A tiny decrepit slice of Attawapiskat, right here in my Toronto backyard
Jonathan Kay Dec 5, 2011 – 12:29 PM ET | Last Updated: Dec 5, 2011 2:05 PM ET
There are exactly three houses in my neighbourhood that are owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. These also happen to be the same properties that, for the last decade at least, consistently have appeared to be falling apart, and have garbage strewn over their lawns. Coincidence? Not quite.
It’s famously said that, in the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car. The same principle applies to real estate. The people who live in public-assistance properties aren’t necessarily any lazier or messier than the rest of us. But they have no economic motivation to beautify or maintain properties in which they have no economic interest. So they tend to let their living spaces fall into ruin and filth.
The difference between these properties and resident-owned properties is remarkable. The three city-owned properties I refer to in the first paragraph carry the street numbers 6,8 and 10. The property immediately to the north, number 12, is a world apart — a beautiful, well-maintained house that the owner has tastefully set apart from his neighbours with a wooden fence. The contrast couldn’t be more telling.
Now imagine a whole community of homes that contains no 12 — just variations on 6, 8 and 10 — a place where real-estate ownership is not only discouraged, but actually outlawed.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine: These places exist all across Canada. They’re called native reserves. Land in these areas is owned by the federal government, which then designates its collective usage by this or that native band. The 400,000-plus people who live in these communities don’t “own” their homes and the land under them any more than do the families sitting in those three Toronto Community Housing Corporation homes in my neighborhood. While some communities have developed ersatz property-certificate programs, in most cases it is the band council that decides who gets to use what piece of property, and where and when new homes are built.
This explains why outsiders who visit reserves typically are shocked by the dilapidation they see — homes falling apart and lawns converted into garbage dumps. Why spend your time and money maintaining (let alone improving) a property that you don’t own, and which might not be yours tomorrow?
“[The] Problem is housing, not money, say residents forced to live in tents,” is how a Dec. 3 Toronto Star headline put it, in reference to the James Bay Cree community of Attawapiskat. That’s a good way to describe a housing stock that’s mould-ridden and structurally substandard. It also reflects the fact that the Attawapiskat housing budget actually is in surplus these days. It’s not that there’s no money to build homes; it’s that the occupants are destroying them faster than they’re being built.
Here’s a thought experiment for the homeowners reading this column. Go back over the last decade and catalog every stitch of home-improvement you’ve conducted. Now imagine what your home would look like if you hadn’t done any of it. Instead of fixing the roof leak, you’d just put a bucket under the leaky spot. Instead of bringing in a contractor to redo your basement drywall at the first sign of mould, you just stopped using your basement. Same thing with the termites, the rotting timbers on the porch, the clogged drainspouts, the dirty furnace filter, and all the rest. Would your home even be habitable? Or would it look like one of those photos from Attawapiskat?
When it comes to home repair, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But when you have to pay for the ounce (in the form of home maintenance), and the government is paying for the pound (in the form of a new home), it makes more sense, from a resident’s point of view, to go the latter route.
Collectivist land-ownership schemes fit in well with the mythology that surrounds native reserves: On some unarticulated level, it is imagined that natives, by dint of their spiritual connection with the land, have some magical, indeed supernatural, ability to transcend all of the normal economic rules of behaviour that govern every other human civilization on earth. On this basis we create a real-estate scheme that is guaranteed to turn even the most pristine landscape into a dump, and which (as a bonus) denies reserve-resident natives the ability to own and sell real estate, the path to riches for generations of Canadian immigrants. So not only do we lock them in filth, but in poverty, too.
This, more than any other reason, explains the backward and destitute state of Attawapiskat and the many other reserves like it. When some brave Canadian politician finally does have the courage to end the reserve system as we now know it, and gives natives the chance to own their land in the same way that every other Canadian does, we will be ashamed that it took us so long.
The quickest way to turn a man’s home into a castle is to tell him that he owns it. Deny him that ownership, and you’ll manufacture a ruin.
Just ask my neighbours.
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