EDITORIAL | Ten Reasons to Support an Independent COPE

In the 2008 election, Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson recognized that to win an election in progressive Vancouver, politicians needed to talk the talk of progressive politics. For Vision this meant rallying Vancouver around the bold idea of addressing the housing crisis and Ending Homelessness. Electorally, it meant a compromise with COPE, Vancouver’s traditional progressive party. COPE and Vision would work together under the “big umbrella” of progressive change, with COPE running only two councilors.

Today, after three years of a Vision majority on City Council, the progressive spirit chosen in the 2008 municipal elections is nowhere to be found. The party who promised to end homelessness and address affordability has turned out to be its mirror opposite, giving millions in tax breaks to developers, decreasing the corporate tax rate to the lowest in the world, forcibly closing homeless shelters, cutting services, hiring millions of dollars of additional police officers, and deepening the affordability crisis at every possible turn.

This month, the members of COPE will have to decide whether or not to enter into another electoral deal with Vision. Members will be presented with that choice at a COPE general meeting on June 26, 2011. Here are ten reasons COPE members ought to reject the deal as proposed, and instead support an independent progressive party in the 2011 municipal elections:

1. Affordable Housing.
Vancouver has become the most unaffordable city on the continent, and one of the most unaffordable in the world. Renovictions, demolitions, and rent increases out of proportion to income increases have become a constant reality amidst unregulated development and neighborhood gentrification. Middle-income and working-class people can no longer afford to live in the city, and low-income renters are being pushed out the bottom and onto the streets.

All of the tools required to create affordability are available to City Council, but Vision has continually decided to side with the market. Zero measures have been taken to protect renters in a climate of property speculation and housing demolitions. Similarly, no measures have been taken to increase the affordable housing supply or build new social housing in Vancouver. Vision has cut social housing at the Olympic Village and granted destruction permits for the demolition of adequate affordable housing throughout the city, including the historic destruction of Little Mountain. STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental) gives property developers fee exemptions and tax breaks in exchange for luxury rental units, with no requirement that new developments be affordable. As a result of inaction on affordability, homelessness has increased every single year since the election of Vision Vancouver.

2. Corporate tax haven.
Vancouver now has the lowest corporate taxes in the world. Since the 2008 election, taxes have been shifted from businesses to residents three times. In COPE’s most recent platform, Sam Sullivan’s NPA government was criticized for “giving a break to their big business pals.” Vision has only continued this practice. Vision has put profits before people by turning Vancouver into a global tax shelter while closing homeless shelters, selling off social housing, and cutting services. COPE has long promoted a progressive business tax structure that promotes small business but avoids creating a tax-haven for global elites.

3. Civil liberties.
Vision have attempted to pass laws restricting our basic civil liberties. During the Olympics the BC Civil Liberties Association allied with activists to fight hard against city hall and ensure our basic rights. More recently, Vision forced through a “structures” by-law already ruled unconstitutional by the BC Court of Appeal. The by-law is universally condemned by civil liberties organizations and will hurt the homeless. COPE defended civil liberties during the 2010 Olympic Games, and both COPE councillors criticized and voted against the new by-law.

4. Homelessness.
Vision Vancouver was elected on the promise to End Homelessness. The goal of ending homelessness has since changed to “ending street homelessness by 2015.” Ending street homelessness is an important goal that can be achieved immediately and does not need to wait until 2015 – but it avoids the important issue of homelessness. The reality is that Vision has now closed the majority of emergency shelters and enforced the provincial government’s austerity agenda for the city of Vancouver. In lockstep with the provincial government’s refusal to fund Vancouver’s much-needed shelters, Vision Vancouver has cut corporate taxes and essential services, while refusing to use the billion dollar Property Endowment Fund when it is most needed. COPE’s most recent platform promised to use the Property Endowment Fund to build much-needed social housing throughout the city. Homelessness is about affordable housing, not just temporary shelters.

5. Public Sector.
COPE has traditionally been a working class party, defending the rights of workers and organized labour, and advocating full employment. Vision Vancouver originated out of the privatized construction of the Canada Line in a split with COPE over support for P3’s (public-private partnerships). One of the first Vision decisions was a mass layoff of City staff, and they have made service cuts ever since. Vision is a pro-business party that seeks private solutions to public problems. Vision privatized almost all the remaining subsidized housing at the Olympic Village, eliminating any chance of delivering promised affordable housing at the site. Likewise, the NPA has proposed the privatization of important public services, such as garbage collection. Only COPE, with a strong pro-labour history and platform, can stand up for the rights of public workers.

6. Democracy.
The current community planning process is thoroughly undemocratic. In a process skewed by unlimited campaign donations, rezonings serve only to put automatic money in the bank accounts of the wealthiest developers and speculators. We need campaign finance disclosure and limitations on corporate donations. Vision has been all talk and no action on this issue.

Vision has also continued the NPA’s blanket upzonings around the city, threatening neighbourhoods including the West End, the DTES, Mount Pleasant, Cambie corridor, Norquay, and Hastings-Sunrise. Council’s job is to make land-use and zoning decisions in the interest of the public, and residents are restless for real participatory neighbourhood planning. COPE was founded in the halls of Vancouver’s tenants associations and has always supported resident self-determination against private interests.

We have waited over 40 years to implement a ward system capable of replacing the current member-at-large system. The current system benefits candidates with enough money to run city-wide campaigns, while discriminating against representation for minority communities. After decades of Provincial obstruction of COPE-led pro-ward referendums, including two successful ones, it really is time to implement the change. In 2008, Vision Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson promised to hold a ward referendum in 2011, but has now abandoned the promise.

7. Save Downtown Eastside Housing.
Vision Vancouver has continued the NPA’s development agenda for the Downtown Eastside, pushing through a gentrification plan in the face of overwhelming community opposition. Meanwhile, the city’s Director of Planning has suggested plans for eliminating inclusionary zoning in the DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District). The DEOD neighbourhood is vulnerable to real-estate speculation, and unless action is taken to curb gentrification, the city’s last major stock of low-income housing will be lost. The next five years will be crucial to the low-income community’s survival, and we cannot afford another term of the developer status quo. The Downtown Eastide is a vibrant low-income community that needs support from city hall. Instead of addressing affordability, Vision has hired extra police and ramped up market pressures on an already stressed community.

8. Environment.
One of Vision’s few successful initiatives in office has been the creation of bike lanes in the urban centre. The environmental gains of bike lanes have been far off-set by the creation of a city unaffordable for the people who work here, and who now commute to Vancouver from cities throughout the Lower Mainland and beyond. A city of unaffordable condos means a city of commuters who live in places too far to bike. Meanwhile, the glass buildings at the centre of the condo boom are the single least environmentally friendly form of highrise. Similarly, two houses are demolished per day in Vancouver, with no consideration for the environment amidst a build-and-demolish mentality that benefits only the real-estate industry. More sustainable solutions are needed for the real environmental problems that face humanity.

9. Party politics.
Vision staffers and politicians are closely connected with the BC Liberals and Christy Clark, while COPE is still a left-wing, working class party with connections to labour. Now is the best time to take advantage of the orange surge that recently swept across Vancouver in the federal election.

10. NPA advantage.
A silent COPE helps the NPA win the municipal election. The 2011 campaign is underway and NPA candidates have already begun making hard criticisms of Vision for their failed promises. If the elections of November 2011 see a COPE-Vision alliance, only the NPA will be able to take a strong stance against Vision’s broken promises and squandered term. Furthermore, a constrained and docile COPE is already forcing grassroots resident organizations to create alternative pro-tenant municipal parties.