Capital Ideas
Q&A
Generally one-sided, lightly edited with no opportunity for response.

Nicholas Kristof on the hidden solutions to Victoria’s increasingly visible problems

Kristof will be speaking in Victoria on June 27, part of Capital Daily's speaker series

By Jimmy Thomson
May 26, 2022
Capital Ideas
Q&A
Generally one-sided, lightly edited with no opportunity for response.

Nicholas Kristof on the hidden solutions to Victoria’s increasingly visible problems

Kristof will be speaking in Victoria on June 27, part of Capital Daily's speaker series

By Jimmy Thomson
May 26, 2022
Capital Ideas
Q&A
Generally one-sided, lightly edited with no opportunity for response.

Nicholas Kristof on the hidden solutions to Victoria’s increasingly visible problems

Kristof will be speaking in Victoria on June 27, part of Capital Daily's speaker series

By Jimmy Thomson
May 26, 2022
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Nicholas Kristof on the hidden solutions to Victoria’s increasingly visible problems

Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and long-time New York Times political commentator, is coming to Victoria on June 27 as part of Capital Daily's speaker series. (Tickets here.)

Capital Daily's managing editor Jimmy Thomson spoke with Kristof about where the increasingly evident problems in Victoria—from the housing crisis to drug poisoning—are coming from, and the sometimes surprising places we can find solutions to them.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do we know about the roots of problems like drug poisoning and homelessness?

I'd say we're getting a much better understanding, partly as different jurisdictions try different approaches. But there's still an awful lot we don't know.

One of the things we're learning is that the public health toolbox tends to work a lot better than the criminal justice toolbox in trying to address addiction—but that it doesn't work all that well. It depends a little bit on the kind of addiction. So for opioids, we now have somewhat better treatments; for meth we don't have good treatments at all.

I'm quite influenced by the success of Portugal, which I think has been one of the most successful efforts to deal with addiction. They moved from using arrest and incarceration, to decriminalizing drug possession and focusing on public health outreach. So the number of heroin users in Portugal has gone down by about two thirds. It has the lowest level of overdose fatalities in Western Europe. I think that in North America, we sometimes have learned the wrong lessons from that. And we think that it's all about decriminalization. And in fact, I think it's really about treatment. And Portugal has really, really worked very, very hard to get everybody access to treatment and push them into treatment and help them make treatment very easy to get. Treatment pays for itself many times over, and yet we, we don't do a great job at that.

My overall sense is that we, we need to do what we can to reduce the kinds of forces that drive people to self-medicate. And beyond that to help people get treatment using the tools of public health.

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Victoria is poised to follow the lead of jurisdictions like Portland in increasing housing supply across the board. But do housing solutions for one part of society translate into solutions for another? Would the benefits be seen up and down the housing market?

Housing is, again, one of those, issues that relates to all kinds of broader dysfunction. It reflects low earnings; it reflects addiction. But I think that most of all, it reflects a lack of supply.

And there has been some quite good research saying that there's no correlation between how much homelessness there is in a community and the level of poverty in a community, and the level of mental health problems in the community. But the two things that correlate most strongly to homelessness are high rents, and a very low vacancy rate.

Increasingly, we're coming to think that, fundamentally, it is as basic as just there not being a lot of housing. You know, there are real problems with mental health and addiction in West Virginia, but there's not a lot of homelessness there. And that's because in West Virginia, you can rent a room for $600 a month.

Historically, in North America, we had a lot of poverty, but you also had rooming houses, trailer parks, boarding houses—there were low-cost options for people, and those those have gone away for a number of reasons. I think one is that, in our effort to plan beautiful cities, we have taken steps that reduce the availability of low cost housing. So a lot of places have zoning laws that say, Okay, you have to have minimum half-acre lots, for example, or you have to have a parking space for your car. Those are perfectly sensible, but they also raise the cost of housing. And they make it less affordable, and they mean that fewer homes are built. We would be better off if we could have more boarding houses and trailer parks, and did provide cheap housing, but we've pretty much constricted the flow of that kind of housing.

In Canada, the federal government has essentially gotten out of the subsidized housing game entirely over the last 40 years. Should governments have more of a role in the actual provision of housing?

There's some evidence that housing programs—like vouchers, for example, or housing navigators to help people find housing—that they work, but that they work only when there's an adequate supply of housing. Otherwise, it's simply a game of musical chairs. And if you give a voucher to Mr. Smith, then you're not actually increasing the number of people who are housed, you're just ensuring the Mr. Smith has a house, but Mr. Jones, then, does not. So I think that's one reason why we have to focus on on improving the supply.

And that's not something that the public sector fundamentally can do. The need is such that it really has to be the private sector. Traditionally, a lot of it was: a widow might admit a couple of people into her home, somebody in the basement, to make a little extra money, and provide cheap housing. And now, zoning laws typically don't permit that.

So one of the conundrums, I think, is that the places where people tend to be most concerned about homelessness, tend to be places full of “good liberals,” who are full of empathy for the homeless, but they have taken on policies such as strict zoning laws that constrict the private sector construction of housing, and result in fewer homes and more homeless people. So there certainly is a role for the government to do more. And it's kind of shameful that in the US, our biggest housing program is the mortgage interest subsidy, which is basically a subsidy for the most part fairly wealthy people who buy their homes. And much smaller amounts go to people with kids who are desperate to get some kind of a roof over their heads.

We have almost the exact same program in Canada—several of them—and it's endlessly frustrating to me and my friends who are locked out of homeownership, probably forever, to see more money going into the pockets of homeowners, but that's a slightly different story.

The explosion of home prices in some parts of Canada—in Vancouver and Toronto—was just unbelievable.

If housing prices are too high to be affordable to ordinary people—and they are in Victoria—how do you lower those prices adequately without taking a massive political or economic hit?

I don't think that's possible. So I think that the priority has to be more about preventing further increases in home prices. I think it's politically palatable to avoid further increases; taking steps to dramatically increase supply and cause homeowners to lose a lot of money on their investments, I think are obviously politically a lot harder to to enact.

But here in Portland, rents rose 29 percent last year, and that just pushes people out onto the street. I think we can also do more with efforts that are targeted toward people with more limited incomes.

I like models that are, in a sense, a throwbacks to what we historically had, like rooming houses with shared kitchen, shared bathroom, but that are really cheap. Because what we've been doing right now works well for the affluent, but just does not work for people who are struggling with low incomes.

With limited time and money, where is our effort best spent to lift the standards of living for as many people as possible? Is that through education? Housing? You mentioned policing? How does the rest of society benefit from throwing its weight behind one, or multiple, of those strategies?

So education is absolutely central. I think if you look back to how the US became the dominant economy in the world, it was because we had pretty good mass education for a long time. And we had pretty much a universal basic education. And then we were the first country in the world to have widespread secondary education and fairly widespread tertiary education.

Britain had much better elite education. But it turned out that what mattered was, really, mass education. And yet now, in the US, we still have about one in seven kids doesn't graduate from high school. If you don't graduate from high school in 2022, you and your kids have very little hope for a better future. We've got to do a better job with education. And with vocational education, as well—training people to be electricians, or wind turbine technicians, or plumbers, or health technicians, all kinds of skills that earn 50 or $60,000 a year as opposed to struggling along.

One of the paradoxes is that, in general, the first three to five years of life seem to be particularly influential for a person partly because that's when their brain is forming most quickly. And yet, that's when we invest the least in that person.

Our metrics of child poverty are things like income or wealth—but probably the better metrics of child poverty are how often a child is read to, or how often a child is hugged. There are plenty of families with low incomes, where that child feels secure and loved and is read to and is spoken to, and they're going to do just fine. But in a home where the mom and dad are throwing plates at each other, that is incredibly traumatizing for children, and it's going to interrupt their education, and it may have long term effects.

You spent most of your career as a journalist, as a columnist. Perhaps more on the on the national and international stage and scale, but what can local journalists do better?At Capital Daily, we are very local organization, we focus specifically on the capital region. What can journalists like us be doing better to explain these issues and push for change at the local scale?

I think an enormous amount. Journalists at every level, have to project these issues onto the agenda. Because when issues aren't on the agenda, they just don't get addressed.

Child trauma, homelessness, I think that elevating those issues is really important. Looking at solutions and what works, at what cost, what the evidence is, is likewise something that we in journalism can do really well and that we be a source of social capital that helps to address these problems—and say, “Our community needs this, needs that, and this is how some other jurisdictions have have addressed it.”

Canada, and BC, have actually done pretty well on some of these issues. BC has a safe injection site program that, in the US, we've looked at with a lot of interest; it seems to be saving lives of people who are addicted. And if you don't save a life, then you can't treat them later.

Then there is likewise the program for actually providing heroin to a small number of people who, you know, refuse to take methadone or other substitutes. And, again, I think a lot of experts in the US look at that, and think that Canada, in some cases, has been willing to be less emotional and more rational about some of these solutions, like safe injection sites, and in some cases being willing to consider whether it's better to provide safe heroin to a certain number of people.

Journalists can highlight things that are working and that aren't working. One of the programs that I really like—this is in Tulsa, Oklahoma—works with a women in recovery. It works with women who have typically been addicted for years and years. Most of them have children. And it provides very intensive counseling, jobs, a lot of social support. And most of all, it lasts for about 18 months. So this program in Tulsa has a success rate after three years of more than 90%. And it's so good for the moms, but also, of course, their kids. Oklahoma reckons that it saved $84 million for taxpayers—because while treatment isn't cheap, incarceration is even more expensive.

Get tickets to see Nicholas Kristof speak on June 27 here.

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Jimmy Thomson
Managing Editor
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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