The Olympic Village represents a “fiasco,” but more and more it’s turning into a fiasco of journalism. Prominent columnists have spent the last week trying to convince readers of a financial disaster at the Olympic Village, but the real disaster is that they’re not telling it like it is. Due to the removal of hundreds of units of social housing, the city stands to break even on the project, and perhaps even gain money.

The discussion revolves around the cost of the land on which the Olympic Village sits, bought by the city for $30m. That $30m was paid in full by the developer in 2006. By all standards the city has no liability on the land. There is no loss and no profit because costs have been recovered, net zero. End of the story one might think.

But today in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason argues that while there is no actual loss, the loss nontheless is “actual” because it “feels like a loss.” According to Frances Bula, also with the Globe, there is therefore “$180-million unpaid amount owing on the land.” But did nobody tell Gary Mason and Frances Bula that the land was given back to the city months ago? How can money be owed on something if that something was returned? – and returned with a $30m fee paid by the borrower.

[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.

The City has announced modifications to a city bylaw that will make it much more difficult for people to exercise their democratic right to political protest. The proposed change would regulate the use of any “structure, object, substance or thing” for a political purpose on City-owned land. Those who wish to protest will need to apply to the City for permission, at a cost of $200, and put up a deposit of $1000. Most activists and citizens movements are not funded, and these monetary requirements would essentially prohibit protests or expression by groups who could not afford it. Also, no structures would be allowed before 8am or after 8pm, eliminating the possibility for extended protests.

The City claims that the change in bylaw is a response to the long-lasting Falung Gong protest that was erected outside the Chinese Embassy in 2001 and forcibly taken down by the city in 2006. The protest consisted of a small structure and several billboards with information on civil rights abuses and religious persecution taking place in China. Not only did the protest last for five years before the City ordered it taken down, there was someone at the site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After the city’s injunction, one protester, Sue Zhang, began an uphill legal battle against the City, arguing that the removal of the structures, which had allowed the protest to proceed safely and continuously, went against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She eventually won the case in October of last year. The BC Court of Appeal argued that the city’s action was unconstitutional and its bylaw on political structures was too vague. The protest was not allowed to continue, but numerous other forms city street use were allowed for other commercial and non-commercial uses. The City’s proposed bylaw changes would mean that, despite the court ruling that it was unconstitutional to remove the original structures, no further protest would be allowed outside the Chinese Embassy. Public expression will only be allowed on commercial and industrial zoned City land. The Chinese Embassy is zoned as residential.

Over the past few years, there have been several other protests that have included the use of structures. As Vancouver becomes increasingly unaffordable, grassroots organizations have campaigned for controls on development and a stop to the gentrification of the city. Often these protests have taken the form of occupations of space. Notable examples include the 2005 squat of the Woodward’s buildings and the 2010 Olympic Tent City, both of which called for more social housing to be built in the Downtown Eastside, and involved people camping out to ensure their voices were heard. While some are saying that the policy will only be used to prevent the return of the structures outside the Chinese Embassy, many protests do use “structures, objects, substances and things.” The bylaw as proposed is so vague that should the police or future governments decide to limit citizen protests, they will have an easy bylaw to use. It’s difficult to imagine a protest or gathering of people that doesn’t include “things.”


Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories – In response to numerous rapes and assaults that have continuously occurred in the co-ed shelters in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), frontline women-serving organizations recently formed a coalition to demand the City of Vancouver and BC Housing:

1. Open a 24-hour low-barrier women-only drop-in space and shelter in the Downtown Eastside.

2. Build housing for homeless women and children with at least 100 new units to be made available immediately.

3. Implement clear provincial standards for women’s safety in co-ed shelters immediately in all existing and new shelters.

The coalition includes the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, WISH Drop-In Centre, Power of Women Group, and Battered Women’s Support Services.

There were six reported sexual assaults at First United Church, one of Vancouver’s largest shelters. Reverend Rick Matthews of First United Church’s response was that “Some women put themselves at risk because of the way they dress or undress or move around the building, they draw attention to themselves.” In addition, Margaret McNeil of BC Housing said to Alice Kendall of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre “Come on, shit happens, look at Rwanda, look at Libya.” With this being the response, and after months of trying to bring this issue forward and being ignored, the coalition decided it was time to take further action.

On Tuesday, March 22, the coalition of women’s groups sent out a press release and, with support from the community, marched to the BC housing office to voice their demands and initiate dialogue with BC Housing. They were met by over 30 police officers barricading the entrance to the building.

At 3:00pm, the crowd walked up a parkade driveway to witness Dale McMann in a discussion with first nations elders and frontline workers, all of them surrounded by police officers and the media.

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.

108_2052

This past Saturday, Housing activists established a picket line in front of the Olympic Village condo sales centre, where the City is trying to sell off the housing units promised as social and affordable housing. Picketers engaged with prospective buyers and asked them to “respect the housing legacy picket line” and refrain from purchasing broken-promise housing units until Olympic housing promises are secured and until questions are answered about the Millennium bail-out.

Picketers attempted to enter the sales centre to purchase the remaining units with a larger-than-life $400M cheque from the Property Endowment Fund. The City responded by restricting access to the sales centre. Only those with pre-arranged meetings with realtors were allowed in.

Here are three interactions that stand out:

1 | One woman, who came to the centre to get out of a contract she had signed 7-days previous (it was therefore her last day to do so), was at first barred from entry. Only after 30 minutes of protest did security allow her inside to get out of the condo contract.

2 | A prospective buyer was barred entry because of the clothes that he was wearing (on cell phone pictured above left). Security was given discretion to allow entry based on apparent class.

3 | A family that had planned on buying a broken-promise unit changed their mind after hearing from the picketers. The family emerged from the sales centre and declared that it was immoral for them or anyone else to buy housing that had been promised to those who need it most (video below).


The City of Vancouver stands to profit from selling-off housing units at the Olympic Village that were promised for affordable and social housing. The original Official Development plan for the Olympic Village committed that 2/3rds of the 1100 units would be affordable, half of which would be social housing.

But the City has invested almost no funds toward meeting these promises. Millennium development corporation, which built the Olympic Village, has already paid $29M to the City for the land lease. The City then put forward a similar amount ($32M) toward the few remaining “affordable” units. In short, the City spent almost no new funds on affordable housing. Even worse, these “affordable” units were then transferred to a co-op to be marketed at unaffordable levels.

The City stands to collect another $170M from Millennium for the land lease, but the City has no plans to reinvest any of this profit to meet housing promises. There is ample precedent to do so: the fourteen sites of supportive housing were built by the City putting forward the land without expectation of profit.

Millennium on the hook, not the City
The Millennium development corporation is not bankrupt or insolvent, as many suppose. On the contrary, they remain legally on hook for the construction loan. For now the City has taken control of marketing the Olympic Village properties, but Millennium has many other properties and assets. Instead of going after Millennium’s assets, the City has bailed-out Millennium. Millennium had been paying high interests rates, but the City has waived that requirement. The City is selling off social housing to keep Millennium afloat.

The City has hired condo marketer Bob Rennie to sell-off the ‘broken promise’ units. Bob Rennie claims that he is trying to “protect the taxpayer,” but in fact by liquidating the broken promise units, he is protecting Millennium by ensuring that the City does not go after their assets. [To be continued in Part 2, “Poverty Runs Over-budget at False Creek”]