Gregor Robertson lays out his plans to turn Vancouver into San Francisco

P1060822Community paint-in at former police station, Main & Cordova, April 14, 2013

In a recent interview, Mayor Gregor Robertson joked about how cool it will be for tech startups to use former jail cells as offices. He was referring to an active Vision Vancouver project to overhaul the old police station at Main & Cordova, turning it into a publicly-funded “tech incubation accelerator.” This attempt to align City Hall with the interests of the “creative class” is part of Vision’s broader plan to use the city’s real estate holdings to subsidize businesses of their choosing. Or, as Gregor puts it, “to bring a business edge to government and recognize the importance of entrepreneurs to this city.”

With little to no public discussion, the Mayor’s business-bailout strategy is well underway, having already blessed tech-darling Hootsuite with an undisclosed, subsidized rent-to-own deal at their new office in Mount Pleasant. The terms of the deal remain mysterious, as FOI requests for details were denied or heavily redacted. What we do know is that the City allocated $4.55 million from the Capital Financing Fund to pay for building renovations, which included a yoga studio, nap rooms, and a bar. Similar taxpayer-funded renovation work is currently underway at Main and Cordova.

At the end of the interview, the Mayor turns to the cities of New York and San Francisco, describing his goal of transforming Vancouver into a world-class city. Just last week, the Tyee’s Jackie Wong published “Generation Rent,” an extensive 4-part comparison between Vancouver and San Francisco. Wong’s series highlights the inherent contradiction of the progressive global city, which aspires to be the best of the best while remaining inclusive to all. Reading through her observations it is clear that San Francisco’s long and troubled history with gentrification is ongoing, and as organizers like Richard Marquez have argued, it’s a history we should pay close attention to.

Vancouverites are understandably worried about what our changing city will mean for our pocketbooks: recent polling suggests our top concerns are housing affordability and the cost of living. If we are determined to make the transition to being a “world-class city,” the upward march of prices threatens to become just another fact of life. We need to prepare accordingly.

Hastening gentrification for private profit

Vision Vancouver’s scheme to court private employers with public gifts is lifted directly from the United States, where cities like San Francisco have given individual companies huge tax breaks to keep top talent from crossing municipal lines. Twitter’s office in San Francisco’s Mid-Market district, subsidized to the tune of over $22 million, has widely been credited with the gentrification of the surrounding neighbourhood. This gentrification is resulting in the widespread displacement of San Francisco’s citizens, and this overwhelmingly affects the elderly and people of colour. Despite this, Vancouver is eager to replicate San Francisco’s strategy in the Downtown Eastside, offering up the cop shop as a gentrification beachhead. This plan has been opposed by many DTES residents, thousands of whom signed a petition to turn the space over to the community. So far, the petition has been ignored.

The City’s pro-gentrifcation policies in the DTES require a consistent and systematic blindness to their negative effects falling almost entirely on the working-class, low-income, elderly and racialized. In the most startling exchange of the Vancity Buzz interview, Gregor Robertson is asked if the DTES is going to be safe for “women working in tech.” Robertson responds that the low-income community has been “stabilized with private investment” and that the Vancouver Police Department has created an “island of safety” in the DTES. Never mind that less than a year ago, the Missing Women Inquiry found the police guilty of “systemic bias” in ignoring the kidnapping and murder of 67 women from the neighbourhood, most of whom were First Nations. Gregor is conscious of the fact that, here, he is not being asked about those women; this question is about “women in tech.” Made explicit is a double standard for people in the city: one group is in need of police protection, while the other needs to be “stabilized”, treated, policed.

From that perspective, taxpayer-subsidized gentrification is a clever strategy to push out politically undesirable populations and replace them with wealthier, whiter citizens. It’s a strategy with a long and storied history in both cities, no strangers to race riots and neighbourhood cleansing initiatives. Vancouver and San Francisco share a parallel history as Pacific ports expanding to accommodate migrants from all over the globe. Both cities have been built atop many waves of colonial displacement, evictions, neighbourhood demolitions and crises of affordability. Both cities are at pains to think themselves progressive, environmentally-friendly, hip, inclusive. Both are currently hotspots of gentrification. These parallel histories of occupation, resistance, and struggle are lived and remembered by racialized and working class people, and despite this history of violence, they are still here.

Radical interventions for business, but no action on housing

Advocates of Vision Vancouver’s aggressive urbanism (most of whom pull a salary from the development industry in one way or another) argue that pro-market densification incentives are necessary to increase supply and thereby control costs. Developer millionaire and former NPA council candidate Michael Geller recently circulated a 6,000-word poor-bashing diatribe that insisted the city abolish all social housing requirements since they “stymie business growth.” From the growth of business, the story goes, our much-needed housing shall flow.

There is a simplicity to this logic of “more.” The fact is that what’s being built is not replacing what is being lost. Virtually all new apartments built in Vancouver are condominiums for sale, investment or rental: they are built to command a premium, not to house people affordably. Renovictions, conversions, and demolitions are destroying the city’s old housing stock to replace it with brand-new units. The new housing we’re seeing is only “affordable” according to Councillor Kerry Jang’s convenient tautology where “affordable housing is something somebody can afford.”

Unlike New York or San Francisco, Vancouver has no public housing authority filling the housing gap that developers’ won’t fill. Our city has no meaningful rent control, as Pivot Legal Society and the Carnegie Community Action Project have observed. But Vision Vancouver consistently refuses to act on this issue, instead preferring to “incentivize” affordable rental exclusively through tax breaks to private industry.

Amidst this development boom, the city has said they are doing all they can to deliver social housing; but then they confess that their multi-billion dollar real estate portfolio is tasked with hastening gentrification and making the affordability crisis worse. Across the city, activists blow the whistle on illegal apartments and mass evictions but the City rarely, if ever, lumbers into action. In response to the loss of over 2,000 units of SRO housing due to rent increases in the period 2007-2011, a SRO Task Force was set up in the summer of 2011. Over two years have passed, and it’s accomplished precisely nothing. (A “status update” is due sometime in 2014.)

Gentrification: Why are we paying for it?

The external costs of Vancouver’s taxpayer-subsidized gentrification are largely borne by neighbouring municipalities, who have to accommodate the displaced population. As Vancouver gentrifies, the homelessness crisis in Langley, Abbotsford, and other suburban municipalities is getting worse: the headlines show the cold reality of the situation. Nonprofits and charities south of the Fraser, generally less able to obtain funding than those in Vancouver, lack the capacity to support those in need. Yet as the Downtown Eastside sheds welfare-rate units by the thousands, and the City of Vancouver turns a blind eye to the problem, there’s nowhere else to go.

At some point we have to come to terms with the fact that our current government doesn’t particularly care about the fate of renters. And in a city where over half of us are renting, that’s a big problem. City policies, as they stand, will only make the affordability crisis worse. Our commutes will get steadily worse, and our rents will get steadily higher. This supposedly “liveable” city is splitting into a two-tier society: those who can afford to move into a brand new condo, and those who have to fight to stay in their old homes.

If we are going to collectively aspire as a city to become as expensive as San Francisco or New York, we need to have a serious conversation about how we’re going to preserve existing rentals, stop renovictions, and set up a housing authority (as any other “world-class city” has done). Amidst declining school enrollment, an exodus of young adults, and perpetually increasing rents and transit costs, we need to make some tough decisions. We don’t have much time left before the affordability crisis evicts what’s left of my generation from the city where we hoped to live out our days.

We need to stop and ask ourselves: do we believe that those who work in Vancouver deserve to live in Vancouver, too?