Belonging and belongings: New report exposes property rights inequality amid housing insecurity

Faculty of Law - Civil Law Section
Faculty member
Social justice

By Civil law

Communication, Faculty of law

photo de Marie-Eve Sylvestre à côté d'une illustration d'une tente, d'un sac à dos et d'un vélo.
Material possessions are a big part of our lives. The value of our belongings often transcends their mere material worth. But what if you found yourself with no secure place to keep the things that matter to you? What if the possessions you value most were treated as literal trash by others? This is the reality for many precariously housed and unhoused people in Canada.

In a new research report entitled Belongings Matter, Dean Marie-Eve Sylvestre and co-authors Nicholas Blomley of Simon Fraser University and Alexandra Flynn of the University of British Columbia delve into the complex systems of property laws and regulations that often leave individuals who are struggling with housing insecurity with very little control over their belongings. Such communities face significant inequality in terms of how their property rights are governed. 

“I know it's only stuff... but as the years go by, it's stuff I could never, ever get back,” says one anonymous interviewee quoted in the report, echoing the sentiments of countless individuals who have faced housing instability and homelessness. There is little clarity in Canadian law regarding how the property rights of unhoused people are enforced and, generally, our regulatory systems favour protections only for the belongings of those with secure housing. Because individuals from precariously housed communities often lack any kind of property titles or ownership rights, their possessions are vulnerable to the whims of landlords, non-profit organizations, corporations, and government entities. Canadian law ultimately offers limited acknowledgment of the possessions of these individuals. 

The new report offers valuable insights into this often overlooked effect of homelessness and unstable housing. By shedding light on the challenges individuals from these vulnerable communities face in preserving their possessions, and by exposing the physical and emotional harms that can result, the authors make a strong case for improved recognition of the property rights of unhoused people. They explore short-term solutions – like creating spaces where individuals can safeguard their possessions – and long-term solutions – like creating more affordable housing – and ultimately seek to counter the stigma of homelessness that has made these problems too easy for the general public to ignore for so long. 

Joining the authors as collaborators on this report are law students Nic Olson, who is currently studying law on Lekwungen Territory; Terri Evans, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University; as well as Claire Shapton and Marina Chavez, both MA students who are also studying at the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University. 

Read the full report, Belongings Matter