Over the past two years, a proposed development in the heart of North Vancouver has severely divided public opinion. This conflict came to its apex last week when the developer, Onni, announced in a letter that it intends to quit the project at 1308 Lonsdale, on 13th Avenue. The letter came after North Vancouver council voted 4 to 3 in favor of postponing the decision and holding another public hearing in the New Year. Councillors argued that another meeting was necessary because not all interested parties were able to speak at the November 19th hearing.
Onni first brought their proposal to city hall in 2011 prior to the election, where the council at that time voted against it 7 to 0. The vote did not kill the project but instead prompted Onni to revise its proposal, scaling back the height of the project and moving from three towers to two towers. It also prompted Onni to seek better links with city councilors. In the lead-up to the November 2011 election, current mayor Darrell Mussatto received a $5000 donation from RMPG Holdings Ltd, a parent company of Onni, and $5,000 from Pinnacle International, which is owned by the De Cotiis family. Councillor Linda Buchanan also received $1,500.
This is something which councillor Rod Clark feels has overshadowed the process. While it did not amount to a legal conflict of interest, Clark says, “morally and ethically? It stinks.” In response to council’s decision to hold another hearing in the New Year, Onni is no blaming Clark and fellow councilor Pam Bookham for holding back the approval.
Heather Place public housing near VGH, which is slated for demolition and redevelopment in the coming years, has received significant media attention this week. An article in the Straight, called Heather Place tenants wait in limbo, explains how many tenants are uncertain about their future, concerned about suffering the same fate as their counterparts at Little Mountain Housing. On Wednesday, Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC), which owns Heather Place, posted on its website a response to tenants’ concerns, in the form of answers to “frequently answered questions.” Vancouver City Councilor Geoff Meggs also appeared on CBC radio to defend the demolition. However, the responses provided by MVHC and Meggs only serve to confirm the fears expressed by tenants.
First, it is now more clear than ever that the majority of the people living at Heather Place will be displaced. There are currently 86 units of affordable homes which house 200 people. After redevelopment rents will increase an extra-ordinary amount. Whereas today the highest rents are around $1,100, after redevelopment two- and three-bedroom units will rent at “competitive market rates” expected to exceed $1,700 and $2,100 respectively. This means that two-thirds of tenants who are not on subsidy will very likely be displaced unless they agree to an extra-ordinary rent increase. For these tenants the Heather Place redevelopment plan is essentially a large-scale “renoviction.”
We all know the expression, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
With one month left before Christmas, Downtown Eastside restaurant mogul Mark Brand Inc has launched a meal token program targeting clientele who would like to support people in need. The idea is that the meal token, which goes for $2.25, can be given to panhandlers in place of spare change. Each token is redeemable for a breakfast sandwich at the window of Save-On-Meats, Mark Brand Inc’s only location affordable for those on modest incomes.
The following description of the program is found in the press release announcing the program:
“The Meal Tokens solve the dilemma that many people find themselves in. The reality is that people are hesitant to give money rather than food to people who they see on the street. With the Meal Tokens, donors can rest assured that what they give will be going towards providing much needed sustenance and at the same time, supporting Save on Meats’ social enterprise.”
Editors’ note: This is the first part of a series exploring the politics of sustainability, development and urban entrepreneurialism. The second part of this series will build on the analysis put forward by exploring specific case studies in Vancouver.
Vancouver has a complicated relationship with nature. Over the last decade sustainability discourses and city policies are increasingly mobilized to defend private development, in particular, condo mega-projects which are marketed as transit-oriented developments. Sustainability is embedded within a broader language and policy framework of urban entrepreneurialism and relentless ‘global city’ posturing. Urban sustainability is constructed as post-political, striving to avoid traditional ideological divisions between left and right…
A plan to redevelop the Oakridge Mall at Cambie and 41st, unveiled this past week, includes 2,800 condo units in 16 buildings, 6 of which are above 30 storeys. The current developer-friendly City Council is sure to approve the proposal with only minor adjustments. One city councilor anticipated some community concerns about height and density, but my concern goes deeper. I’m not against height or density in the service of affordability, but in this case, height and density primarily serve corporate interests and reflect poor transit planning choices.
Looking at the redevelopment plan, it’s clear to me that the fundamental principle at work is maximization of corporate profits. The developer is asking to triple the amount of housing allowed on the site, which could triple the land value in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. How much of that value the city recoups to fund affordable housing, and how much the developers keep as profits, depends on the political will of City Council. As it stands, however, only 50 of the 2,800 housing units proposed for Oakridge are planned to have below-market rents – that’s less than 2%.
There is unlikely to be much pushback from City Council. The Oakridge landowner is the Ivanhoe Cambridge Corporation, which cleverly hired the developer, Westbank, and architects, Henriquez Partners, to bring City Council on board with the plan. These firms are very close to the ruling party Vision Vancouver – having also collaborated on the Woodward’s redevelopment in the Downtown Eastside. It does not hurt that Westbank donated $12,000 to Vision’s electoral campaign last fall, and an equal amount in previous campaigns.
The Streetohome Foundation has officially launched its new Rent Bank program with a $366,000 three-year loan from Streetohome board member Frank Giustra of the Radcliffe Foundation. Smaller administrative costs totalling $49,000 per year will be paid by the City, although the program itself will be administered by the non-profit Inner-City Community Services Society.
One-time loans from the rent bank will average $835 and can reach up to a maximum of $1300 for an individual, with a repayment plan spanning up to two years. To qualify, tenants perform an assessment either online or over the phone. Tenants are issued a loan if the rent bank judges that they can afford the repayment plan, and if the tenant agrees in advance to repay the loan through automatic withdrawals on their bank account.
Both the rent bank policy and the Streetohome organization were born under previous NPA and COPE municipal governments. The City’s 2005 Homeless Action Plan, drafted under COPE’s last term in office (2002 – 2005), called for the rent bank to disburse both loans and grants to low-income renters in short-term crisis. The current version is less ambitious and removes the grant option, following instead the path set out under NPA’s pro-business term (2005 – 2008). The NPA formed Streetohome in an effort to incentivize the real-estate sector to solve homelessness through philanthropy and charity.
In the four years since the financial crisis of 2008 brought a North American-wide collapse in housing prices, the Canadian government has successfully taken measures to bring real-estate prices back to their pre-crash levels. Following in the tracks of the American effort to rescue financial capital, the past four years have seen a joint effort by all levels of Canadian government to re-inflate the housing bubble by deregulating finance, extending new lines of direct investment into real-estate and lowering interest rates. The Canadian government has effectively called on the real-estate industry to lead the economy out of the recession, facing down typical historical patterns in which real-estate is the last industry to recover from system-wide crisis. Next to resource extraction, the only real growth industry in Canada since 2008 has been real-estate.
Yet today, as in 2008, the real-estate bubble is reaching a “tipping point,” according to a recent report by Canada’s Royal LePage. In cities like Vancouver and Toronto, housing prices have climbed to unprecedented levels, with Vancouver prices reaching up to 11 times the city’s average family income. The Bank of Canada has identified the Vancouver market as “ground zero” for the coming financial crisis, and from its perch at a distance, The Economist observes Canadian housing is “more overvalued than it was in America at the peak of its bubble.” All forms of debt are multiplying, but household debt in particular is currently higher in Canada than it was in the United States prior to the subprime crisis, with debt-to-income ratios reaching 153 per cent.
Federal exit from recession
In the two years following the global recession, federal banks across the world lowered interest rates in an effort to loosen the credit crunch and stimulate new rounds of investment. In September 2010, Mark Carney and the Bank of Canada lowered interest rates to 1 per cent, where they have since stayed. By the summer of 2011, the Canadian housing economy was showing obvious signs of escalation, and by June local prices moved well above their pre-recession peak. Having not only stimulated but “over-stimulated” the housing economy, Carney began issuing strong warnings about the unprecedented risk-exposure of Canadian mortgages. In reality, the central bank actually did everything in its power to continue the growing flow of cheap, low-interest money into the real-estate economy. Out of fear of exacerbating the underlying weakness of the recovery itself, the Bank of Canada took the position of searching out ways to buoy housing finance.