Equity at the centre: Housing Needs Assessment as advocacy tool in Strathcona Regional District
What happens when you place equity at the centre of a housing needs assessment?
In early 2019, Campbell River announced a partnership with BC Housing to create 50 units of supportive housing in the City within two years. To many, the announcement was a small but promising step forward in addressing the housing crisis faced in the Strathcona Regional District. To members of the Strathcona Community Health Network (SCHN) however, the announcement was an achievement resulting from years of efforts to demonstrate the need for adequate and appropriate housing in the region, and to advocate for political action to address that need. Read on to learn how the Health Network used their Housing Needs Assessment as an advocacy tool to inspire action.
Formed after a PlanH-supported workshop in 2014, the Strathcona Community Health Network works to improve health and well-being in the region by taking on the root causes of health challenges. As in other Health Networks across Island Health’s service delivery area, the regional health authority and the network work together to address shared goals around these root causes. In SCHN’s case, housing was identified as an issue early on: two community forums held by the Network in 2015 both saw the region single out housing as a priority issue that needed to be addressed.
After a whirlwind 2017 which saw the SCHN hire a coordinator, develop a terms of reference scope for a housing needs assessment, and secure funds from the Regional District, SCHN began their Housing Needs Assessment in early 2018. Our staff at BC Healthy Communities, in partnership with the team at Urban Matters, worked to gather the data for the report.
Housing Needs Reports (also sometimes called Housing Needs Assessments) have since become mandatory for all local governments in British Columbia. These documents help communities plan for their current and future housing needs, and normally rely heavily on statistical data from outside sources such as Statistics Canada and CMHC. However, Libby King, coordinator of the Strathcona Community Health Network, had a different vision for this assessment.
“[This process] was driven by the recognition that health in the region was being impacted by inadequate housing, both for those who were homeless and those who were otherwise inadequately or inappropriately housed,” says King.
King and the SCHN envisioned their Housing Needs Assessment as a document that went beyond traditional number crunching and need forecasting; one that would incorporate as much qualitative content as it did quantitative. By weaving the lived experience of community members into the numbers, the SCHN hoped to produce an assessment that better reflected the downstream health and well-being impacts of the housing situation in the district, anticipating that this approach would be more likely to compel action.
“A focus on qualitative information over the purely quantitative, I think, is hugely important—it explained what the census data was telling us, to hear from people who could contextualize what that meant in their everyday life.” Libby King
“It’s those stories like children not being brought up by their parents, just because they can’t find a decent house.” says King. “A focus on qualitative information over the purely quantitative, I think, is hugely important—it explained what the census data was telling us, to hear from people who could contextualize what that meant in their everyday life.”
The result was an assessment that included a more formal document as well as a series of community snapshots—brief, infographic-heavy documents that blend numbers with quotes and stories from community members. The data for these documents incorporated the unique experiences of hard-to-reach populations through approaches including a public survey, lived-experience and key-informant interviews, informal engagement at community places, and public forums.
“[The team] really got out into communities, and they interviewed, for example, parents picking up their kids from an Indigenous childcare centre, things like that,” says King.
As work on the Housing Needs Assessment process progressed, the SCHN didn’t just wait for the final report to be delivered; instead, they worked to organize the community and its social service providers, so that they could move forward together in a coordinated way once the results were released. One of the most visible results of these efforts was the formation of the Campbell River and District Coalition to End Homelessness (CRDCEH), a diverse group of 13 non-profits all involved with the housing sector. Together, the group advocates for action to address gaps along the continuum of housing and support services—such as the 50 units of supportive housing mentioned at the top of this story, which came, in part, as a result of the Coalition’s advocacy—presentations, meetings, consultations and letter-writing campaigns.
“Having these research elements [like the Housing Needs Assessment], and then having action elements [like the CRDCEH] meant that we had built some good relationships with the city, and the city could see a really clear way to engage,” says King.
To King, these new supportive beds are a promising start, but they’re just the beginning of things to come.
“It’s started building a really healthy community where people are talking and collaborating.” she says.
King’s recommendations for a health- and equity-focused Housing Needs process:
- Invest time in having important conversations at the outset. “For me, the most important thing was meeting with people and listening to them, because they would tell me who to talk to next, and who needed to be involved,” says King.
- Engage Indigenous stakeholders at the planning stages of the project, including making decisions about the scope of the project. “We recognized that there wasn’t enough Indigenous engagement, even though there’s a lot of Indigenous interest—that the processes to date hadn’t engaged them,” says King.
- Consider involving an objective outsider. “Because there had been past struggles, it was just excellent to have someone from outside the community to come and facilitate discussion,” says King.
- Collaborate with the non-profit housing sector. “If you have a non-profit sector that’s well-organized, then working with them, and understanding from that who is not at the table, is a big deal. And if you don’t have one, contact organizations like the Salvation Army, John Howard, the Associations for Community Living—there are so many,” says King.
- For rural communities, break up your region into meaningful areas, rather than relying on political boundaries. "We got really good data on the regional communities and the similarities, which meant that these towns of 500 or 1000 people, which would otherwise have no data, we ended up putting them together to see trends—we could see that houses were older, that individuals were having a harder time aging in place, that houses needed more repairs—it really painted a clearer picture of the needs of seniors in regional areas, which was useful,” says King.
- Be mindful of what stories and voices are missing from quantitative data. “Particularly, I would be looking at Indigenous communities, both at home and away-from-home communities, which make up a large sector of the community. And how to really represent that is tricky, it actually only happened for us through that qualitative information gathered. It was completely vital. If that hadn’t happened, none of those voices would have been heard—and we have a really large Indigenous community, but the census data is not going to do anything for you in relation to that,” says King.