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The ‘Velvet Prison’: Victoria’s racialized communities call attention to housing inequities

From racist covenants to rental discrimination, and how the city can pave a way forward

By Martin Bauman
March 16, 2022
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The ‘Velvet Prison’: Victoria’s racialized communities call attention to housing inequities

From racist covenants to rental discrimination, and how the city can pave a way forward

By Martin Bauman
Mar 16, 2022
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The ‘Velvet Prison’: Victoria’s racialized communities call attention to housing inequities

From racist covenants to rental discrimination, and how the city can pave a way forward

By Martin Bauman
March 16, 2022
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The ‘Velvet Prison’: Victoria’s racialized communities call attention to housing inequities
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

When Rishi Sharma approached his neighbours about subdividing his Gordon Head home, he heard just one condition in response:

“Don’t sell it to Asians.”

For Sharma, a longtime property developer who has worked with the BC Builders Code to improve diversity and equity on construction sites, the words caught him off guard.

“It seemed like that was just something of the norm … like if I'm talking to someone else [and their] friends, they would say the same things,” he told Capital Daily.

A lifelong Saanich resident who has also been the target of racial slurs in the course of an electoral campaign, Sharma has heard similar remarks before, but the comment brought to mind a particular memory:

“I went back to when I was a kid and hearing it about Indo-Canadian builders … and monster houses.

“You know, we have generational family living in our houses, so we need larger houses … When I grew up, it was me, my grandma, my grandpa, my dad, my mom, my sister, [two aunts], and [two uncles] in the same house. Now, is it something we thought was ideal? Of course not.”

According to the 2016 Census, roughly one in eight people living in Greater Victoria identify as a visible minority—a percentage that has grown steadily in the last 25 years. (In 1996, just 7.6% of Victoria residents identified as belonging to a visible minority group.)

But despite the demographic shift and repeated calls for change within the CRD, one hurdle that continues to prove difficult for many racialized Victorians is securing housing.

Race and rental troubles

Kaylene Johnstone and Jerson Hernandez-Koltermann have a routine when dealing with property managers.

Johnstone, who is white, will meet for any initial interviews to “scope the place out and [make] contact” before introducing Hernandez-Koltermann, who is Latino. It’s a deliberate choice.

“It makes a difference. They treat me very well; they're very kind to me,” Johnstone told Capital Daily.

“And then we bring in Jerson, and then they realize that they have to pick their battles or whatever. Like, ‘Oh, it’s not just a white couple.’”

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A second-generation Salvadoran-Canadian, Hernandez-Koltermann has lost track of the times his family had to move homes throughout his childhood in Victoria. 

“We had mushrooms growing out of the walls of our shower [at one place]. Literal mushrooms. I remember that,” he says.

“We’ve never been able to secure housing,” he adds—despite, as he insists, never missing a rent payment, always fixing any maintenance issues himself, and never having issues with other tenants.

Hernandez-Koltermann may not be alone in this—with the average one-bedroom rental unit listed at $1,661/month in Victoria as of February 2022, and the vacancy rate for affordable two-bedroom units at just 0.2%, housing advocates across the board have drawn attention to the difficulty renters face in the Capital Region—but his run of luck has felt more than coincidental.

Three years after moving into their Craigflower Road apartment, Hernandez-Koltermann and Johnstone are facing eviction—one they argue is unjust. The property manager claims it is because Hernandez-Koltermann and Johnstone have not signed a pet agreement for their dog, Laika. But the couple insist that other tenants in the building with dogs haven’t signed any pet agreements either—and they’ve collected statements from their neighbours to support their case.

The two have applied for a dispute resolution with the Residential Tenancy Branch, but when asked about the process of gathering evidence, Hernandez-Koltermann sighs.

“[The whole system] just creates a scenario where it's easier to move; it's easier just to leave,” he says.

***

There is a name Parker Johnson and friends have used to call Victoria: the “Velvet Prison.”

“On the outside, it looks amazing, and then on the inside, there's a lot of these [inequalities] that exist that just get covered up,” he says.

The co-creator and host of This is Table Talk, a community gathering space for self-identified visible minorities, Johnson—who is Black—recalls the experience of searching for his first apartment in Quadra Village and rehearsing the way he would introduce himself to the landlord.

“I was like, ‘I’m a student, I’m working towards this,’ really trying to sell what I’m doing … rather than just presenting me,” Johnson says. 

“Sometimes I'm like, ‘Why did I do that?’ Because in some ways, I shrank my own personality to try and fit the mold of what I thought would allow me to get in… It’s kind of like a survival mechanism… I can’t turn black off, you know what I mean?”

Johnson landed the apartment, but he can list off the number of racialized friends who have been turned away or watched promises of accommodations disappear as if they were never there: the friend who, on a FaceTime call with a potential landlord, was ghosted as soon as their face appeared on-screen; the friends who interviewed well and thought they were in, only to never hear from the landlord again.

“Sometimes it's easier to deal with overt racism, because you know what you're dealing with right off the bat. But here, it's quiet; it's passive. It's not ‘No,’ it's ‘Maybe,’” he says.

The rental troubles aren’t new to Jean McRae, either. The CEO of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, she has worked to resettle refugees and newcomers in the area since 1998—often as many as 2,500 to 2,700 in a year.

“You’ll get messages from landlords that it’s easier for them to deal with people who don’t have an accent… or ‘I don’t like the smell of their cooking,’” she says.

What it leads to for Victoria’s visible minority population, Johnson adds, is a feeling of not belonging.

“It just kind of seeps into your bones.”

1880s Victoria: Exclusion by displacement

Victoria—much like the rest of Canada—has long had a fraught relationship between race and space, well before the first racist clauses appeared in property titles from Esquimalt to Gordon Head, forbidding ownership by ethnic minorities.

In the latter years of the nineteenth century, according to the late geographer and historian David Chuenyan Lai in The Forbidden City Within Victoria, “virtually no Caucasians strolled in Chinatown, which was perceived by them as an exotic, hellish, and mysterious enclave of ‘long-tailed, rice-eating aliens.’” On May 21, 1885, nearly 2,000 Victorians gathered downtown in protest of Chinese labourers, carrying signs that called to “cut out the Chinese cancer.” The following day’s Victoria Daily Colonist headline read, “The Chinese Must Not Come.”

The same segregationist attitudes could be seen, according to Vancouver Island University professor emeritus Patrick Dunae and his colleagues, in the initial placement of the Songhees Indian Reserve—”which was laid out… on the western side of Victoria Harbour, away from commercial and white residential neighbourhoods.”

Photo from May 22, 1885 Daily Colonist (University of Victoria Libraries Collection).

But the divide would soon grow wider for both communities with the introduction of the E&N Railway—an infrastructure project that, even as it purported to bring Canadians together, soon drove other communities apart.

Incorporated in 1883, the E&N Railway would run 115 km from Esquimalt to Nanaimo, above the Malahat Highway. Construction started on April 30, 1884. Two years later, Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald drove the last railway spike. 

But it came with a cost.

In 1888, construction of the railway’s Victoria terminus uprooted both Lekwungen and Chinese communities who had lived along both Johnson and Store Streets near the Upper Harbour. Once cleared of their former inhabitants, Dunae writes, those same properties increased in value, “and were subsequently redeveloped for commercial buildings.”

The same scenario, Dunae adds, unfolded just a few years later as the City of Victoria introduced its electric streetcar service. Tenements that had been occupied by Chinese residents “were demolished to accommodate a power-generating plant and repair facilities for the street railway.”

Meanwhile, the streetcar service spread to the predominantly white Oak Bay, Saanich, and Esquimalt, where property developers boasted of “ideal country homes” with “boating, fishing, and hunting close to your door,” and an electric streetcar route, to boot.

“The best opportunity you will find,” read one advertisement in the March 28, 1911 edition of the Victoria Colonist.

Discrimination in development

Land-based discrimination wasn’t excluded from municipal council chambers, either. Records from Oak Bay’s archives show that in 1919, council resolved that “Orientals should not be allowed to conduct business establishments in any district not chiefly inhabited by their own race.”

Twenty-one years later, Oak Bay’s council sought legal advice on halting construction of a new home by “a Hindu lot owner” for unspecified reasons. Sixteen Oak Bay residents protested the building. No formal complaints about the building’s size or characteristics were mentioned in council records—only the owner’s ethnicity.

The latter is a situation that rings familiar to Sharma. Growing up in Gordon Head in the 1990s, the son of a government pay clerk who moonlighted as a contractor, he recalls the distrust he felt from neighbours when his family would start working on a new property.

“We Indo-Canadians… we would come up against the same type of conversation: ‘Oh, you don't want to look at who's coming to the neighborhood. They're gonna build monster houses. Got to be careful,’” he says.

He remembers one large plot of land, in the early 2000s, upon which his family had sought a permit to build two smaller houses. Neighbours opposed.

“They were out the door at Saanich Municipal Hall complaining about [it],” he says.

Race was never overtly mentioned—and it’s not like Victorians are particularly averse to voicing their opinions on real estate developments in their neighbourhoods—but Rishi feels it was a factor:

“You’re one of 50 people, 70 people, in the public hearing, and you're the only visible minority.

“There's this veil of protection,” he adds. “When you go to a public hearing, you can just say, ‘I don't want that type of property in my neighbourhood.’ Who knows what the real reason is?”

Toward an equitable city

Dr. Sandeep Agrawal has been studying exclusionary housing practices in Canada since 2011.

An urban planner and professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, his work has spanned human rights and zoning issues from Toronto to his current home of Edmonton. It was in Ontario’s capital that Agrawal first ventured into the field of housing policy and human rights, though it came by happenstance.

“I was not looking for the problem,” he says. “The problem came to me.”

The City of Toronto was the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, brought forth by an advocacy group of people with mental health and substance use issues called the Dream Team. The group argued that Toronto’s zoning bylaws, which imposed minimum separation distances between group homes and residential care homes, discriminated against people with disabilities. 

Agrawal was brought in as a consultant to prepare a report, the findings of which the City of Toronto would agree to abide by. The end result informed not only Toronto’s zoning bylaws, but Ontario provincial policy.

“It says that all the municipalities within the Province of Ontario must look at their policies and bylaws from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Ontario Human Rights Code perspectives. It may be the only jurisdiction in the entire North America that explicitly asks all its municipalities to do [so],” he says.

In Victoria and the Capital Region, discussions around exclusionary zoning have focused on single-family housing—a type of land-use which applies to 68% of residential land in Victoria, despite accommodating a mere quarter of all households. As the benchmark single-family home price pushes past $1.1 million, and the region grapples with an affordability crisis, advocates argue—and the data shows—that Victoria’s racialized communities are increasingly left on the outside looking in.

If there is to be a positive, Agrawal notes, it is that cities like Victoria are now becoming more proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to equity issues.

“Especially in the last three, four years, things have changed quite a bit. The awareness has increased quite a bit among planners, among city solicitors, lawyers who deal with such issues,” Agrawal told Capital Daily.

Change could be coming to Victoria—along with the rest of British Columbia. In late February, housing minister David Eby hinted that the BC government may soon intervene and remove municipal powers that delay densification—perhaps even removing single-family zoning altogether, as New Zealand has done in its largest cities.

“The bottom line is that municipalities are not approving enough housing for our population growth. I think it’s quite possible that we’re going to need to be more prescriptive. One thing is clear is that the status quo is not acceptable,” Eby said, according to the Vancouver Sun

“I’m incredibly anxious about the housing demand we’re facing and the fact that we’re not building the housing we need to be,” the minister told Capital Daily. 

It’s a move the City of Victoria has already been mulling, as it explores a “missing middle” housing initiative—an endeavour “aimed at people who will [otherwise] never be able to afford a single-family home in Victoria,” wrote mayor Lisa Helps

While the change may provide hope for aspiring homeowners, Hernandez-Koltermann believes there’s more work to be done to improve the lot of racialized renters—including limiting the amount by which landlords and property management companies can raise the price of their vacant units. Currently, the province regulates rate increases of occupied units, but no such measures exist for empty units—something the City of Victoria’s renters’ advisory committee hopes to see changed.

“Rent control [between tenancies] would go miles, because the issue is, there shouldn't be enough money in this unit to make it worthwhile to try illegally evicting us,” he says.

As Hernandez-Koltermann and Johnstone await a resolution in their eviction dispute, they’ve sought legal representation through the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Victoria. They’re appealing on the grounds that their dog, Laika, is a registered emotional support animal—a designation which, though not explicitly covered under provincial law, has been successfully argued in tenancy disputes in front of the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

“We can't do anything about my racial discrimination … But the dog has more rights than I do,” Hernandez-Koltermann told Capital Daily. 

Asked whether he and Johnstone had ever considered leaving Victoria altogether, he shook his head:

“This is where I’m from. And if it’s bad, I want to improve it.”

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Martin Bauman
Newsletter Editor
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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