Yesterday Vision Vancouver released its final report on Housing Affordability in Vancouver. Shortly after being elected for a second term, Vision created an Affordability Task Force to address issues of housing affordability. The high-profile Task Force was co-chaired by the Mayor and right wing millionaire developer Olga Ilich, a former member of Gordon Campbell’s cabinet. The remaining members were comprised of fourteen Vision appointees drawn from the development industry: prominent developers, landlord lobbyists and industry insiders. Not a single renter or renter representative was appointed to the Task Force, despite the fact that renters — making up 55% of the city’s population — are the worst affected by the housing crisis.

For a long time Vancouver elites have struggled to square the circle of how to produce housing affordability without negatively affecting developer profits and property owners’ interests. The Task Force has proved no different in encountering this clash between ideal and reality, vexed by the challenge of balancing profitability with public anger about the housing crisis. That contradiction is the sharp rock upon which the Task Force is now shipwrecked. Despite Olga Ilich’s statement that “the biggest cost in Vancouver is the cost of land,” the Mayor admitted yesterday to the Province that he “doesn’t see the affordability plan having a broad impact on land values in Vancouver.”

The final recommendations of the Task Force show little advance from the neoliberal recommendations offered in the interim recommendations of last March. The first, and arguably the most disastrous for deregulating the private housing market, is a recommendation that planners abandon the city’s Inclusionary Zoning requirements. “The City’s current inclusionary zoning policy requires developers to set aside 20% of land for affordable housing,” the report states. “While this approach creates the opportunity for affordable housing development…a different approach will be needed to deliver affordability.”

Current city by-laws require 20% non-market housing in all new large-scale development projects, as well as in the DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District). This year, however, inclusionary zoning policies have already been flouted by major city council decisions, including 800 Griffiths Way, “market rent” social housing at 955 East Hastings, and the decision to rent “social housing” for $900 per month at Sequel 138 Pantages redevelopment. The Task Force recommendation goes a step further in pushing council to put the deregulation approach into writing, thereby further lowering the bar for maintaining safeguards against privatization. The Mainlander has warned as far back as January 2011 that Vision Vancouver was planning to remove inclusionary zoning in Vancouver. This proposal will only make Vancouver more unaffordable for the long-term.


EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION| The first part of Nathan Crompton’s three-part essay introduced the history of anti-asian racism in Vancouver, while the second part focused on contemporary versions of scapegoating in Vancouver culture. But if racism and scapegoating are used to hide reality, the following essay asks a simpler question: what is the reality it hides? Behind the “empty signifiers” of culture and its discourses, what exactly is happening on the ground in Vancouver?

Despite constant invocations of “the Chinese” in debates on the housing crisis, a full third of all people living in poverty in Vancouver are Chinese. Today, in the shifting world of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, the gentrification of East Vancouver is in fact having its most direct effect on immigrants and racialized communities. Crompton draws from countless academic publications and recent demographic studies to reveal that the complex diversions of scapegoating conceal the racial and class divisions that define contemporary Vancouver.

Ground Zero: Mount Pleasant

The signs are difficult to ignore for anyone taking a walk down Main Street. Since at least 2008, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood has experienced a renewed wave of gentrification. Major shifts in the movement of capital have brought a sea-change in the number of rental apartments upgraded, renovicted, converted into strata condos, or altogether demolished to make way for new condo towers. High-end storefronts and promotional materials from the local BIA give an impression of a settled middle-class neighborhood, and the image depicted by local boosterism is slowly in the process of matching up with a new reality. But yet the hype also tells us surprisingly little about the neighborhood. At this stage of gentrification, image-making still lacks control over the world it might hope to represent. A vast majority of residents in the North Mount Pleasant area are renters (70%), most of them first and second-generation immigrants (58%).[1] Despite being put in the unforgiving cross-hairs of gentrification, and despite superficial appearances suggesting urban lifestyle and conspicuous consumption, Mount Pleasant is today a proud and alive immigrant neighborhood.


EDITORAL INTRODUCTION | From the start, Vancouver has been marked by a history of racism against Chinese and Asian immigrants, a fact which few commentators can overlook (although not few enough, as this article demonstrates in its sharp critique of Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk). Part I of this three-part essay by Nathan Crompton reaches into contemporary Vancouver to find that despite the passage of time, original assumptions and archetypes of race and class have proven indispensable for an ongoing history of scapegoating – a history that has, according to Crompton, reached a peak in today’s discussion of housing in Vancouver. Far from signaling the simple break away from the city’s colonial past, the mystical real-estate economy proves fertile grounds for the re-capitulation of the time-tested logic of political scapegoating. This three-part essay is sure to have an impact not only for its use of historical and empirical research to blow the lid off assumptions that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be explained by Asian capital, but for its direct critique of household politicians and commentators. From Sandy Garossino to Gregor Robertson, few are spared in this militant clarion-call to move beyond the present by clearing out the skeletons of history.

Introduction

At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”?[1] If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia.

Fin de siècle Vancouver

There was recently a telling moment when Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk used his column to target Vancouver school board trustee, Allan Wong. Hasiuk attacked Wong for a motion put forward at the school board calling on the province to incorporate the history of British Columbians of Chinese descent into the regular provincial curriculum. Curriculum changes were not needed, according to Hasiuk, since there is already too much Chinese Canadian history taught in the secondary curriculum. Hasiuk moreover mocks the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “holy trinity” in both the curriculum and cultural memory of Vancouver.


Today Vancouver is conceived as a monopolizable totality, everywhere placed in circulation for consumption and contemplation. As every square-inch of the city becomes privatized for Vancouver’s capitalist class, the balance of forces veer in favor of profit, enjoyment, and the preservation of crisis. Beating with the mercurial blood of surplus value, the pulse of the city is tightly constricted by the developer-monopoly tourniquet — a tried, tested and true apparatus of monopoly-capitalist development that equilibrates the terms of supply and demand in order to keep housing prices impossibly high.


This piece was originally published in rabble.ca here

In the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), gentrification has been on the move for decades. Plotting these new developments on a map of the DTES and walking along the now unfamiliar streets reveals gentrification for what it is: a form of structural violence.

Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle class buyers. As urban theorist Neil Smith writes, “As a generalized urban strategy, gentrification weaves together the interests of city managers, developers and landlords, corporate employers and cultural and educational institutions.”

Despite pockets of low-income housing, the transformation of Gastown and Victory Square into a tourist destination with trendy restaurants and boutique shops is almost complete. On the western edge of the DTES is the massive mixed development at the old Woodward’s site/squat with over 500 condos, SFU campus with an arts center funded by notorious mining giant Goldcorp, and retail stores. This has set off a tidal wave of gentrification within a few blocks, with four new condo developments (Paris Annex, Paris Block, 60 W. Cordova, 21 Doors) and countless restaurants and bars, including those owned by barons Sean Heather (Irish Heather, Salty Tongue, Shebeen, Penn Bakeshop, Everything Café, Fetch Kiosk, Bitter Tasting Room, Judas Goat) and Marc Brand (Diamond, Sharks and Hammers, Boneta, Sea Monstr Sushi, Save on Meats), over-priced coffee shops, and designer stores. In symbiotic fashion, retail stores and cultural sites proliferate alongside new housing, rendering the area more welcoming and familiar for wealthier consumers.

In the Vancouver of today, everything adds up to the realization that artistic creation is rendered impossible under the auspices of state sponsorship and ruling class culture. On the balance sheet of recent artistic production, the empty pluralism of public art – ambiguous text-based works, gardening, light projections, and billboard images – is found siding with the medium of the culture industry. All established means in the arsenal of artistic creation, to paraphrase the words of Alain Badiou on “militant art,” are mobilized to sing the praises of conservative institutions, while artistic novelty is inscribed within the continuity of the state.


For the last three years, there has been a broad increase in private and public support of the arts in Vancouver. This augmentation in sponsorship has stimulated the absolute amplification in the size, scale and diversity of artistic production. In the midst of a new prominence in the exercise of city-state power, the floating signifier of “public art” has been re-positioned, effectively usurping all other forms of artistic production. For all of its variations, none of them have equalled an increase in the production of advanced art in Vancouver. On the contrary, these newly-minted works are burnished as acts of urban ornamentation for the State’s new authority. As expected, public art’s existence is entirely dependent on state and corporate sponsorship. But what is of interest here more specifically is the corrupt notion of “public” in public art — a concept that is elevated at the expense to all that is “common.”