Photo credit: CBC
Today, the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Public Library broke ground on a new library in Strathcona. The new VPL branch includes 21 units of social housing for single mothers. Despite positive media coverage, the truth is that the social housing units were built despite Vision Vancouver’s plans for the project. Instead, each unit is the result of a bitter fight between the municipal government and local housing activists. It is them who we should thank.
From the beginning of the city-owned VPL project, the community argued that council should add low-cost housing to the project since the Strathcona site is city-owned. Throughout the summer and fall of 2010, activists lobbied for the housing, and included a submission of 1,500 signatures on a petition backing the demand.
Yet on October 7, 2010, Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council voted against the housing in favor of a “stand-alone” library, citing financial limitations and austerity. “We don’t have the money in the drawers,” argued Robertson. “We have nowhere near what we need for housing. We have real limitations and uncertainty in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do, we can’t make a commitment.”
The City announced austerity measures throughout the fall and voted against housing at the library due to lack of funds. Yet concessions were eventually forced after continued pressure from housing activists at CCAP, Van.Act! Power of Women and others, leading city manager Penny Ballem to launch a search for funders. Later in the year charity organizations close to Vision brokers, like the developer-backed StreetoHome and Cause We Care foundations (which explains the name “Cause We Care House” for the 21 units) stepped in with financial commitments. In November 2013, the city finally approved the full package of social housing and library for the new Strathcona site.
City-led gentrification of Strathcona
During the recent municipal elections, the Strathcona project – and a tiny handful of other initiatives – prompted Vision Vancouver’s unfounded campaign claim of “record levels of new rental and social housing being built in Vancouver.” The reality is far more grim.
Few people realize that Vision Vancouver’s Local Area Plan for the DTES established special zoning for the Strathcona neighborhood. According to the plan, redevelopment for residential units in the area is strictly prohibited except for sites with existing social housing. Any future developments on those sites are almost guaranteed to be market condos, given that the province has now entirely withdrawn from the responsibility of providing and building social housing.
The new DTES LAP ensures that only the most dense and affordable parts of Strathcona are allowed to be replaced by redeveloped. The single family yuppie homes are protected under the law, while social housing – fought and won by many generations of struggle – is thrown into the trash can of history.
Philanthropy and the privatization of social housing
In addition to City-led loss of housing in Vancouver, the last several decades of political parties in power have downloaded social housing responsibility from the federal level to provincial. This shift has been ongoing since the federal Liberal budget cuts of 1993 and finalized with the official transfer of responsibility in 2006. This process has been accompanied by a shift from government provision (CMHC) towards provision by “civil society,” including for-profit corporations, non-profit societies and charity organizations, such as the Cause We Care and StreetoHome, with board members pulled entirely from the private financial sector.
How might philanthropy solve the poverty and structural inequality it thrives on? As Jean Swanson said in her speech at the 7th Annual Women’s Housing March in 2013, addressing the Strathcona project head on: “Governments talk about housing ‘partnerships.’ Partnerships mean charities building social housing like the housing over the library and then calling it Cause We Care House, humiliating the residents by reminding them that they are charity cases.”
Philanthrocapitalism, as Ivan Drury reminds us in a recent article for Briarpatch Magazine, takes the focus away from the need for real change while validating the social role of elites. “When it comes to city politics,” writes Drury, “philanthrocapitalists direct reformist efforts away from hard economic frameworks like wages and rent toward voluntary spaces of social intercourse where super-rich donors can make their mark without disturbing profits.”
At best philanthropy is a shortcut to alleviate the conscience of those with money; at worst its a coverup. This also applies to the naming of the new Strathcona site, called nə́c̓aʔmat ct, which means ‘we are one’ in the Musqueam language. The gesture is troubling, since Vision Vancouver-led redevelopment in Strathcona has been guided by nothing but displacement – the very cornerstone of colonialism. As Indigenous education activist Diana Day recently said in the context of the City of Vancouver’s Indigenous territory acknowledgement:“it has a lot to do with actions speaking louder than words.”
For all these reasons, the City of Vancouver should not be applauded for yesterday’s Strathcona announcement. When it comes to Strathcona, the ruling party should only be remembered for putting the developer philanthro-capitalists in charge.