COMMENTARY | Vision government changes position on housing jurisdiction but remains firm on land-owner profits


For five years, Vision councillors have argued that the City of Vancouver can’t use its own powers to build and protect affordable housing. Councillor Geoff Meggs has reiterated to The Tyee this week that threats to affordable rental housing are “beyond city hall’s control.” Despite their refusal to publicly criticize the provincial government, Vision has maintained that social housing and rent control are each the sole jurisdictions of senior governments.

Critics have often cited municipal housing authorities and rent control boards in cities like Toronto, New York and Vienna. It has often been pointed out that Vancouver too has a housing authority – something few people know about because city council has allowed it to remain dormant since being elected in 2008.

In response to these criticisms, Vision councillors have played the “jurisdictional” card, passing the buck to other levels of government. According to Vision, “the city gets blamed for the problem when the powers to fix it lie with the provincial government.” Yet the Mayor has been supportive of the BC Liberal government since being elected in 2008. Not once has Robertson or council publicly called on the Province to increase funding for housing or change the Residential Tenancy Act. At the end of the day, the main financial backers of Vision also control BC Housing and are the main donors to the BC Liberals.

The BC Liberals started gutting the Residential Tenancy Act and cutting social housing programs in 2001, and they have continued ever since. So does it even make sense to rely on them alone to solve Vancouver’s crisis? In the absence of action from the provincial government, the city should walk into the space that the province has abandoned. There are many things that the city can do to turn the housing crisis around, from blocking renovictions (through the permitting department) to taxing high-end property for social housing. This week, Meggs called these proposals “infeasable.” What were his reasons? Because landlords and developers will lose money. Using the city’s powers to curb extraordinary rent increases “would unfairly force landlords to lose money,” according to the councillor. So it’s not that the City can’t prevent renovictions. According to Meggs it shouldn’t.

New recognition of municipal power?

Under pressure, Vision’s position has nonetheless begun to shift on at least two different fronts: rent control and social housing. Two of Vision’s long-lasting argument against affordable housing are beginning to be reworked.

For many years, critics asked why Vision’s “market incentives for rental housing” program did not require that new rental units be affordable. Vision countered that the city could not legally set limits on rents. But now, after pressure from the left and a major lawsuit, the program has been supplemented by a policy enforcing maximum initial rents on those buildings. The maximum rents are still unrealistically high for the average person, and the city’s definition of “affordability” has been roundly criticized, even at The Tyee.

What this policy adjustment means is that, despite being unaffordable in practice, Vision has for the first time in its history forayed into the domain of rent control. Housing activist and senior advocate Gail Harmer has pointed out that the maximum initial rent policy only applies to the first tenant. “After the first tenant,” she tells The Mainlander, “there will be no restriction on the rent levels for each new tenancy. This dismal attempt at rent control will be neutralized by the fairly frequent turnover of tenants in this unaffordable city.” Nonetheless, Vision may be shooting themselves in the foot by admitting that rent control is realistic at the municipal level – something they have always refused to concede.

Simultaneously, the Vision council is putting forward token amounts of its own municipal money for temporary social housing at the Ramada Hotel in Hastings-Sunrise. Again, the amount of money is small but it’s the policy of city-funded affordable housing that matters.

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Despite the small amounts of money planned for 2014, the city is admitting that in principle municipal powers of taxation and financing can be used to build affordable housing – a principle that, despite Vision’s legal resistance in the past, has been enshrined in the Vancouver Charter all along.

No doubt these changes are due to massive pressure from the left in the past two years. In April 2013, COPE officially broke with Vision in an overwhelming vote of its members. For the first time in six years, a political party will be campaigning against the developer parties.

Shifting terrain in the debate over housing

All of this is good news for renters, because the main argument against municipal rent control is losing its ground. Vision is now stuck admitting to 5 years of wasted policy under STIR and Rental 100. Five years is enough to anger a lot of people on a policy that has amounted to millions of tax breaks for developers in exchange for luxury and market-priced rental.

Until now Vision has tried to tie up the political left in a legalistic debate about whether or not municipalities can or should built affordable housing and control rents. Instead of an argument about “jurisdiction,” the debate might shift to one about how much affordable housing, and how affordable that housing should actually be.

At the core of this change is an acceptance that affordable housing can be won by taxing developers and controlling the housing market. Does this mean that Vision is ready to enter into hard core negotiations with the richest section of Vancouver’s financial and economic elite: the real estate developers? The problem is that Vision is financially upheld by those same developers, who year after year constitute the main source of funding for the party. A massive conflict of interest lies at the heart of Vision’s housing mandate.

The next election will thankfully no longer be fought over whether or not the city has legal jurisdiction to solve the housing crisis. Hopefully that debate is coming to an end. The question posed to voters will be more simple: who do you trust to tax the real estate developers and cut into the profits of the urban elite?