This article was first published in The Mainlander May 6, 2011
Last week Sean Antrim outlined how the past three years of a Vision government has been anything but progressive. For reasons of principle and policy, he argued, COPE should not enter into another coalition with Vision. In addition to principles and policy, there are also strategic questions to consider.
What, then, are some of the strategic reasons COPE’s executive has negotiated a proposal with Vision to run a joint slate in the upcoming municipal elections? There are several possible strategic reasons, all of which don’t hold up under analysis.
1. At least COPE will have a “voice” on Council.
In the 2008 election, COPE and Vision made a coalition agreement. Vision ran 8 and COPE ran 2 candidates for City Council. Both of COPE’s candidates won seats, and yet have wielded no decision making power on Council. Vision holds a majority of seats, and all decisions are made in private by Vision’s caucus, without consulting COPE.
Although powerless in terms of voting, COPE Councillors could theoretically use their position to voice opposition. NPA Councilor Suzanne Anton has used her position to criticize from the reactionary right. But COPE has been an ineffective opposition voice. COPE often votes against Vision, but quietly. You have to follow the live audio-visual feed of Council meetings to hear about it.
COPE’s role has been as “conscience” of Council. Unfortunately, COPE’s alliance with Vision only makes them the fig leaf for Vision’s aggressive pro-developer, anti-resident agenda. There is nothing noble in propping up that status quo.
“The Canucks’ Cup run, like war, has brought us together.”
The local newspapers have given the troops their marching orders. Over the past few weeks, Canucks “news” has been consuming trees faster than a biblical swarm of pine beetles, with news desks putting reporters’ assignments on a loop: Give me something with a hockey tie-in, and give it to me yesterday! Recipes, fashion statements, trips down memory lane, cultural events — as long as it is tinted blue and green, then it’s a tie-in that’s a shoo-in.
But I just about did a spit-take of my official soft-drink of the Vancouver Canucks when I read the above headline in Doug Todd’s A4 column of Tuesday’s Vancouver Sun. Curious. Todd, the paper’s religion reporter, is one of the few columnists who asks hard questions, often dipping his quasi-Christian sandals into the philosophical and ethical questions that our phantasmagorical culture arouses (i.e. painted Canuck faces), and doing so with the closest thing a newspaper writer (as I once was) can come to an emotion like compassion. (That’s when you care about things, right?)
Here, however, in tackling the phenomenon of sport, Todd makes some long jumps in logic that seem bush league. His main thrust, as the headline declares with bravado, is that the Canucks have united our multi-ethnic city around the rallying and trademarked call, “We Are All Canucks.” Despite my own four-decades-long irrational following of this team, however, I can’t read or hear “We are all Canucks” as anything but an insidious (and of course corporately created) slogan with a tell-tale totalitarian ring. It’s about as heartfelt as the response to the computer-generated noise meter. And Todd himself knows the peril that surrounds sport when mass noise is channeled through the wrong regime.
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.
This month City Hall passed a policy on upzoning the full length of Cambie Street, thereby lining the pockets of developers and speculators. This was no easy task: it required that the Planning Department devise and implement a ‘consultation’ strategy to preempt, co-opt and neutralize resident organizations.
There are many reasons residents might oppose top-down free-market gentrification of their neighbourhoods. Some will be shaded out, some priced-out, while others are faced with more complicated dilemmas. For example, when a bungalow is upzoned to accommodate 12-storey towers, the land value multiplies, but so too do the property taxes, leaving the owner no option but to sell-out to developers trying to consolidate lots. While some home-owners may have legal recourse, residential or commercial tenants have no hope.
Planning has progressed slightly since 19th century Paris, where the younger Napoleon would send in the army to secure and build proto-planner Baron Haussmann’s corridors without a modicum of commune consultation. Today Gregor sends in Toderian to consult corridor residents and secure community buy-in – a useful stamp of approval. To this end, City Planning collaborated with concerned residents to form the Riley Park South Cambie (RPSC) Visions Group, which began consulting area residents about their aspirations and concerns.
However, it turned out that Vision Vancouver was not interested in the visions of this ‘Visions group’, as the visions were pre-determined. Norm Dooley, one of the most active members of the RPSC told The Mainlander: “The Stage 2 process started with a pre-determined set of outcomes and did not vary significantly from its stated goals. There was no room for alternative ideas.”
The City supported the RPSC Vision Group so long as it funneled information in one direction – from the City to residents. But once RPSC began collecting feedback, criticisms, or (heaven forbid) visions, the City was less supportive. According to Norm Dooley:
The opening stage of public meetings that provided information was straight forward enough, but the Riley Park South Cambie Visions Group had to exert pressure to be allowed a presence at those sessions with our information on the larger picture of growth in the immediate area beyond the strict physical definition of the Cambie Corridor (Heather to Manitoba Streets). This made it seem that the Planning Department did not want the public to grasp just how much change our area is in for.
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” – Karl Marx, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver were thrown into power in the fall of 2008 by a populace demanding change. Robertson talked about ending homelessness, creating affordable housing, and even tackling real-estate speculation. Many residents, inspired by Barack Obama’s contemporaneous campaign for President, knocked on doors for Vancouver’s would-be change-maker.
But Vision-in-power has squandered its mandate for change. Vancouver’s affordability crisis has deepened, so that people young and old can neither afford a mortgage nor rent. Outrageous land prices inflate costs across the board, from food to art. Meanwhile, Vision has refused to take bold action on affordability: nearly no new non-market housing has been built or planned; only token amounts of unaffordable market rental are on the agenda; the Olympic Village has been a social housing betrayal marketed by ‘condo king’ Bob Rennie; Council has refused to tackle speculation, while lining the pockets of speculators through massive uncontrolled upzonings; and property taxes have been repeatedly shifted from businesses to residents.
Despite these and other failures, many of us in Vancouver feel that Vision is doing a good job. And who can blame us? Vision’s pro-developer ‘veneer-reform’ is shiny enough to appease all but the most vigilant political hacks. Fool us once, shame on the developers.
But fool us twice, shame on us.
In fact, this same brand of pro-developer ‘veneer-reform’ fooled Vancouver in the 1970s. In the fall of 1972, after 35 years of dominance, the NPA was swept out of power by citizen reform movements that grew out of the struggles to introduce a ward system, to save Chinatown and ‘historic’ Gastown, and to stop real-estate corruption on the CPR lands of False Creek, Coal harbour, and Kitsilano.
Three more shelters are supposed to close this week. The closures seem inevitable, but they are not.
Today, people living at the three remaining shelters are organized and are planning to fight back. We can remember clearly the same situation last year: when Central Shelter residents responded to the closure of their shelter by announcing a tent city, the government was forced to change plans. Central is still open to this day, even though it was a so-called “seasonal” shelter. More recently, the scheduled closure of New Fountain shelter this month was put on hold after protests at City Hall and throughout Vancouver.
People want to stay at the remaining shelters, but they will need enough support because when they walk out of the shelters looking for a place to set up tents and structures on sidewalks and alleys, they will now be automatically responsible for a $1000 fine: last week Mayor Gregor Roberston and Vision passed a law that bans tent cities in Vancouver. This is why today, when seniors, shelter residents, supporters and media gathered for a press conference about the tent city outside the Cardero Shelter, dozens of police arrived to intimidate, monitor and film from across the boulevard. When the police cameras are pointing, and when cops arrive to instill fear and make shelter residents disperse under the pressure of surveillance and authority, supporters need to be there arm in arm. When the police say to the media, “trust us, they are criminals,” we have to say in return: “trust us, they are criminals.”
The City of Vancouver currently has the lowest business taxes in the world. A report published by the global financial auditor KPMG places Vancouver first out a list of 41 global cities. The main finding of the report, called “Competitive Alternatives 2010 Special Report: Focus on Tax,” is that Vancouver has a tax system more favorable to corporations and the wealthy than anywhere else in the world.
Although the report was released last May, including a press release, it has not received attention in Vancouver’s corporate and alternative press. Instead, local media have placed the international rankings spotlight on Vancouver’s real-estate market, with wide reports that people living in Vancouver currently experience one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world. It is becoming common knowledge that through high-profile events like the Olympics – which the real-estate executives termed a “$6b ad campaign” for Vancouver – the municipal government has been making an effort to attract global financial investment to Vancouver, with direct effects on the cost of housing. The important background of this policy, however, has been the creation of a corporate sanctuary – the national and global elites are being drawn to Vancouver for its low levels of taxation.