Vision appoints right-wing multimillionaire developer to chair affordability task force

Vision Vancouver-dominated city council voted yesterday, Tues Dec 13, to approve the terms of reference for a so-called “affordability task force.” The task force will consult developers, financiers, architects, and other members of Vancouver’s real estate oligopoly — the very interests responsible for the city’s permanent housing bubble and for the city’s culture of rent gouging — in order to produce policy recommendations by March 2012.

Earlier this week, before the terms of reference were even approved by council, Mayor Robertson announced that the task force would be co-chaired by himself and ‘multimillionaire’ developer Olga Ilich.

Olga Ilich is a firmly entrenched member of the lower-mainland’s real estate oligopoly. Ilich is founder and president of Suncor Development Corporation. Most inappropriately, she was president of the Urban Development Institute (UDI), which is the development industry’s primary lobby organization. The UDI lobbies City Hall regularly to destroy and gentrify low-income neighborhoods, to over-ride local community planning processes, and to undermine renters rights.

Ilich is also a BC Liberal. She was a cabinet minister under Gordon Campbell from 2006-2009. News articles about Ilich’s appointment in other publications (The Sun, 24hours, The Straight, Observer, etc) refrain from mentioning the words “BC Liberal” and “Gordon Campbell,” downplaying these connections in order to protect Gregor Robertson from criticism from the left. When the NPA appointed BC Liberal insider, and Gordon Campbell confidante, Geoff Plant to run project civil city, progressives in Vancouver denounced the decision in the strongest terms. But now that Robertson has made an equivalent appointment, progressives seem committed to self-censorship, amnesia, and capitulation.

Certainly the appointment of Ilich sends a strong message to the city’s elite, and especially to the development industry. The message? “Don’t worry, we have put a BC Liberal, multimillionaire developer, UDI president in charge. Nothing will happen that creates true affordability. Prices will not go down. Profits will not go down. Corporate taxes will not go up. All solutions will be private solutions. The real estate industry will remain in the driver’s seat. There will be no new public housing. Don’t worry, dear developers who donated over a million dollars to Vision’s election campaign. Thank you, developers — this is our repayment to you!”

The process for selection of Ilich as co-chair was untransparent. The Vision party made the decision behind closed doors and presented it to Council yesterday as a fait accompli. It is of particular interest to uncover the criteria for selecting the co-chair. Why were community representatives deliberately excluded in favour of developers?

The one positive aspect of the task force is that it recognizes the affordability crisis. The preamble to yesterday’s motion, like the Mayor’s recent inaugural address, makes this explicit recognition. It is the least the city’s elites can do to recognize that the rest of us are forking-over too much of our income to landlords. Rents in Vancouver continue to rise and remain the highest ($1,237/month) of any major Canadian city. Poll after poll shows that unaffordability is the primary concern of residents.

However, for the past decade, the problem has not been lack of recognition, but lack of action. The announcement of the “task force” this week was a déjà vu moment. During the 2008 campaign, Vision Vancouver also held up “affordability” as one of its mantras, and after the election called an “affordable rental housing” engagement process. Developers, financiers, and other stakeholders were invited to a series of workshops in the spring of 2009. The result was a report recommending tax breaks for developers to incentivize development of rental housing (STIR program) — and that’s all. The tax-breaks delivered few rental units, and no affordable ones.

With no ideas left, the Vision-led council sat on its hands for two and a half years. Meanwhile housing prices increased 20% from 2010-2011. During last month’s 2011 election campaign, Vision did not propose any new ideas for dealing with the housing crisis. Councilor Meggs promised to continue the STIR program. Mayor Robertson vaguely mentioned “leveraging city assets.”

It’s likely that Ilich’s developer-driven task force will focus on developer tax breaks. It will surely re-affirm the STIR program. The terms of reference specifically mention the Tax Increment Equivalent Growth program (TIEG). TIEG is simply more corporate tax cuts. For example, in the City of Toronto, TIEG corporate tax cuts are part of the city’s business improvement “Agenda for Prosperity” geared to “attract investment in such industries as life sciences, biotechnology, information technology, environmentally friendly products, tourism, film and other screen-based industries, and manufacturing.” This is an idea well-suited to Ilich, who was Minister of Tourism under Gordon Campbell, but it’s not going to help Vancouver’s low-income renters.

Worse, the terms of reference for the committee cause one to wonder whether the “task force” may do the opposite of its stated purpose. For example, Ilich is being charged with “Assessing risks and opportunities of existing City-owned housing assets.” The task force may be used as a cover to liquidate even more city assets, including public housing assets, for the purposes of private condo development. It is necessary to be vigilant regarding these possibilities.

Yesterday, Robertson emphasized that the task force will “include the private sector, the industry that builds all our housing.” But the fact that the private sector now builds all of our housing is one of our main problems. What we need now more than ever is to reactivate Vancouver’s Public Housing Corporation.

The task force co-chairs will be accepting requests from individual stakeholders to participate in the task force until the the first week of January. The Mayor has already indicated that the committee will be dominated by the real estate industry:

“The task force will be composed of members with expertise in the areas of finance, real estate, market development, architecture and design, academia, federal and provincial policy, non-market housing development and land use planning.”

Nowhere is there mention of resident associations, renters, or people most affected by the crisis. At council yesterday, Green Party Councilor Adriane Carr asked why “in the list of sectors to be represented, citizen groups are not represented,” to which the Mayor responded that citizens are excluded from ‘phase one’, where recommendations are developed. ‘Phase two’ will consist of presenting the developer task force’s recommendations to community groups and residents in an attempt to legitimize the undemocratic process.

Also of note, Councilor Carr requested respectfully to be a Council liaison for the task force, but was dismissed by Robertson. For the purposes of message-control, only Vision party members, Louie and Meggs, were appointed liaisons.

It would be prudent to reduce expectations surrounding this task force, and for the renters of Vancouver to self-organize to create a power-base outside Olga’s “real estate oligopoly” committee.

Photo credit: Flickr user John Biehler