A Response to Geoff Meggs

This is a response to a recent letter written by Geoff Meggs addressed to The Mainlander and the Vancouver Renters’ Union, where he accused The Mainlander of “libel” among other things. The letter can be found here.

Readers of The Mainlander know that we write about recurring issues that affect Vancouver: the privatization of housing, inequality, evictions, gentrification, speculation, land exploitation, rent gouging, displacement, and especially, a developer-backed city hall.

For two years we’ve written about these topics without stoking the personal rivalries that pre-date our involvement in politics and our birth as a publication (The Mainlander’s first article was on December 5, 2010). Then, as now, we have no interest in getting into a battle of personalities. Whether it’s Nathan Allen debating Charlie Demers, the cheap rhetoric of City Caucus, or Robertson himself calling community members “fucking NPA hacks,” Vancouver has been plagued by ad hominem politics. Since the split between Larry Campbell (“Cope Lite”/Vision) and Tim Louis (“Cope Classic”), the demonization and vilification of political opponents has been a mainstay.

The slinging of mud is ultimately a shortcut for those who want to avoid political debate. The opposite of mud-slinging, however, is not simple politeness. Am Johal is right to criticize what he calls the “epidemic of politeness.” Nonetheless one of our aims is to depersonalize politics, and to recognize that there is more to Vancouver’s 125 years of politics and economy than “key players” and “talking heads.” To understand Vancouver’s unique developer-industrial complex it helps to transplant a phrase from Geoff Meggs’ own letter: “It makes the decisions, not me.” Precisely. Our analysis is directed at the developer-backed system as a whole, held together by the pillars of the private developer monopoly, colonial land inheritance, and the role of the municipal state. As many readers know, both supporters and opponents, this is the framework that guides what we write.

Meggs says that we have accused him of corruption and developer kickbacks, and that this accusation amounts to “libel.” Let us be as clear as possible about what we mean by corruption: an exchange of favors between elected and unelected municipal elites. We have continued to harp on this point, and the timing of this very response letter is significant. If Geoff, or any Vision city councillor, wants to show they are above corruption, they should abstain from this week’s high-profile City Council vote on the approval of a mega-development at 955 East Hastings. The project, funded by Wall Financial and described by COPE as reckless, is one of the the largest rezoning applications in the history of East Vancouver and is overwhelmingly opposed by the neighborhood, who are currently deep in the midst of a community planning process.

Wall Financial contributed $80,901.40 to Vision’s most recent election campaign. Now Vision is being asked to support Wall. The project, which cynically proposes market rents for the majority of “social housing” units, will once again bring the effects of gentrification to the very people who most need a break in Vancouver’s breakneck housing market. The development has been called “Woodward’s East” by Downtown Eastside residents, recalling the displacement caused by landing a mega-project at Hastings and Abbott. The Vernon Apartments, The Woodbine, St. Clair, and the Sahota-owned Astoria are the hotels at the 900 block that will share the same fate as the lost housing across from Woodward’s. As long-time activist Jean Swanson asked eloquently at last week’s public hearing, where are people supposed to go? With no protections for existing rental, development-based displacement on the 900 block will not help the city in its goal of ending homelessness.

Geoff’s letter claims that he wants to “set the record straight” about Heather Place. But yet he proceeds to give little information about the proposed redevelopment, asking instead that people trust the sight of him throwing around his weight. This is troubling, given the context of our current journalistic milieu in Vancouver, which all too often accepts a politician’s view of the world, re-tweets it, and then proceeds to write articles based on City Hall press releases, all while failing to fact-check, unpack numbers, or draw attention to contradictions.

In this letter we will respond point-by-point to the false assertions made about Heather Place by Meggs in his letter. After setting aside the question of Heather Place, we will move on to arguments made in Meggs’ letter covering numerous other issues.

  • Geoff takes issue with our basic point that Metro Vancouver’s redevelopment scheme will demolish affordable housing at Heather Place and bring expensive market rental and condos to Fairview. At the heart of the disagreement are two starkly different perceptions of what is “expensive” and what is “affordable.” For the tenants without subsidies (almost 200 people) the proposed replacement housing will cost hundreds of dollars more per month: $1,250 for a 1br unit and $1,700 for a 2br unit. Any statement by Meggs of Metro Vancouver that there will not be evictions is deeply inaccurate. Unless something changes in the near future, Heather Place tenants cannot afford the new units and will be displaced from Fairview.
  • Geoff is adamant that he has encouraged the tenants of Heather Place to “take leadership in the renewal of the project.” Giving tenants leadership would mean funding the repairs, as demanded by a majority of Heather Place households in a signed letter to Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation on Feb 24, 2012. If Vancouver’s tenants had any say or any leadership power, Meggs and city council would be busy passing motions demanding the restoration of provincial and federal funding; the City of Vancouver would have a policy to fund basic repairs instead of lowering business taxes year after year.
  • Further concerning the redevelopment of Heather Place, Meggs states: “All tenants who wish to stay will be able to do so…” The sentence starts well but then takes a U-turn: “…in line with the MVHC’s existing policy on subsidy.” It is impossible for the existing MVHC policy on subsidy to protect all tenants. This is simply because under the policy only one-third of the households (27 out of 86) receive subsidies. This will not changed unless Metro Vancouver, like BC Housing in its recent decision at Little Mountain, reverses their plans. Due to pressures from Heather Place tenants and the Vancouver Renters’ Union, Metro Vancouver has indeed begun suggesting that tenants paying the new market rents may have access to a subsidy at the new Heather Place. However there has been no indication about how much each subsidy would be worth nor how many of them will be made available. It should be noted that both of the latter are also problems that have continued to plague the Olympic Village.
  • At the Olympic Village, tenants have received subsidies as little as $20. But everyone knows that even with a few adequately funded subsidies nothing can make up for the hundreds of social housing units lost in the mass sell-off of social housing under Gregor Robertson, with Geoff Meggs at the helm. Geoff claims that the $100m bailout of Millennium Development Group took place in 2008, but the article we quoted by Bob Mackin makes clear that the deal was completed under Penny Ballem, who signed the multi-million dollar “mortgage discharges” for Millennium on Feb. 2, 2011. During the 2008 elections Vision opposed the NPA position on the Olympic Village and then proceeded to take the NPA’s developer mission even further once elected. As stated directly on their campaign material, “Vision strongly opposed the previous NPA administration’s cuts of middle and low-income housing from the Southeast False Creek Olympic Village site.” Once elected they cut the social housing in half.
  • Similar to Heather Place, Geoff takes issue with our claim that Olympic Village tenants are at risk of eviction. Yet according to the Renters’ Union, a low-income tenant was just issued an eviction notice this month. The double billing of seniors and tenants on fixed income, forced to pay for cold water etc., is a source of economic rather than legal eviction. The Georgia Straight has done an excellent job covering this issue over the past two years, and the issue was recently in the news yet again.
  • The letter also states: “The Aquilini Financial Group did not get a $35 million tax cut for its project at Rogers Arena.” Even Vision’s supporters know that’s not true. Geoff’s convoluted rebuttal to our criticism (“Would Crompton have preferred the condos?”) only helps to prove the false options available within the constraints of the developer-backed system. Either we get expensive rental (in this case rental priced at $2,000 per month for a 900 sq. ft. unit) or luxury condos. How about affordable housing instead?
  • With respect to our claim that Vision has consistently endorsed BC Liberal housing policy, Geoff doesn’t dispute that point. He does, however, dispute the claim that Vision supported Rich Coleman’s leadership bid for the BC Liberal party. To dispute this cleanly Meggs ignores that Crompton quotes two articles, not one. The first article, whose existence Meggs acknowledges, is about the “tight bond” between the BC Liberals and Vision Vancouver. The second article is more interesting because it was written by Jonathan Ross for a blog called Civic Scene, and has since disappeared. That blog, a pro-Vision mouthpiece run by Vision campaigner Ross, no longer exists because the blog and its author were caught in a corruption scandal in 2010 — the city was caught using its advertising contractor, FD Element, to fund a blog that would be capable of rivaling the now-defunct right-wing blog, City Caucus. For the information about the support for Coleman’s leadership bid, we had to rely on a previous article in which Crompton quoted Jonathan Ross at Civic Scene, who stated that Vision councillors are backing Rich Coleman because of, quote, “all the progress he has been able to make with the City of Vancouver on social housing during this Vision Vancouver term.” Again, the article no longer exists because of the scandal and subsequent removal of the site, but there are a few remaining traces of civicscene.ca here.
  • Back in the summer (June 2012) Geoff tried to disrupt a public meeting organized by the Vancouver Renters Union at the Douglas Park community center. Geoff says this didn’t happen. Andy Longhurst, radio host of The City, was in attendance and recorded what he saw as “Councillor Geoff Meggs’ attempt to interrupt the event.” The audio is available here and the video will soon be posted online.

Geoff Meggs’ attack on The Mainlander is a serious concern for anyone involved in fighting for an equal and more just city. His legal threats and use of words like “libel” to silence dissent are an attempt to meet political goals by isolating individuals from the larger social movements of which they are a part. This strategy of criminalization has been tried against critics for years, whether applied to COPE councillor Tim Louis or Downtown Eastside advocate Ivan Drury. The strategy will continue to be used on those who are effective in criticizing politicians and elites, and The Mainlander will continue to defend them vigorously.

Our intention with The Mainlander is to provide research and perspectives that do not appear in the mainstream media, due in part to problems with the monopoly media that mirror the concentration of power found in the monopoly development industry itself. As is often repeated on our pages, Vancouver is in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis. British Columbia’s neoliberalism began with Bill Bennett and Jack Volrich in the 1970s but continues today while also reaching back into the creation of our colonial context — a past and present that combine to make our city among the most unequal in the country. Looking critically at these phenomena is the only way to begin changing them. Until Vancouver is an affordable, equal, and socially just city, The Mainlander will continue writing and criticizing to the best of our ability.