This is the first of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010” countdown. None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism.

In 2010, BC Liberal Education Minister Margaret MacDiairmid continued Gordon Campbell’s attrition policy aimed at undermining pubic education. Underfunding rocked school districts across the province. Parents organized against the cuts, and their campaign forced MacDiarmid to at least temporarily reverse cuts to the Annual Facilities Grant.

While many elected school trustees across the province timidly implemented the cuts, the Vancouver School Board (VSB), which had a $17M funding shortfall, fought back. On April 4th, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus suggested that MacDiarmid resign for denying the funding crisis. On April 10th, MacDiarmid asked the Comptroller General to “review” VSB finances. The VSB found out about the review through the media, for which MacDiarmid had to apologize. Bacchus emphasized that the real issue – provincial underfunding – was excluded from the scope of the review.

Gregor Robertson’s 2008 campaign for Mayor rode the Obama wave. At the time, however, positive comparisons between the two were decidedly false. Ironically, present criticisms of the American president apply equally to Vancouver’s Mayor.

In 2008, Obama was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, and Gregor an embarrassing one. I attended an early Robertson campaign event in the Dowtown Eastside, after which the 70-year-old woman sitting next to me remarked with conscious understatement: “not very inspiring, is he?”

Obama was a thinker — almost a pop-philosopher! And while Obama cultivated a blank-slate image onto which voters could project their hopes and dreams, Gregor could not escape the perception that the blank-slate was between his ears.

The most realistic likeness between Gregor and Obama in 2008 was that their supporters were Obama fans. These supporters longed for a politics that appealed to the best in people, a politics confident in the capacity for transformational collective action to overcome inequality, poverty, and discrimination.

In the summer of 2008, neo-liberalism had been thoroughly discredited, and voters had not yet forgotten that responsibility for the financial crisis lay squarely at the feet of right-wing policies. They voted in droves for Obama, who promised hope over fear, and for Gregor, who promised to End Homelessness by fighting day in and day out for the most marginalized in our City.

Comparisons between Obama and Gregor in 2008 were largely false. Ironically, in 2010 the comparison is far more plausible.

Marshall Ganz, who managed the grassroots component of Obama’s presidential campaign, recently published an influential article in the Los Angeles Times, outlining the reasons for Obama’s failure in his first two years. The analysis is similarly useful for evaluating Gregor Robertson.

A house fire on Pandora Street took three lives last Thursday. The event instigated the right-wing NPA to call for an inquiry. However, to ensure tragedies like this do no happen in the future, it is necessary to abandon anti-tenant rhetoric in favour of a more proactive approach that empowers tenants.

No one wants to live in poor housing conditions like those of the Pandora Street house. But in the absence of safe and affordable housing options, renters must choose between inadequate housing and homelessness. And in the absence of strong tenant protection by-laws, fear of eviction condemns tenants to an intolerable status quo.

Several media outlets have drawn attention to the requests for an independent inquiry. Some argue the lives would have been saved had the City shut down the home on account of the illegal living situation. But this would have led to eviction of the nine people living inside, and there were many opportunities for the City to take more proactive action to assist the tenants. Further, it is difficult to ignore that many of the proponents of this ‘eviction solution’ are inspired by intolerance rather than compassion for the tenants themselves (e.g. see the comments at the bottom of this Sun article.)

WIKILEAKS |

Earlier this week The Guardian released a Wikileaks cable that discusses logistics and security concerns surrounding the Vancouver Olympics. The cable also contains speculations that the mismanagement of the Olympic Village likely decided the 2008 municipal election that left the city with a Vision majority. Gregor Robertson ran on a platform strongly condemning the NPA decision to reduce the social housing commitment at the Olympic Village. Robertson and Vision Vancouver won the election claiming that they “strongly opposed the previous NPA administration’s cuts of middle and low-income housing from the Southeast False Creek Olympic Village site,” but have since tried to run away from their own promises.

Also appearing in the Wikileaks cable is reiteration of the facts that original security cost estimates of $175 million ballooned to almost $1 billion; that the city paid only $50m for the Olympic Village land (subsequently trying to sell the land to the Millenium corporation for $200m); and that the City of Vancouver currently has a $3 billion fund for property acquisition and social housing, called the Property Endowment Fund (PEF). For years people have been trying to determine the size of the PEF. The original intention of the PEF was, according to May Brown, to benefit the people of Vancouver: “The city was selling land every year, putting money into general revenue to keep taxes down. [Mayor] Art Phillips said this has got to stop. We’re cannibalizing our land . . . The value of the PEF in those days was $100 million. The rationale was simple: citizens should share in the profits from any increase in land value.”

POLICE BRUTALITY |

The BC Civil Liberties Association has stated that the decision not to charge the Vancouver Police Department officer who shot an already neutralized mentally ill man 8 times should be reviewed. This is another case of the archaic policy of police investigating themselves on alleged misconduct.

TENT CITY |

Documents leaked shortly after the Olympics revealed that the provincial government’s main concern prior to the Olympics was the emergence of a Tent City in Vancouver during the Games.  There are “Athlete’s Village Tent City 2011” posters covering every corner of the city. Last Sunday, housing activists officially announced the February 2011 tent city by serving a free pancake breakfast in the public plaza of the village, where the tent city is planned to take place.

In related news, the first tenants began moving into affordable housing at the Olympic Village this week. The first building contains 84 units, 75% of which are non-market housing. Among the twenty-one units of affordable housing, none will contribute to ending homelessness because zero will be going to Vancouver residents with “deep core” need, even though 33% of the overall project was originally promised as “deep core” and another 33% as “core need.” The twenty-one units, finally filled years after the city proposed over 600, have recently been deemed tokenism.

SHELTERS INCREASINGLY HOUSE WORKING POOR |

Homelessness is not just a problem in the Downtown Eastside, or even just the municipality of Vancouver. Housing is an issue throughout Greater Vancouver, and things are getting worse according to a recent Georgia Straight article, which reveals that an increasing number of the working poor are relying on shelters, unsettling the common notion that homeless shelters are only used by people on social assistance and unemployed.

Last month City Council adopted the Mount Pleasant Community Plan (MPCP). The MPCP, the culmination of three years of community feedback and consultations, is the first city-sponsored community plan for the area since 1989.

Many residents of Mount Pleasant are concerned about what is happening to their neighbourhood – and with good reason. There have been significant demographic shifts since the last census was performed in 2006. Condos have been popping up along Kingsway, Broadway and Main. Mount Pleasant is a traditionally working-class neighbourhood, the average income in Mount Pleasant being thousand dollars below the citywide average. 23% of people living in the neighborhood are low-income and 67% in the neighborhood are renters.

Mount Pleasant residents have been becoming more active in recent months – many concerned about gentrification and affordability, others concerned about height of new buildings in the abstract.

This summer, these issues came to the surface in a debate about a development at one of the area’s hubs – a social housing and rental development project at Broadway and Fraser. The City Council meeting dealing with the rezoning had to be extended to three days to accommodate the more than 70 speakers. Some members of the community argued that the proposed 11 story development was too tall, where others argued that the neighbourhood is in dire need of more rental and social housing units. In the end, the project was approved with minor adjustments.

The MPCP passes over many of these issues, and attempts to reconcile the wishes of existing residents with developers’ desire for increased density.

IMGP7647

We previously reported that on Jan 20 2011, Vancouver City Council will consider a proposal to build seven condo towers in the Downtown Eastside, and that there is significant community opposition to the plan. The City calls the plan the “Historic Area/Precinct Height Review/Study,” while critics call it a “gentrification package” for the Downtown Eastside.

This week, Ray Spaxman spoke out about the plan. On Dec 13, he told The Mainlander that he was more amenable “to getting an area plan going before we do this rezoning.”

Then on Dec 15 Spaxman was interviewed by CKNW’s Phillip Till about the Height Study, where he reiterated the problems of developing a rezoning plan without a community plan: “there seems to be a lack of attention to the impact of that density on all the facilities and services that are needed in the city as a consequence of those extra heights.”

The comments are significant because not only was Spaxman Vancouver’s Director of Planning from 1973 to 1989, but he was also hired by the City in 2007/8 as main researcher and author of the original Sept 2008 Historic Precinct Height Study.

Spaxman told The Mainlander that his contract with the city “was defined to focus on the question of height.” However, he noted his team’s concern that “by talking only about height instead of density and people, the City risks overlooking the social implications of development.”

IMG_0193

It is common for Vancouver journalists to bemoan the “fiasco” of the Olympic Village, but they are so often bogged-down in financial matters above their pay-grade that they forget the true fiasco of South East False Creek. Indeed, the Village embodies a profound scandal. At the core of the scandal is that governments broke their social housing promises at the site and then lied about it.

The original plan for the Olympic Village was that 2/3rds of the 1100 units would be affordable, a full half of which would be social housing for those most in need (“deep core”).

The rationale for these promises goes back to the very start of the Olympic bid process. There was much concern that Vancouver’s affordability crisis might grow on account of winning the Olympic bid, pushing the most vulnerable residents into homelessness. In their Inclusivity Statement, the Olympic partners committed to mitigating these impacts, and to providing a positive social housing legacy through projects like the Athletes’ Village at South East False Creek (SEFC). This latter promise was repeated constantly by government officials for years in the lead-up to the Olympics.

A rigorous community planning process between 2003 and 2005 produced the Official Development Plan (ODP) for South East False Creek (SEFC), which was approved by Vancouver City Council on 19 July 2005. The exact wording of the Plan read:

“The goal for household income mix is one-third low income, one-third middle income (or ‘affordable’ housing) and one-third market.”