Anyone who witnessed on 19 April 2011 the seven hours — all morning and all evening — that Vancouver City Council spent cobbling together last-minute amendments to Vancouver’s Street and Traffic By-law (reference Agenda Item 1) should have an excellent idea of how bureaucracy cannot cope with freedom.

More than two weeks earlier on April 7, the issue of “Structures on Streets for Political Expression” had already eaten up an entire afternoon. By one well-placed account, the contentious report first appeared online and available to the public at 1:30 pm on Tuesday April 5. Report presenter Peter Judd made several apologies for the lateness of a document that the City had had more than five months to prepare. The public had only 48 hours of lead time. The five speakers heard on that first afternoon included Clive Ansley, legal representative for Falun Gong, and Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Despite the generality of the bylaw amendments proposed, the report to council (amended version) made clear a desire “to align with direction provided by the B.C. Court of Appeal in the matter of the Falun Gong.” The elephant in this bylaw closet was the ongoing protest outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street. The bylaw amendment itself adopted a cumbersome and much vaguer designation to generalize its effect and coverage.

Habitat 67, on the shore of of St. Lawrence seaway in Montreal, was originally designed to be an affordable community. Similar to Vancouver’s Olympic Village, Habitat 67 has since been sold off to the private market and is now considered a ‘failed dream‘.

The Olympic Village was initially designed as a mixed-income housing complex capable of offsetting the displacement and surge in real-estate prices associated with the 2010 Olympics. The original development plan called for two-thirds affordable housing, with a full half of that set aside for those who need support through social (“deep core”) housing. The Village was set to be an ‘inclusive’, socially sustainable community that Vancouver could be proud of. Now, the project has turned into the opposite – an exclusive, luxury complex. Today, few would argue that the Olympic Village has been a success for Vancouver.

A brief look at the history of South East False Creek shines some light on why we have the Village today. The land upon which the Village sits was once an industrial zone, but starting in the 50s and 60s there was increasing industrial disinvestment until eventually the land fell out of use. Taking advantage of unused urban space to create room for people to live, in 1970s the City actively consolidated multiple lots and rezoned the area for housing. The City then remediated the soils and made other public investments.

Vancouver historian Michael Barnholden has written that there are at least two recurring themes in Vancouver’s political discourse. The first is a theme of revision, where low-income and working-class lives and stories are erased from the history of the city. The second is a history of criminalization, where the poor are associated in the political imagination with crime and police control. A truly contemporary example of the use of these two motifs occurred today in a Globe and Mail article on the conversion and upscaling of the American Hotel.

In the coming weeks, the American is set to open with almost 50 market-rate apartment units and an entrepreneurial “izakaya-themed” bar below. The project at 938 Main Street will establish the building as part of trendy developments extending the “Crosstown” area beyond Chinatown South. The Globe piece, written by Frances Bula, sets out in journalism’s formulaic terms to booster the development. Most notably, the article gives a vivid documentation of the history of petty crime and drug trafficking at the American hotel, and it is in light of this dark past that a bright, “revitalized” future is posed for the American.

Yet in all of its emphasis on crime, Frances Bula fails to mention the biggest crime of all: the illegal eviction of all low-income tenants from the hotel in 2006. In contrast to the “grunge” of the city, Bula chooses to write exclusively for the quasi-artistic retail bourgeoisie, making it “hard to mourn the American Hotel and its bar that died in 2006, unless you were into super-cheap blocks of stolen cheese, cocaine, motorcycle gangs, grunge or all of the above.” The list excludes the low-income history while at the same time making it so that if the history were to be included, it would have to do so only by being inserted into a predetermined list of crimes. But for a moment let us remember – mourn – the true history of the American Hotel.

[caption id="attachment_1702" align="alignnone" width="614" caption="Photo by Blackbird"][/caption]

B.C. Housing has declared that by the end of the month at least five shelters will be closed throughout Vancouver.* According to the province, the closures are justified because the Station Street housing project has opened this spring. Station Street contains 80 already-full units of housing, but is apparently enough to compensate for the couple hundred people who will be made homeless when the shelters close.

It is significant that Station Street is being used as a basis for closing shelters, because as a perpetually-delayed project Station Street is at the heart of the Vancouver housing crisis. The construction of the Station Street housing was promised in the 1990s but killed by the BC Liberal government when elected in 2001. After one full decade of a freeze on the construction of social housing, combined with frozen welfare rates and a frozen minimum wage, Station Street will not be capable of housing the vast number of people made homeless in these past years.

Grassroots activism has won social housing above the new library to be built on the 700-block of East Hastings. The development will now include 20 units of family social housing for single mothers and their children. The City of Vancouver’s March 22 media release and press conference announcing the new housing made no mention of the tireless activism that made the housing possible. But the truth is that the City preferred not to build the housing, and had to be pushed every step of the way by residents to make it a reality. Activists held a party of their own to celebrate their housing victory (see Murray Bush’s wonderful article).

“One of the most important things is for us to celebrate our victories,” said Beth Malena at yesterday’s Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) general meeting. Malena told a crowd of 100 DNC members that the housing victory wouldn’t have happened without them. “The City gave zero credit to you all. They probably don’t want to remember that they needed to be pressed to do something that’s such a no brainer.”

The library struggle

Indeed, City Council had to be dragged, practically kicking and screaming. In the summer of 2010, DNC members Fraser Stewart, Rene Belanger, and others collected 1,500 signatures for a petition supporting social housing above the proposed library. The petition was presented to the Library Board and City Council, and the latter passed a motion to “explore the possibility” of housing on the library. But by Oct 7 2010, City staff asked Council to vote against social housing on the library.

It was clear to activists that very little effort had been made by the City to “explore the possibility” (see this letter to Council). Over 50 housing supporters came to the Oct 7 Council meeting to make their case. See here for the video.

The City already owned the land, but Councilors claimed that there was no money to build the housing above. Infamously, Gregor Robertson claimed “there is no money in the drawers” (this was only months after deep cuts to business taxes). Furthermore, Councilor Geoff Meggs argued passionately that it was so urgent to begin building the library that we could not wait even a few more months to secure funding for social housing. As a last resort, housing advocate Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project asked that, at the very least, the material foundations of the library be built such that they could support possible housing in the future. Council voted to proceed with a stand-alone library, with the caveat that the City manager could have an extra month or two to secure funding for housing.

DNC member Dave Murray told the Vancouver Media Coop that after the meeting “we were so let down, they voted 9-1 against us. I remember walking away very depressed thinking that was that.” But activists did not give up. On Oct 21st, a demonstration was held outside the proposed library site, where kids and their parents demanded both books and housing. The next day, activists confronted the Mayor and Councilors at a $500/plate fundraiser lunch with the business elite, demanding that real action be taken to build housing on the library.

For the last few years the City has repeatedly claimed that there is no money for housing. As the Mayor said last October when rejecting social housing above the Strathcona Library: “we don’t have the money in the drawers…we have real limitations and uncertainty in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do.”

The reality, however, is that Vancouver has the lowest business taxes in the world. This surprising fact is complimented by another little-known fact: City Hall controls a multi-billion dollar fund it could use to develop social and affordable housing, called the Property Endowment Fund.

The Property Endowment Fund (PEF) was originally created in 1975 and was valued at around $100 million. It holds all of the city’s long-term land leases – for example, the parking lot on which the Vancouver Art Gallery hopes to construct its new building, at Cambie and Georgia. The Fund was initially created by the centre-left municipal party TEAM (TEAM was the result of a similar left-wing split that spawned Vision out of COPE). TEAM created the Fund in order to hem an NPA policy of selling city owned properties and then shifting the sale over to the operating budget in order to decrease taxes. The PEF was a strategy to stop the dead-weight loss of city land holdings while creating funds to “support the City’s public objectives.”

Today, the board of the PEF is comprised of the Mayor, two Councillors, the City Manager, and the Director of Finance. Minutes to meetings of the board have, in the past, not been available to the public. However there have been both successful and unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests for documents of the PEF board.  There have been several calls by City Councillors to make this fund more transparent. COPE Councillors Tim Louis and Ellen Woodsworth have both spoken out about the fund’s lack of accessibility. However, secrecy remains the status quo. This has led to wide speculations and criticisms of its value and current use.

In the mid 2000’s it was proposed by some that the PEF should be used in ways outlined in its mandate: to support the City’s public objectives. For a long time the city has desperately needed more social housing and the current Council has done next to nothing to stop homelessness. In the mid 2000’s, NPA mayor Sam Sullivan quashed proposals to use the PEF for progressive initiatives, instead arguing to “restore sustainability” to the Fund. What he meant was to maintain a profitable fund that adds a few millions dollars to the City’s operating budget to keep down our low business taxes.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the Property Endowment Fund is estimated to be worth almost $3 billion. The fund is rarely itself discussed, but has a tendency to loom over municipal politics. It was discussed briefly in 2010, when conservative blogger Daniel Fontaine of city-caucus filed a Freedom of Information Act request for PEF board meeting minutes, of which there were none in 2009. The revelations of the FOI were significant: the PEF board had not met that year.

Right now, the Fund is managed in secret by the Real-Estate division of the City government. The holding of such a large fund is not only an internal conflict of interest, since councillors can directly affect land prices by the powers of rezoning, but also a public conflict of interest, because while the people of Vancouver have prioritized housing affordability as a number-one issue, the fund makes the city into a real-estate speculator, helping to further push up the property values that make our city so unaffordable.

NORTH EAST FALSE CREEK |

A new deal between the city and the Concord Pacific development corporation might further change the social geography of Vancouver. The deal would grant the City two properties along East Hastings that will supposedly be designated for desperately needed 100% social housing.

The first site is 117 West Hastings, next to Insite. After buying the property specifically for the purposes of speculation and horse-trading, Concord put a “community garden” on it to avoid paying property taxes.

The second site is the empty lot at 58 West Hastings, which hosted 2010’s Olympic Tent Village. Concord also bought this land for the purposes of speculation and horse-trading. They claimed to have had plans to put 160 condo units on the lot, but for over two years have also been working behind the scenes with the Portland Hotel Society to pull off this North False Creek swap.

In exchange for these two sites, the City will waive the 20% social housing requirement on 4 properties in North East False Creek, where Concord plans to build condominium towers.

The two sites on Hastings are estimated to be valued at $13M. It is not yet clear how much money the social housing exemption on North False Creek is worth to Concord Pacific, although it is likely greater than the value of the two sites.

If the sites are transferred to the City, it would mean no social housing in the North-East False Creek neighbourhood of Yaletown, continuing the trend of “self-segregation” by the moneyed classes. The NPA are complaining, saying that social housing should be spread around the city, which is ironic given that NPA-linked architect Michael Geller proposed eliminating social housing from the Olympic Village, an action that sparked significant controversy. Vision-led city council cut the social housing at the Olympic Village last April by 50%.

DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE CONDOS |

Community resistance has been building against the City’s upcoming Downtown Eastside condo tower plan (“Height Review”), which proposes 7 new 15-storey condo towers for the Downtown Eastside. In response to the claim in a City staff report that there was little community opposition to the condo plan, a press conference was held yesterday, Jan 17 by a coalition of Downtown Eastside organizations opposed to the condo plan — including Chinese, Aboriginal, and low-income residents groups, as well as small businesses and artist collectives. Council is planning to vote on the condo plan this Thursday, and will no doubt hear from dozens if not hundreds of speakers.

The city has confirmed that public consultations will be held before any individual projects are accepted. However, as opposition to the gentrification plan seems to be falling on deaf ears, residents are worried that future consultations will have the same result.

NEW ART GALLERY |

The Vancouver Art Gallery is looking for a new home. The Art Gallery has been campaigning to move since last May. The current building was not designed to be an art gallery and, as a result, there are both spacial and environmental concerns.

Council is set to approve a proposal to hold onto the Gallery’s preferred new site, directly east of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The policy report also proposes a closer relationship between City staff and the Gallery.

The location is notable historically as being the site of riots and labour protests. While it is now a parking lot, and was also once a greyhound bus depot, it was in the past known as “Larwill Park” and acted as a place for meetings and demonstrations, serving a function similar to the current Robson Street public square.