In addition to rent increases caused by the upscaling and renovation of dozens of low-income buildings around the city, Vancouver is losing affordable housing through the outright demolition of buildings. Last month, City Council approved the demolition of the Cecil Hotel. Two months ago, Vancouver City Council approved the loss of almost all low-income housing at the American Hotel, whose tenants were illegally evicted in 2006. Last year saw a drastic loss of housing, with City Council allowing for the closure of low-income hotels surrounding Woodward’s while granting the demolition permit for the 224 housing units at Little Mountain.
Today, however, the provincial and municipal governments jointly proclaim a “partnership of excellence” in the fight against homelessness. Some journalists have written of the “tight bond” between the Province and City under Mayor Gregor Robertson, and it has recently been reported that many Vision councilors were favorable towards Rich Coleman’s leadership bid for the BC Liberal Party because of “all the progress he has been able to make with the City of Vancouver on social housing during this Vision Vancouver term.”[i]
More than anything else, the proclaimed successes of the partnership revolve around the construction of fourteen sites of social housing in Vancouver, known as the ‘Vancouver sites.’ The myth of these fourteen sites can be traced to the destruction of housing at Little Mountain.
The provincial government began the demolition of housing at Little Mountain in June 2009. The demolition began with the signing of an agreement between the provincial government and private corporation Holborn Properties, now the owner and developer of Little Mountain. Hundreds of tenants were evicted on the spot in methods described as “eviction by fear and intimidation.”[ii] In July, the remaining tenants of Little Mountain wrote an open letter to BC Housing emphasizing the need to protect existing low-income units in the midst of a housing crisis. The letter also decried the illegal demolition of “perfectly habitable homes.”[iii] The June demolition was illegal because a demolition permit had not yet been granted by the city.
In September, the City officially issued the demolition permit, with Mayor Robertson stating that the demolition of 224 units of social housing at Little Mountain would be part of an agreement to “deliver more social housing.”[iv] The permit was given on the promise that the lost units would be replaced “one-for-one,” in keeping with existing City policy and the project’s own Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed between the city and province in 2007.
Little Mountain and the Vancouver Sites
At the time of Little Mountain, the provincial government had also already committed itself to building the ‘Vancouver sites,’ which were agreed upon in a separate Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between the City and Province, also in 2007. The lack of an intention to fulfill this MOU was quickly made known, however, and for the three years to follow no funds appeared. It is here, on the question of actual funding, that that the stories of Vancouver sites and Little Mountain overlap.
Three years after the Vancouver sites MOU it was revealed that the Vancouver sites would only be “made possible” through the demolition and sale of Little Mountain.[v] In May 2010, the provincial government gave the impression of “new” housing by re-announcing the Vancouver sites. At that announcement it was revealed that the $205m from the Province for the fourteen sites would be “financed mostly by the sale and redevelopment of Little Mountain housing.”[vi]
In short, instead of using the demolition and sale of Little Mountain for new projects, the Province and City found a way to manipulate their own past commitments – and the numbers – in order to give an appearance of progress. The lost housing was retroactively “counterbalanced” by an old housing agreement reached in 2007: the Vancouver sites. Had construction on the Vancouver sites began when promised (no later than 2008), the destruction of Little Mountain would not have been necessary. Or, had construction on the Vancouver sites began when promised, proceeds from the 2009 demolition of Little Mountain could have gone towards new housing. But, instead of allowing the new demolition to be balanced with new housing, the Little Mountain demolition took up the space of an old, delayed housing agreement.
Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision
Two separate projects with two separate MOUs were combined into one single financial plan. What this arrangement reveals is the uncomfortable fact that Mayor Robertson has not secured any new money for social housing.
The use of money gained from the sale of Little Mountain, called “proceeds,” was already earmarked for social housing in the 2007 MOU, in which half of all proceeds from the sale of Little Mountain would go into additional social housing in Vancouver and the other half invested in social housing through the rest of BC.[viii] Thus, as COPE member and former councilor Tim Louis has recently stated, “Vision Vancouver has been responsible for the construction of NO new social housing.”[ix]
The fourteen sites were secured five years ago by the NPA City Council and Mayor Sam Sullivan. Today, at a time when homelessness and gentrification are much worse than five years ago, Vision and Gregor Robertson have achieved nothing equivalent to the NPA deal. Vision and Gregor have only administered the policies of the former right-wing mayor while accepting the right-wing decision to use new Little Mountain money for an entirely separate, already-promised project.
Mayor Robertson has said repeatedly that his most important role has been in “ensuring the [Provincial] commitments are followed through.”[x] In reality, his role has been to facilitate the destruction of Little Mountain while publicly excusing the province for breaking their 2007 housing commitments. It should be emphasized that those commitments were made not only in the 2007 MOU, but also elsewhere: in the Olympic Bid Book, as well as the Inner City Inclusivity agreements (ICI), in which the government promised the completion of 3,200 units of social housing prior to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Zero of these units were built. What the merging of the two MOUs reveals is that it is not possible to celebrate the Little Mountain destruction without also celebrating the broken promises of the perpetually-delayed Vancouver sites.
Furthermore, if Mayor Robertson would like to claim that his role has been in “ensuring the commitments are followed through,” why then has he broken all of his own electoral commitments, including the recent decision to cut the number of promised social housing units at the Olympic Village by more than 50%, representing a loss of 126 units built specifically for low-income tenants?[xi] Just as with Little Mountain, the elimination of existing low-income units at the Olympic Village is premised on the idea of compensating with hypothetical, vaguely promised housing elsewhere. Firstly, this idea of “one-for-one” replacement is questionable because of the record of the State: if existing housing can’t even be protected from demolition, why should we believe in the arrival of housing that doesn’t yet exist?
Secondly, and more importantly, the concept of one-for-one replacement is centered on the idea of staying at current levels of housing. Today’s “current levels” are crisis. There is a drastic housing shortage, increasing homelessness, and constant precariousness for low-income people and families. The gentrification of Little Mountain displaced hundreds of people who are now trying to move into the same stock of scarce affordable housing needed by others who are already homeless. The destruction of Little Mountain made homelessness worse in Vancouver and, like all capitalist politics, put the working poor in competition with the unemployed and marginalized.
Of the fourteen sites, only six are under construction and eight have yet to be started. The sites were promised in 2007 with construction scheduled to start in 2008. These units remain unbuilt even though they were needed more than a decade ago. A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals that a meager 280 low-income units were added to the housing stock by the BC Government in the past 5 years, the period in which homelessness increased by hundreds each year.[xii] By contrast, between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, an average of between 1,000 and 1,500 new units of social housing were created in BC per year. It should be recognized, nonetheless, that even if the current spending were in line with the historical average, it would not be adequate to compensate for two decades of neoliberal housing privatization, unjust evictions and rising homelessness.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, between 2002 and 2008, there was a nearly fourfold increase in homelessness in Metro Vancouver, causing the United Nations to declare a “national housing emergency.” Between 2008 and 2009, homelessness increased another 12% in Vancouver alone. Since 2009, the situation has worsened yet again, with almost every neighborhood east of Cambie Street experiencing intense gentrification. A recent study of the rental stock by the Carnegie Community Action Project shows a rapid disappearance of low-income housing in the Downtown Eastside, for example. 12% of privately owned SROs in the Downtown Eastside are now renting for $375-or-less, compared to 29% last year.[xiii]
If all the fourteen sites are completed by 2012, the number of units added is 300 units per year (calculated before demolitions and upscalings are taken into account). To put this in context, the City of Vancouver’s own Housing Plan recommends the construction of 800 units of social housing per year. In fact, all three levels of government promised the completion of 3,200 units of social housing prior to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. As mentioned, zero of these units were built. Instead, an average of 4,000 units of condos were constructed each year before and after the Olympics.
The situation for poor and working people in British Columbia is openly exploitative: a frozen minimum wage (lowest in Canada), frozen welfare rates (25% lower than 1995), virtual complete elimination of legal aid, major cuts to women’s centers, child care services, school meal programs, food banks and disability supports including mental health funding. It is for this reason that, according to Dianne Brennan, “a few dollars [will] be spent on social housing, but of course after a decade of neglect it won’t begin to meet the real need.”[xiv] This is why the fourteen sites are a myth, since the government claims they will solve our problems.
If the Province and City had cared to protect housing for people – let alone build it – they would not have forced through the illegal demolition of Little Mountain. If they were serious about improving our situation, they would at a minimum change the Residential Tenancy Act to provide for meaningful rent control and ensure that people cannot be evicted from their homes for minor renovations by landlords.
Instead, they attack the living standards of working people and criminalize the poor. When it had become apparent that homelessness was in the midst of increasing in the lead-up to the Olympics, the Province passed absolutely fascist legislation to move the homeless out of sight against their will by use of force.[xv] Equally, Gregor and the Vision caucus have responded to the increase in homelessness with the unaccompanied strategy of millions of dollars for increased policing. This year is no exception and the police budget has been increased yet again.
Project Civil City – the legislation that circulates Vancouver’s poor population through the jails daily with endless charges for petty offenses introduced under the quota-enforced rules for jaywalking, spitting, unlicensed pets, and street vending – is still firmly in place. The VPD’s 2008 Annual Business Plan projected a 20% increase in charges falling under Project Civil City and the Safe Streets Act dealing with “street disorder.”[xvi] To meet the staffing demands of this “results-based” approach (where the results are pre-determined through the enforcement of ticketing quotas), Gregor has hired 100 extra officers, giving an extra $13 million to the VPD in 2009 alone. This year he has not only increased the police budget again, but has given another $10 million to move police headquarters.
At the same time, we have experienced the near-elimination of the corporate property tax, including ten-year tax holidays for mega-corporations like London Drugs, billionaire-owned Nesters, and the $700/night boutique hotel The Keefer,[xvii] as well as three-year property tax holidays for new condo owners at Woodward’s.
It has been two years since Gregor Robertson ran on a campaign to “end homelessness.” However, it has been only one year since he declared a government for the rich: “we have the advantage of an extremely competitive tax regime here. Within a few years we’ll be the lowest corporate tax rate combined in the G8.” Now, as shown in a recent report by international auditors KPMG, Gregor’s plan has become a reality ahead of schedule: Vancouver has the lowest taxes in the developing world.[xviii] Thus when Gregor voted recently against building housing on top of the city-owned library site at Heatley and Hastings, he gave a simple reason: “we don’t have the money in the drawers.”[xix]
The austerity is all too predictable. In the coming months, the Mayor will seek to protect the “empty drawers” of the city by deploying the police, defending his broken promises by sending the newly hired officers to evict squatters and disrupt organized civil disobedience. In spite of the police response, actions will continue to be organized throughout the city; demonstrations will be especially concentrated at the empty units of the Olympic Village, where sincere and militant people can protest and win.
[i] Mike Howell, “Mayor, housing minister build tight bond,” The Vancouver Courier, June 10, 2010 http://www.vancourier.com/news/Mayor+housing+minister+build+tight+bond/3141292/story.html | Jonathan Ross, “Tim Louis prefers empty promises,” civicscene.ca, December 9, 2010 http://civicscene.ca/tim-louis-prefers-empty-promises#more-4468
[iv] Frances Bula, “Families allowed to stay at Little Mountain,” Globe and Mail, September 22, 2009 http://www.bchousing.org/news/features/2009/GM092209
[v] “1,006 new units for Vancouver’s homeless,” CBC.ca, May 25, 2010 http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2010/05/25/bc-vancouver-homeless-housing.html#ixzz18AWUhm6s
[vi] Cheryl Chan, “1,000 new units a big boost for Vancouver’s homeless,” The Province, May 26, 2010 http://www.theprovince.com/news/units+boost+Vancouver+homeless/3069142/story.html#ixzz189iGpWBq
[vii] see Jonathan Ross, “Tim Louis prefers empty promises,” civicscene.ca, December 9, 2010 http://civicscene.ca/tim-louis-prefers-empty-promises#more-4468
[viii] Little Mountain MOU 2007 – http://www.bchousing.org/resources/Bid/2008-09/1080-0809-511/Little%20Mountain%20MOU%20June%202007.pdf
[ix] “COPE’s Tim Louis says Vision gets failing marks so far,” citycaucus.com, December 8, 2010 http://www.citycaucus.com/2010/12/copes-tim-louis-says-vision-gets-failing-marks-so-far
[x] Mike Howell, “Mayor, housing minister build tight bond,” The Vancouver Courier, June 10, 2010 http://www.vancourier.com/news/Mayor+housing+minister+build+tight+bond/3141292/story.html
[xi] [reference to The Mainlander article on Olympic Village history]
[xii] Unpacking the Housing Numbers (Sept. 2010) – download the report here: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC%20Office/2010/09/CCPA-BC-SPARC-Unpacking-Housing-Numbers.pdf
[xiii] Pushed Out (September 2010) – download the report here: http://ccapvancouver.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/pushed-out-ccaps-new-report-on-hotels-in-the-dtes/
[xiv] Dianne Brennan, “Premier’s pledge to aid the province’s poor rings false,” Nanaimo Daily News, Oct. 15, 2010 http://www.canada.com/news/Premier+pledge+province+poor+rings+false/3676301/story.html
[xv] “Against the Assistance to Shelter Act!” (November 2009) http://vanact.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/against-the-assistance-to-shelter-act/
[xvi] VPD Business Plan (2008): http://www.vancouver.ca/police/assets/pdf/vpd-business-plan-2008.pdf
[xvii] “Lush Life,” Canadian Architect (Vol. 55 No. 9, September 2010) http://www.canadianarchitect.com/issues/story.aspx?aid=1000385733&type=Print%20Archives
[xviii] KPMG, “Competitive Alternatives 2010 Special Report: Focus on Tax” ftp://ftp.competitivealternatives.com/2010_compalt_report_tax_en.pdf
[xix] Mayor Gregor Robertson continued, “we have real limitations and uncertainty and in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do…We have nowhere near what we need for housing.” City Council, October 7, 2010