“Forget the issues, our politicians are now brands,” BC Business Magazine (November 2014) p. 58
This election season, Vision Vancouver and the Non Partisan Association (NPA) are putting forward wedge issues to give the appearance of a conflict about policies. But, as Frances Bula suggested in her recent article for BC Business (pictured above), it’s only branding and image that separate the two ruling parties.
What unites Vision and the NPA is their policies. Since 2008, the two parties have voted in unity on the issues that matter the most to people: housing, policing, municipal services, neighborhood planning, and taxes. Leaving aside bike lanes, Vancouverites have lived under a Vision-NPA business consensus for six consecutive years.
Since 2008, Vision’s policies at city council have been supported vote after vote by the NPA. On hundreds of city council votes, the two parties have decided to side together on policy. Especially when it comes to housing. This is in part because Vision’s core policies have been inherited from the NPA regime of 2005 – 2008. Whether it’s key preoccupations of the Vision administration, like STIR/Rental 100 and the Chinatown Height Review, or lesser-known initiatives like Streetohome, Project Civil City, and the Rent Bank – most Vision policies are carried over from the NPA government of Sam Sullivan.
This week Vision announced that the former president of the NPA, Michael Davis, is backing the Vision campaign. Newly-released campaign financing information highlights the fact that key NPA-aligned donors among real-estate and corporate interests have moved more strongly towards Vision, given that the economic policies of the two parties are so deeply intertwined. In 2008 and again in 2011, Vision positioned itself as the legitimate opposition to the NPA. “[Yet] Vision has betrayed its initial promise of being a real alternative to the NPA,” according to LGBT and community activist Aerlyn Weissman in this week’s edition of Xtra!.
STIR and Rental 100: Vision-NPA on affordable housing, 2008 – 2014
On the whole, Vision’s two terms have been less about initiating new housing policies and more about tying off loose ends from the NPA policy reforms of 2005 – 2008. Vision has initiated new and flashy public relations initiatives, like the Housing Affordability Task Force, while continuing with the NPA’s market-based approach to the housing crisis.
The guiding approach for the two developer-backed parties has been to support real-estate corporations as a means to increase the supply of housing, which in theory will bring down housing prices. The key policy tool has been STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental), recently renamed ‘Rental 100.’
Rental 100 and STIR give tax cuts to developers in exchange for the construction of luxury rental housing, without any affordability objectives and without any restrictions on market price. The most well-known STIR project is in the West End at 1401 Comox Street, which has been challenged by West End Neighbors. The City of Vancouver was recently sued by West End Residents Association (WERA) for providing tax exemptions to developers without enforcing any binding definition of affordability. In response, on December 3rd of last year, the Vision Vancouver-dominated council defined affordable rental housing as units whose initial rents do not exceed the following exorbitant rates: $1,433 a month for a studio unit; $1,517 for a one-bedroom; and $2,061 for a two-bedroom.
Other important STIR projects include the condo development at Rogers’ Arena, where the Aquilinis were given a $35m tax exemption to build “affordable” one-bedroom apartments renting a $2,000/month. This year the Aquilinis – longtime supporters of the NPA – have donated $60,000 to the Vision campaign.
It is a common misconception that STIR was a Vision-created policy. In reality it emerged with the NPA and represents a sharpening of the NPA housing plan. As has been covered both at the Vancouver Media Co-op and at The Mainlander, the STIR policy originated with the Vancouver Planning Commission under the directorship of NPA’s Mike Klassen in 2007-08.
STIR has been a cornerstone of the NPA-Vision policy alliance on housing. After hundreds of unified council votes on housing, however, the NPA began grandstanding at the end of their last term, claiming to be against Vision’s “lies” on affordable housing. On a small number of votes the NPA opposed Vision’s measures to “end homelessness,” including STIR and temporary shelters in rich neighborhoods. This has allowed Vision to frame the NPA’s position as “let the market decide,” which has astonishingly allowed the media to re-frame STIR as an intervention against the market.
Lastly, there is Vision’s refusal to use municipal resources to fund social and affordable housing. In the 2014 budget, Vision will be spending slightly more than zero on housing, amounting to a sum roughly the same as the city’s yearly bike lane budget. This principle of austerity and “net zero” spending – a position now sadly reiterated in their 2014 elections platform – echoes NPA’s approach to the housing crisis. Like Sam Sullivan before him, Gregor Robertson has refused to use the city’s powers to raise land and funds for housing, including the unused Property Endowment Fund. Like the NPA, Vision has refused to intervene in the real-estate and property market.
Both the Rent Bank initiative and the Street-to-Home foundation – other pillars of Vision Vancouver’s housing strategy – were born under NPA rule. Street-to-Home was established as part of the NPA’s larger Project Civil City in an effort to incentivize the real-estate sector to solve homelessness through philanthropy and charity. In 2012, months after Vision was re-elected, Street-to-Home launched the Rent Bank, one of Vision’s key housing initiatives. The Rent Bank is funded by global mining mogul Frank Giustra. Following the NPA’s lead, the initiative does nothing to address the underlying reasons for the affordability crisis. It only gives debts to already-indebted renters, with the added dimension of helping Frank Giustra to shelter his mining profits from taxation.
‘Didn’t Get it Done’: Governing to the right of the NPA?
The 2008 campaign was interesting, with Vision’s anti-NPA slogan, “Didn’t Get it Done.” Looking back the slogan is ironic, given Vision’s failure to accomplish its own goals since 2008. Under the banner of “Didn’t Get it Done” in 2008, Gregor Robertson ran a series of negative campaign ads attacking the NPA for not hiring extra police officers and for being soft on crime. Even though Vancouver had experienced a 9% decrease in the crime rate from 2007 to 2008, Gregor portrayed crime as “skyrocketing” and smeared his NPA opponents for not fortifying law and order. Once elected, Vision followed through by hiring 100 extra police officers, criminalizing the poor, and clamping down on civil liberties.
During his campaign, Gregor Robertson touted the ‘Portland Model’ as the key to ending homelessness. But Portland was only dealing with the issue by imprisoning and criminalizing their growing homeless population. Sure enough, six years later Vision’s approach has been much the same. The police budget has increased from $180m per year in 2008 (under the NPA) to $235m per year (under Vision Vancouver). Displacement, imprisonment, and containment and – not housing – have been the hallmark of Vision’s approach to “ending” homelessness.
On the issue of gentrification, too, Vision has out-powered the NPA. The NPA-Vision DTES consensus culminated this past spring with the NPA’s unanimous vote in favor of Vision’s DTES LAP (local area plan). Both NPA-aligned and Vision-aligned developers have deep interests in the DTES property market. Vision’s adoption of wholesale NPA policies, like the Chinatown Historic Area Height Review, has led to the displacement of low-income tenants and small businesses in Chinatown. The Height Review for Chinatown, which undermines existing protections for affordable housing Chinatown, was created by the NPA in 2007 and officially passed by Vision in 2011.
The third area where Vision has governed to the right of the NPA is business property taxes. Arguably the Vision policy on corporate tax cuts comes from the NPA, as Carlito Pablo wrote in his article from 2010, “Vision Vancouver keeping NPA property tax shift.” However, Vision has moved to the right of the NPA by lowering corporate property taxes to unimaginable new levels. By the time Gregor’s first term reached its conclusion, Vancouver has achieved the lowest corporate taxes in the world.
Today, after more cuts, Vancouver has the second-lowest corporate taxes in the world, according to a 2014 KPMG assessment. Vision and the NPA are locked into a race-to-the-bottom competition for municipal austerity. This campaign season, Gregor is campaigning yet again on the neoliberal promise to “keep taxes low.” Vancouver’s inequality has never been worse, yet Vision and the NPA are fighting over who can best keep it that way.
Who runs Vision?
Today’s Vision machine is an eccentric combination of centre-left and centre-right politicians and operatives. Its staff and inner circle is a mix of federal Liberals and Young Liberals, provincial NDP, and BC Liberals. The recent news is that Vision has adopting a former NPA president into its extended family. Penny Ballem is the current city manager and Vision’s closest asset. She is also a former BC Liberal minister. Bob Rennie, one of the biggest supporters of the BC Liberals, is a key Vision backer and funder.
Vision is no stranger to the right wing, particularly on issues of housing. In their second term, Vision appointed right-wing multimillionaire developer Olga Ilich to chair the Mayor’s Affordability Task Force. At the time, a local right-wing commentator said in an online conversation with The Mainlander that he was “taken aback at how many BC Liberals/NPA folks were on the Task Force.” Another of the appointments to the Task Force was Colleen Hardwick, an insider of the real-estate world and a descendant of Walter Hardwick. In 2005, she ran for a City Council position with Sam Sullivan and the NPA, receiving donations from Concord, Wall and Aquilini developments, among others.
Today most Vancouver elites, like Bob Ransford, work for both NPA and Vision – because what’s the difference? According to Ransford, the key to Vision is their support for Vancouver’s “socially responsible entrepreneurial business class.” That can be pretty much anyone, since what business owner today, large or small, doesn’t see themselves as socially responsible?
NPA and the birth of Vision
Vision and the NPA were recently in the news, joined together for the cause of evicting the squatters at Oppenheimer Park. But Vision’s alliance with the NPA to push a law-and-order approach to homelessness is not new. It began twelve years ago, in 2002, when Raymond Louie and other Vision founders voted with the NPA in favor of evicting the Woodward’s squatters in 2002. The following year, in October 2003, Larry Campbell again cast the deciding vote to evict 100 homeless people living at Creekside Park next to Science World.
Shortly after those inaugural votes, Louie – along with Larry Campbell, Geoff Meggs, Jim Green,Tim Stevenson – formed a new party called Vision Vancouver. By siding with the NPA on policies but not on image, Louie and Campbell began their long path in the formation of a new liberal party backed primarily by real-estate developers. In this respect, the virtual NPA policy consensus has lasted longer than a decade and dates back to 2002.
The reality, however, is that that developer-backed politics has its roots in the origins of Vancouver itself. It is that larger system, irrespective of the diverging names and logos of the parties in power, that persists into the present. As Audrey Siegl wrote recently in an article for the Georgia Straight: “Colonialism is ongoing and its effects are systematic.” She continues: “Vision Vancouver, the NPA, and the entire colonial political class, with their high wages and secure housing, will never understand the endless displacement that we face.”
Activist and current co-chair of COPE, Heather Gies, said it best: “Why settle for Vision Vancouver or the NPA?” Unless it’s bike lanes, the politics of NPA and Vision are the same. Their differences are more often than not baseless, grounded in image and public relations rather than policy, by-law changes, or other actual shifts in how Vancouver is ruled. The only potential for change this year lies in a COPE upsurge. If Vision or the NPA take power yet again on November 15th, the same policies will create the same results for the next four years: poverty, inequality, and injustice.
 In sum, Vision has pushed the NPA-born policy of tax breaks for market housing. The NPA has mostly agreed, except for rare dissenting votes during election season. On occasion the NPA argued that the policy doesn’t need to exist, since the market will do it on its own. Ironically, there is a lot of truth to that claim, since today’s market will indeed build market rental anyways. Market analysts such as Andy Yan and Bob Rennie have long pointed out that more than 50% of new condos are placed on the housing market as rental housing. Our problem is therefore not a lack of rental housing in Vancouver, it’s a lack of affordable rental housing.
 Jackie Wong, “Expansion of Downtown Ambassadors program draws praise, criticism,” Westender (July 17, 2008)
 Jack Keating, “Bylaw passed 5-4 to give city authority to remove squatters,” The Province (24 Oct 2003)