Homes or Jails? Modular Housing in Surrey as a strategy of homeless removal and containment

In late November 2017, a video of 135A Street was taken from the dashboard of a car slowly moving south along the street. The video showed dozens and dozens of tents crammed together along the sidewalk. In the video, it is raining, and people briefly come in and out of view as they survive conditions that assault their physical and mental health. The video was posted on social media, and within a few days it had been viewed 270,000 times with 700 comments left by viewers, many of them critical of the government for its failure to address the growing crisis of homelessness in the city.

It’s too bad the video didn’t then shift its focus from the street to a large room somewhere at City Hall, where representatives from the RCMP, Bylaw, Fraser Health, BC Housing, Lookout, Downtown Business Improvement Association, and municipal leaders gather to assess and implement Surrey’s official strategy for the Strip, the City Centre Response Plan. These are the organizations that carry out and ultimately benefit from the management and containment of homeless people.

For the past year, this Response Plan has orchestrated a strategy of management and control deployed through the Surrey Outreach Team comprised of a dozen RCMP and four bylaw officers. They have patrolled, harassed, surveilled, robbed, and criminalized people forced to live in dehumanizing conditions of homelessness and poverty, and the situation has only gotten worse. Millions of dollars from municipal and provincial coffers are doled out on this management scheme instead of on what is actually needed: dignified housing.

The need for housing and its promised arrival

Back in September 2017, the Provincial NDP government promised 150 units of modular housing for Surrey’s homeless population. Mayor Linda Hepner was pleased with the announcement, and optimistic that it would be on the ground shortly. By late November, after the video of 135A went viral and criticism of the City’s inaction was swirling, mayor Hepner admitted that things seemed to have stalled at the provincial level, and the modular units weren’t going to materialize as soon as she hoped. This delay seemed to be upsetting for the mayor. “I have some sympathy for that, but I have a lot more sympathy for the people on the street,” she said; “I need to get them off of 135A Street.” Evidently Hepner’s sympathy was not for the over 600 homeless people in Surrey counted in the 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, but specifically for the people living in tents along 135A, the most visible expression of the municipal and provincial governments’ failure to address homelessness.

Finally, on Friday, January 12, 2018 the Provincial NDP government and the City of Surrey announced plans for 160 units of temporary modular housing to be located on three empty lots that would be ready to occupy within a couple of months, to then be replaced over time by 250 units of “permanent modular housing.” Surrey NDP MLA Jinny Sims said of her party, “I’m proud they acted so quickly. Our budget isn’t even out yet but this is a top priority,” while mayor Hepner stated, “When the emergency transitional accommodations come on stream it will be a very marked difference from what we have seen on 135A Street.” For the mayor, the 160 units will provide people currently living on the Strip with “a dignified and secure place to live” and will return the area to normalcy for the business and property owners in the area.

Behind the News: a strategy of removal and containment

Behind the celebratory mood of this housing announcement lurks a different story, one that is only hinted at in the public statements by these political leaders. In short, the plan does not deliver dignified housing that homeless and low-income folks in Surrey so desperately need; it is a 135A cleanup campaign that involves the removal, warehousing and management of homeless people in jail-like conditions so that business owners, landlords and developers can make huge profits from the City’s gentrification schemes for Whalley / City Centre. Here’s the facts.

The first phase of the announcement is for 160 units of “temporary modular-housing” located at three sites. Two of these sites have been identified: 10662 King George Blvd and 13550 105 Ave. Both are currently empty lots very close to the Strip. The projects will include “individual rooms with private bathrooms, meal service, counselling and medical offices, 24/7 staffing and life and employment skills programming.”

Mock up images of this housing proposal displayed at the announcement show that what they are calling “modular housing” are really repurposed construction trailers arranged and designed as a prison-like structure. There is provision of meal service, so the units don’t contain a place to cook. It is also “supportive housing” with 24/7 staff, in addition to a resident Intensive Case Management team at one site. So everyone gets a box with a bathroom, is kept under constant surveillance by staff, and managed by social and healthcare workers.

As “supportive” housing, these will not be tenancies under the Residential Tenancy Act; residents will have no tenant rights, no privacy and no autonomy from Community Worker staff. BC Housing’s “temporary modular housing” is a continuation of the surveillance and control strategy employed on 135A now, although perhaps with the police guns more out of view. The police will undoubtedly collaborate in the management of these new housing projects and their residents, in order to appease property owners and businesses in the neighbourhood.

Not enough to meet the need

In addition, these 160 units don’t even come close to addressing the homelessness crisis in Surrey. The official count was 602, but multiplying it by three would be much closer to the truth. There are easily 160 people in the tents along 135A alone, and another 100 in shelters in the area; so this can’t even address homelessness in Whalley, never mind across the city.

The second phase of the plan is 250 units of “permanent affordable housing”. These “permanent” housing units will in fact be impermanent modular housing, supposedly in place by the end of the year at locations not yet determined. The media employed the phrase “permanent modular housing,” an oxymoron that presents cheaply made, prefab, movable and stackable units on land that will likely be scheduled for future condo development as permanent. Also, these 250 units of “permanent” housing will replace the 160 temporary units, not be in addition to them. So when all is said and done, Surrey will have 250 units of housing for a homeless population that  increased 50% between 2014 and 2017 and shows no signs of slowing.

Clearing the zone for massive gentrification

The 160 temporary trailer units are explicitly targeted for the people living on 135A. At the public announcement, mayor Hepner remarked, “Once built, given the type of accommodation and number of spaces that are being provided, I cannot think of a reason for anyone to pitch a tent on 135A Street.” It’s a declaration that homelessness in the area has been solved, anyone trying to set up a tent will be aggressively removed (“tough love” according to City Councilor Tom Gill), and the ‘public’ can expect a cleared and reclaimed space.

Earmarking this supply of housing for the population on 135A aligns perfectly with the City’s gentrification plans for the area. At the same time that the Surrey Outreach Team was unleashed on the Strip, the City gave final approval to the Surrey City Centre Plan, a massive, full-scale gentrification scheme to remake Whalley into Surrey’s downtown, a plan that the business sector and the municipal government is anxious to push along. Removal of the residents of 135A is a prerequisite for that plan’s actualization.

Worse than inadequate, the NDP’s Provincial housing initiative to address the homelessness crisis in Surrey is being mobilized by the City into a strategy of removing homeless people from 135A in preparation for massive gentrification. Those homeless people who are taken off the street will be warehoused in units that are inadequate in quantity and quality, and managed and controlled by service providers. Most will remain on the street. Rather than meeting the needs of homeless people in Surrey or addressing the expanding housing crisis, the NDP’s Surrey model of homeless housing focuses on moving homeless people out of the way of profit-driven development and economic growth . Only a substantial and committed provision of dignified non-market housing (affordable, adequate, secure, self-managed) will stem the tide of increasing housing precarity that has resulted from decades of austerity and neoliberal state policies that the BC NDP and Hepner’s City of Surrey continue today.