Mayor Uses Affordability Task Force to Deregulate and Privatize Housing

Yesterday Vision Vancouver released its final report on Housing Affordability in Vancouver. Shortly after being elected for a second term, Vision created an Affordability Task Force to address issues of housing affordability. The high-profile Task Force was co-chaired by the Mayor and right wing millionaire developer Olga Ilich, a former member of Gordon Campbell’s cabinet. The remaining members were comprised of fourteen Vision appointees drawn from the development industry: prominent developers, landlord lobbyists and industry insiders. Not a single renter or renter representative was appointed to the Task Force, despite the fact that renters — making up 55% of the city’s population — are the worst affected by the housing crisis.

For a long time Vancouver elites have struggled to square the circle of how to produce housing affordability without negatively affecting developer profits and property owners’ interests. The Task Force has proved no different in encountering this clash between ideal and reality, vexed by the challenge of balancing profitability with public anger about the housing crisis. That contradiction is the sharp rock upon which the Task Force is now shipwrecked. Despite Olga Ilich’s statement that “the biggest cost in Vancouver is the cost of land,” the Mayor admitted yesterday to the Province that he “doesn’t see the affordability plan having a broad impact on land values in Vancouver.”

The final recommendations of the Task Force show little advance from the neoliberal recommendations offered in the interim recommendations of last March. The first, and arguably the most disastrous for deregulating the private housing market, is a recommendation that planners abandon the city’s Inclusionary Zoning requirements. “The City’s current inclusionary zoning policy requires developers to set aside 20% of land for affordable housing,” the report states. “While this approach creates the opportunity for affordable housing development…a different approach will be needed to deliver affordability.”

Current city by-laws require 20% non-market housing in all new large-scale development projects, as well as in the DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District). This year, however, inclusionary zoning policies have already been flouted by major city council decisions, including 800 Griffiths Way, “market rent” social housing at 955 East Hastings, and the decision to rent “social housing” for $900 per month at Sequel 138 Pantages redevelopment. The Task Force recommendation goes a step further in pushing council to put the deregulation approach into writing, thereby further lowering the bar for maintaining safeguards against privatization. The Mainlander has warned as far back as January 2011 that Vision Vancouver was planning to remove inclusionary zoning in Vancouver. This proposal will only make Vancouver more unaffordable for the long-term.

Another recommendation concerns the creation of a Housing Authority. Some journalists have been misinformed by the City that the proposal for a Housing Authority is a new idea. In reality the City currently has an active housing authority called the Vancouver Public Housing Corporation (PHC), which owns and operates non-market housing throughout the city. The only possible difference between the PHC and the “new” Housing Authority is that the Mayor and task force want to de-couple the Authority from previous public accountability. Instead, the Task Force is recommending that the authority be run by an “expert Board” (page 15). Judging by the composition of the Task Force itself, the narrow definition of an “expert” is a person drawn from within the ranks of the development industry. Along these lines, condo magnate Bob Rennie was recently appointed to the board of BC Housing (since he’s an “industry expert”). As an industry insider, Bob Rennie and his colleagues have a vested interest in keeping prices grotesquely high to reap profits on new construction.

The report states that the role of the Housing Authority will be to leverage city land and “optimize the return on the City’s investments” (page 14). As with the previous recommendation, this model of profit-maximization has already been passed by the Vision-led city council. The Olympic Village, Heather Place and Little Mountain are all places where public lands have been sold for private development and one-off cash injections into cash-strapped government budgets. While the pre-neoliberal era saw housing authorities tasked the creation of cost-based housing, the Mayor has tried to downplay this public role of Housing Authorities.

In fact the Mayor and task force are fighting an ideological battle to fundamentally redefine the meaning of Housing Authorities, re-positioning them as key players in the creation of private ownership. According to Robertson, a housing authority should exist to create “new models of home ownership,” facilitating the creation of a place for people to “park their investment.” In these terms Robertson has downplayed the Whistler Housing Authority and its important role in the creation of affordable rental, while at the same time playing up its pro-market side.

Recently Toronto’s Community Housing Board has been the site of a similar class struggle, with Rob Ford fighting to replace community representatives with members of the development industry. A similar fight has been occurring for the past ten years within the Hong Kong Housing Authority, where monopoly developers have slowly gained more influence in the government body. The reasons for the development industry’s interest in municipal housing authorities is obvious. The primary objective of a developer monopoly is to control the overall rate and location of new supply while winning contracts for established development players. In the most recent case of Heather Place, the Metro Vancouver Housing Authority will hand over a publicly owned property to the developer monopoly while subsidizing the up-front costs of the redevelopment. The decision-makers on the Vancouver side — Geoff Meggs and Raymond Louie — are from Vision Vancouver, the development-funded party firmly in the pocket of the industry. Instead of forcing developers to build on their empty land banks, it is the other way around — the developers are getting Meggs to strike deals on land already inhabited by desperately-needed affordable housing.

The final report of the Task Force aims its creative solutions at households earning between $21,500 and a combined $86,500. We should look at the statistics to understand the extent to which average renters do not factor into the concerns of the Task Force. According to the Vancouver Housing Data Book (2012), 31% of renter households have an annual income below $20,000 per year — let alone $86,500. To these renters the message of the Task Force is clear: you do not belong in our developer city. Despite working the most thankless minimum wage jobs in the city — and despite funding the mortgages of property owners and landlords by paying exorbitant rents — Vancouver’s low-income renters are an underclass deserving austerity rather than affordability.

The remaining recommendations of the final report include: abandoning enforcement of maintenance of existing social housing and rental stock, as well as tax breaks and fee exemptions for developers — things that the Urban Development Institute (UDI) has been demanding for the past thirty years, including when Olga Ilich was President of the organization. In sum, the final report of the Mayor’s Affordability Task Force is a humbling reminder that the dire conditions for renters in Vancouver will continue unabated. Renovictions, demolitions, housing instability, and rent-gouging will remain the name of the game for the near future.

Photo credit Phylicia Torrevillas/Metro