets.

That’s where a coordinated push from unions across the country can come in (although it doesn’t help that some of the biggest union heads in the country are more than willing to go to bat for the Liberals).

Simply put, it’s not enough for unions to beg the feds for more money. There are many instances in which money for affordable housing has been secured, but the housing built isn’t remotely affordable for low-income workers. There is going to have to be a concerted effort to create the right context for an influx of affordable housing that is built in a sustainable way, both in the terms of actual construction and its location.

That means being willing to actually pick a fight with residential developers.

Unions have a number of tactics available to them

This can happen in one of two ways.

First would be the standard union approach — coordinated public campaigns, doorknocking, phone drives — to raise awareness of the extremely detrimental role that developers play in municipal decision making.

Unions could endorse a candidate or two come election time, or openly advocate people to apply to sit on the local planning committee. If successful, it could help create the appropriate conditions for green and affordable housing to actually be built and maintained, if

The second tactic would take a fair bit more militancy. Establish a network of labour-run credit unions with the aim to provide mortgages for green housing co-ops that prioritize affordability and sustainability. Over time, such forces could pose an actual challenge to private developers in municipalities.

This approach would likely require a serious rethinking of the aims and spending habits of the labour movement. But it could result in the building of actual capacity for sustained strike waves, a meaningful challenge to capital, and broader union agency.

Either way, it is a conversation that should start immediately. Millions of Canadian workers are in desperate need of truly affordable housing that is sustainable and prepared for the looming dangers of climate change. Many resource and construction workers are in need of jobs as well, which such a push could help facilitate.

To leave such conversations to the federal government, an entity which is clearly uninterested in the needs of the working class, would be deeply counterproductive and a huge missed opportunity for unions looking to attract new members and build militancy.

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