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.

BCCLA REPORT ON RCMP |

A report from the BC Civil Liberties Association has revealed what life can be like for the poor throughout rural BC. The report, entitled “Small Town Justice,” documents severe police misconduct, especially in B.C.’s North. The report also highlights racism against Aboriginal people and the use of some small towns as “training centres” for new officers with little experience. The homeless are often simply told to permanently leave town. RCMP attitudes towards the poor in rural areas is one of the factors pushing poor people to cities, where affordable housing is increasingly impossible to come by.

Confidence in the RCMP has been deteriorating for some time. Documents unveiled in June of last year revealed the Robert Dziekanski incident at the Vancouver Airport led to a “public relations crisis.” There have been several other cases of police brutality over the past year.

The RCMP’s initial response to the BCCLA report was that the community members who spoke against the police are not representative of the broader community sentiments. But the RCMP Assistance Commissioner has since accepted the report and said that the force was going to look into the problems raised by the report.

PERFORMANCE VENUES |

Vancouver City Council has made some changes to regulations that will make it easier for artists to use “non-traditional” spaces for live performances. A “centralized process” is being set up for artists to use to get liquor and events licenses, and it should become easier for artists to work their way through the City Hall bureaucracy.

The regulation changes were inspired by the argument of some that Vancouver is a “No Fun City.” A local film was released under that title last year which documents City Hall’s “war on fun” and the rise of illegal venues to save the arts. On top of the province’s severe arts cuts over the past few years, the city’s own policies have also been very prohibitive. Four venues were closed last year alone.

The major problem for Vancouver venues over the past few years has been noise complaints and gentrification. In the past, there has been a push by the City towards reinforcing Granville Street as the city’s entertainment district. This has been met with resistance by both artists and restaurant owners. A housing development is also set to open up across the street from the Biltmore Cabaret, which is one of the only larger scale venues that isn’t downtown. Richards on Richards was one of the most popular Vancouver venues for acts that don’t have enough draw to fill a stadium, but was demolished last year to make room for condos being built by real-estate developers Aquilini Investments.

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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.

VANCOUVER VIEWS |

Later today at City Hall there will be a discussion and vote on “Vancouver Views,” a policy that would see increased heights Downtown, especially in the West End.

The Vancouver Views policy has attracted quite a bit of controversy. The policy will mean serious changes to the urban environment downtown, and some have begun directly criticizing planning staff and making accusations of misleading the public with their reports. They argue that not only have the public not had enough consultation or time to absorb what the changes will mean, but also that Council could not have had enough time to “do their homework” around the policy.

The Vancouver Views policy is only one part of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy surrounding planning within the city. This past month has seen several attempts at blanket rezonings of areas dominated by renters. There has been a serious community based, grassroots resistance to wide-sweeping changes that would increase opportunities for real-estate developers. Community organizations argue that the social effects of these policies require more discussion and consideration. Council passed an emergency motion to hold off public consultations on a similar policy, the Historical Area Height Review, last week. Dozens of speakers had signed up to speak not only against the policy but also against City Council itself.

CAPITAL BUDGET |

Also at Council will be the discussion and vote on its capital budget. The capital budget includes the construction of infrastructure, City-owned building renovations and public works projects. The staff administrative report is 117 pages, and includes everything from summaries of revenue from Developmental Cost Levies to the wide variety of proposed projects for 2011.

In spite of the huge support shown throughout the city for affordable housing, the city plans to spend only $22 million of the $337 million budget on new land, construction and renovations for affordable housing. This is not enough. Instead, the report shows a continuance of Vision’s pro-police policies. On top of an unnecessary increase in the police budget of $5.7 million approved in last month’s operating budget, the Vancouver Police Department will receive an additional $11 million to relocate to a new central station. A significant amount is also being spent on Vision’s “Greenest City” initiative. Particular spending for greener public works is difficult to decode; there are no cost comparisons provided but in general this will mean retrofitting existing city infrastructure to pass higher environmental standards. The city plans to spend another $16 million on information technology projects for city hall.

If City Council truly wants to act on the wishes of its citizens, more must be spent on ensuring all classes of people can afford to live in Vancouver. The police and upgrades to city hall should not be prioritized over housing affordability.

VISION NOMINATIONS |

Vision Vancouver has announced it will hold open nominations for all its elected positions, except the mayor. Members of council and the park and school boards will be up for grabs in the next few months.

Vision party members will decided whether or not Gregor Robertson stays as mayoral candidate in the 2011 election by referendum. The party is calling the vote a “leadership review.” Vision members will decide a question either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with a simple majority deciding. NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton said of the review that, “they don’t want to talk about his flaws.” COPE Councillor Elen Woodsworth called Robertson the “trademark” of Vision Vancouver.

Gregor has repeatedly come under fire, especially recently, about his failings on his campaign promises, especially surrounding his promise to end homelessness by 2015.

This past Thursday, the Vancouver Police Department published a press release about a series of arrests made in the Downtown Eastside. It describes eight suspected drug traffickers who used violence, torture, and fear to cruelly control residents involved in the drug trade. Some of the conditions the victims of these criminals had been put through include being stabbed, beaten, and held in cages. As the press release states, this is the first case of Criminal Organization charges in Vancouver police history.

It took community protests to pressure police to investigate exploitation of Downtown Eastside residents. The two police initiatives leading to the arrests were part of an umbrella program called “Sister Watch,” which was designed to curb violence against women in the Downtown Eastside in response to grassroots protest.

Although it would be an improvement for the police to begin protecting residents from exploitation, it must be said that the strong-arm approach of both the VPD is a significant part of the problem of violence in the Downtown Eastside. The “war on drugs” diverts resources away from social services into policing. It simply has not been the case that police use these resources to protect residents from exploitation. On the contrary, the police impose added violence onto the poor, who are unfairly shuffled through the revolving door of “justice.”

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Last Thursday, grassroots pressure forced Vancouver City Council to halt plans for two condo towers, as well as halting overall plans for height upzoning in the Downtown Eastside. Over 80 speakers were signed up to speak at City Hall, most against the City’s gentrification plan. But rather than listen to the delegations, Vision Vancouver introduced a so-called “emergency” motion. The motion agreed to grassroots demands to conduct a community plan and social impact study before rezoning.

It is time to take stock of what happened that day. Or rather, the night before, at 4am!

The first thing that stands out is this: why didn’t Vision Vancouver agree to these demands last year? Or last month, when The Mainlander published the arguments clearly. Or the day before the public hearing, so that 80 people wouldn’t have to take the day off work, school and life to come all the way down to City Hall? Apparently, Vision Councilor Andrea Reimer wrote the emergency motion at “4am” the night before. What made Vision change its mind at the last minute, after literally years of pressure from grassroots low-income organizations? Was it the letter signed by dozens of professors? Was it this dialogue between Mike Harcourt and Councilor Andrea Reimer on Jan 19? Was it our pull-no-punches editorial (we wish)? Was it the prospect of having to listen to 80 public speakers?

AFFORDABILITY |

Several BC cities have been ranked “severely unaffordable” in a recent world-wide affordability report. The list included Vancouver, Victoria, Abbotsford and Kelowna.Vancouver ranked 324 out of 325, making it the second most unaffordable city in the world next to Sydney (another “Olympic” town).

The effects of the affordability crisis are hitting working people hard. It has been reported that working-class residents across the Lower Mainland have been struggling to find housing, and that the working-poor are increasingly turning to shelters.

In response to criticism that their policies are exacerbating the housing crisis, the City of Vancouver and the Province have repeatedly boasted about their mythical fourteen sites. Now, in another questionable arrangement with real-estate developers, the City is planning to abandon the requirement of affordable housing on North False Creek in exchange for two properties in the Downtown Eastside. But Councilor Geoff Meggs told CBC on Monday that the City might build condos for young professionals on one of these DTES sites (58 West Hastings – site of the 2010 Olympic Tent Village). Meanwhile, North False Creek would have 4 new unaffordable condo towers as part of a new casino complex (more below).

As previously reported, a coalition (10SITES Coalition) has been formed of Downtown Eastside organizations and allies to pressure the City to buy at least 10 sites per year for 5 years in their neighbourhood. Since it is now out in the open that BC cities are “severely affordable” – not merely Vancouver – housing activism will have a reason to grow across the province, and the 10SITES Coalition may prove to be a model.

CASINO |

A new casino proposal passed the first stage of approval at Vancouver City Council last week. The proposed development would also include four associated condominium towers, bringing a small-scale Las Vegas to downtown Vancouver.

Council is giving lip-service to the arguments against the Casino, but has so far approved the project. Some critics are proposing the Vision-led council is simply playing politics and that the proposal will likely go ahead.

The casino will be another way for the City to gain revenue from working-class residents instead of taxing businesses. Vancouver’s business taxes are extremely low. A study done May of last year rated Vancouver’s taxes not only as the lowest in Canada, but the lowest in the world (study here). Resistance to business taxes has caused somewhat of a revenue crisis. The recently-passed 2011 budget increased taxes by two percent, with almost all of the increases placed on residents instead of businesses.

Casinos have an interesting history in Vancouver, and are often associated with crime, corruption and money laundering. It is also important to note that the Great Canadian Casino made a significant donation to Vision Vancouver’s 2008 election campaign.

A public hearing on the casino will be held at City Hall on Feb 17.