A Seat at The Table: The Visual Culture of the Housing Pandemic

Introduction

During the unprecedented times triggered by COVID-19, a major issue amongst Canadians is housing security. Between the layoffs at big box stores and the closures of small businesses, many families find themselves without a steady income to ensure a roof over their heads. Despite these factors heightening eviction rates across the nation, the pandemic is not a catalyst for housing security issues that plague Canadians. The pandemic merely revealed the downfall of our capitalist system which prioritizes corporate greed over the livelihood of human beings. Housing is a necessary proponent to foster life, yet it is treated as a commodity to generate income. Affordable living is virtually non-existent and low-income families are tasked with choosing between food, water, or rent payments. The pandemic is primarily an issue of global health, but housing security is a secondary issue that afflicts many. Housing in today’s market is less of a human right and more of a luxury reserved for those with disposable wealth. This issue reveals how people in different socio-economic standings may perceive mere documents that are only pieces of paper at surface level, but ultimately dictate one’s livelihood.

[Fig 1.1] Brown, Ashleigh, A Seat at The Table, 21 April 2021. https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/539953782
Exploring Dual Utility 

A Seat at The Table [Fig 1.1] sheds a light on how the pandemic further exposes the lack of affordable living in Toronto by examining the utility of an eviction notice. The first component of the piece is a spoken word poem that is written and performed by me. In creating the poem, I decided to write from two different perspectives. The first angle focuses on a poor tenant who feels as though they do not belong in their home. The tenant sees an eviction notice as a death sentence. This sentiment is due to the lack of financial security which threatens their ability to afford shelter. There is an obvious disconnect from the place they are supposed to call home. The tenant refers to their residency as “stealing quaint nights” and addresses the fact that their shelter is “rationed in bite-size pieces (Brown).” These lines address the fact that due to their financial situation, they feel lucky that they are able to acquire shelter regardless of the condition or duration. The second angle follows a rich landlord who sees an eviction notice as an instrument to ensure continuous wealth. This voice is not concerned with their tenant but instead sees them as disposable income. The landlord expresses an indifference towards the authority they have over their tenant’s quality of life. The last four verses speak to the rich benefiting off of the struggle of the poor. The lines “These conventions are routine/Inscribed in stone/Like testaments (Brown)” speak to the deeply-rooted systems which allow for the exploitation of the working class to make the rich richer.

[Fig 1.2] Brown, Ashleigh, A Seat at The Table, 21 April 2021.
The second component of A Seat at the Table [Fig 1.2] is the B-Roll footage. All of the footage was gathered from various YouTube videos, and put together in an editing software called OpenShot Video Editor. This footage explores the vantage point of both the poor tenant and rich landlord in conjunction with the housing pandemic. Whereas the tenant must rally and fight in order to maintain a roof over their head, people who are already in a high socio-economic standing are able to increase their wealth without much effort.

The Binary of Celebrated and Subjugated

A Seat at The Table explores capitalism which ultimately fuels wealth disparity for marginalized groups. As stated by Markley et. al, “addressing the housing wealth gap should be central to abating racial wealth inequality” as the “black-white homeownership gap is currently sitting at around 41%–72% (Markley 318).” In terms of wealth inequality, another group that is undervalued is the female population. In their article, Blau and Khan speak to the different colloquial terms for gender bias including “the glass ceiling, sex discrimination, and comparable worth. Although each term has a different meaning, the outcome remains that women are discriminated against in some form (i.e., pay differentials and/or promotions, etc) (Blau et. al, 27).” The two aforementioned groups are subjects of racial and gender capitalism which grants better financial outcomes to their more privileged counterparts. White able-bodied cisgender men are born at the top of the social privilege hierarchy. Their ancestors were colonizers who enslaved minorities and claimed stolen land. The lasting effects of colonialism are prime factors in the inaccessibility of social mobility for subjects of subjugation, which translates directly to the plight of their entire lineage. By addressing the historical context which dictates the benefactors of the capitalist system, A Seat at the Table works to directly address the root of the housing security issue. The binary of rich and poor has always been disproportionate but because of distinct positions in society, it is often hard for polar opposites to recognize the other end of the spectrum. In my piece, I used the juxtaposition of images attributed to the poor tenant and rich landlord in order to shed light on the asymmetrical power relationship between the two. In spectator theory, it is important to question “how a particular subject position is created by a visual text and its fields of looking, which are occupied by specific individuals (Sturken and Cartwright 105).” By examining the opposing fields of looking in regards to an eviction notice, A Seat at The Table helps to identify the positionality of the destitute and the wealthy, acts as an arbiter of power relations, and ensures that resistance can be appropriated by the subordinate group. As articulated by Sturken and Cartwright visual culture is not only a “representation of power relations and ideologies but paramount to their existence (Sturken and Cartwright 101).”

Conclusion

A Toronto-focused census conducted in 2018 indicates “that areas with higher renter poverty had 2.5 times higher eviction ling rates on average.” The analysis revealed that “a greater percentage of renters self-identify as Black had twice the eviction filing rates (BlogTO).” While we do not have the current numbers to represent how many racialized folk and women are displaced due to the pandemic, it is safe to assume that the numbers have increased significantly. The ACLU has reported that “white female renters are 1 time and black women were 3 times more likely to have evictions led against them that were later dismissed in comparison to white male renters (ACLU).” The bias operates in favour of the heirs to privilege. The pandemic only intensified the asymmetrical power relationship that continues to benefit the rich and obstructs the poor. An eviction notice for a family that lives paycheck to paycheck equates to a life sentence. It can almost be a word-for-word translation to a life removed from stability or social mobility. In contrast, the economic elite continues to commodify brick, glass, and human lives in order to assure social dominance. In order to combat methodology which predetermines the winners and losers, there must be a complete redesign of our economic and political systems. The construction of power relations is ultimately a result of the current dogma, meaning constitutional barriers must be stripped bare and rebuilt to accommodate the masses.


Works Cited

ABC News. Americans Struggling to Make Ends Meet | A Hidden America with Diane Sawyer (Nightline). YouTube, 14 Jan 2017, 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I28_9eAwEW4&t=272s

 

Al Jazeera. Evicted and Living In Their Car During A Pandemic. YouTube, Dec 20 2020, 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMSgfZ7kpo&t=309s.

 

Beyers, Sophie. “Clearing the Record: How Eviction Sealing Laws Can Advance Housing Access for Women of Color.” American Civil Liberties Union, 10 Jan. 2020, www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/clearing-the-record-how-eviction-sealing-laws-can-advance-housing-access-for-women-of-color/. 

 

Blau, Francine D., and Lawrence M. Kahn. “Rising Wage Inequality and the U.S. Gender Gap.” The American Economic Review, vol. 84, no. 2, 1994, pp. 23–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2117795. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.

 

Dury, Baxter. Slumlord, YouTube, 19 Nov 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWbVIv7DrU8.

Global News. Coronavirus: Renters in Canada increasingly at risk of losing homes amid pandemic, YouTube,  Jan 29, 2021.

 

Glynn, Gwen.  Equality, Diversity & Inclusion. YouTube, 12 Jan 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-uyB5I6WnQ.

 

Indian, Neon. Slumlord Rising. YouTube, 19 Oct. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0wPHAau1ts.

 

JAY-Z. The Story of O.J. Youtube, 5 Jul 2017, 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM7lw0Ovzq0.

 

Lamar, Kendrick. HiiiPower. YouTube, 10 Feb 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIh9OWvfIes

 

Major League Beats. Find Your Smile – Instrumental Poetry & SpokenWord Beat (J Cole, Wale ). YouTube, 17 June 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=neF1vblGHOA. 

 

Markley, Scott N., et al. “The Limits of Homeownership: Racial Capitalism, Black Wealth, and the Appreciation Gap in Atlanta.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 44, no. 2, 2020, pp. 310-328.

 

Miller, Mira. “These Neighbourhoods Had the Highest Eviction Rates in Toronto Pre-Pandemic.” BlogTO, BlogTO, 25 Mar. 2021, www.blogto.com/city/2021/03/neighbourhoods-highest-eviction-rates-toronto-pre-pandemic/. 

 

Misner, Bobby. LIFE of a BILLIONAIRE’S SON. YouTube, 25 Nov 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSV0N1kxcrQ

 

PBS NewsHour. American renters hard-hit by pandemic juggle complicated assistance systems, eviction laws. YouTube, 29 March 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdRhjmMRdug

 

Sturken, Marika et, al. Images & Ideology. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Second edition, Oxford University Press, Dec 15 2008.

 

The School of Life. HISTORY OF IDEAS – Capitalism. YouTube, 24 Jul 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIuaW9YWqEU

 

The School of Life. POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx. YouTube, 19 Dec 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSQgCy_iIcc

 

Trend Central. Rich People Who Make Us Feel Poor. YouTube, 11 Mar 2020, 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FmGolmA644&t=13s.

 

Yahoo Finance. Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg see wealth ‘surge’ amid coronavirus pandemic: Report. YouTube, 27 Jun 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDTq6_k3lEc.


Appendix

A Seat at the Table by Ashleigh Brown 

 

I run a finger across a burner

Singed skin that smells of closed doors

panelled floors hug footsteps that don’t belong

A document that appears cold to the touch 

And speaks to stolen earth as a birthright  

I think that I steal quaint nights 

When they are rationed in bite sized pieces

Fit to coat taste buds but not to fill stomachs

 

Papers that state the world starts and ends with you 

Shell casings in your back breed blood diamonds

A menu is placed at a community table 

To stir signs of sustenance 

Ten more days to fly too close to the sun

To breathe when I say so 

A merchant of skin, blood, and livelihood

Commodifying brick and mortar laced kisses

 

old money family jewels 

behind white picket fences

smell of dust settling

in sweltering heat

beating down on damp brow 

sweat coloured savoury sweet 

collected at the nape

and suckled for strength 

 

new money cleansed 

family jewels

with white pearl and bleach

appraised praised

dressed in garments that 

hug facets like a second skin

 

Buyer beware that a seat at the table means 

they would sell the wings off of my back

Use my vertebrae for display

sound bites of screams make

ad-libs of suffering 

on these broken clocks we are

reliant on hands beyond our control the

hour screams before a single stroke

 

A seat at the table is what a cotton-lined dollar costs

these conventions are routine

inscribed in stone

like testaments 

prescribed to subdue side effects

but not ease the weight of losing flight

and being tethered to the ground 

 

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.