During this campaign Vision Vancouver has promoted their affordable housing record. But the numbers aren’t real. They’re not even half real. It’s upsetting because it shows that politicians, if backed by money and expensive marketing, can get away with a lot. It’s equally upsetting because it shows that nothing has been done by the City of Vancouver to protect – let alone create – affordable housing since 2008.
1,500 units of social housing
Throughout the current campaign Vision has claimed responsibility for “1,500 new units of low-income affordable housing built since 2008.” A full 1,300 of these units are correctly counted as real, affordable social housing units. However, the problem is that neither Vision Vancouver, nor any other politician in power at city hall between 2008 and 2014, has had anything to do with the land or the money for these 14 sites.
The 1,300 units are built and owned by the BC provincial government, and were a response to the demands of pre-Olympic housing activists and to the doubling of homeless in the mid-2000s. All of the land for the 1,300 units was donated to the province by the previous municipal government, before Vision was elected in 2008. Since then, Vision hasn’t set aside any comparable amount of land for social housing. On the contrary, they have removed a significant number of units from the pool of social housing.
Social housing leftovers
Vision’s campaign claim about building the 14 sites is disingenuous and deceiving. But if those 1,300 units of social housing weren’t built by Vision, that still leaves 200 units of social housing built in Vancouver since 2008. Maybe Vision is responsible for those units? Yes, but mostly no. The roughly 200 units break down to the following: 90 units at the former remand centre on Gore Ave, 56 at Taylor Manor, 21 at the new Strathcona library, and 31 at the Fire Hall in Champlain Heights.
The problem is that most of these units are aren’t social housing, even if that’s how Vision promotes them in their campaign material. The 90-unit site at Gore, for example will only have 34 units or less of actual social housing. The rest are being marketed by Bob Rennie as “affordable rental.” As for the 56 units of social housing at Taylor Manor, the Vision council spent money only on a small minority of the project. The majority of costs will be covered by private philanthropists, underwriting Vision’s strategy of refusing to use public money for housing. Lastly, there are the 31 units at the Fire Hall. City documents for the project state that half the units will rent at rates closer to the “HIL” rate of $900 to month, rather than the accepted social housing rate of 1/3rd of income for low-income tenants. But this ratio could worsen because “the income mix for the building will be finalized at a later date,” according to the staff report.
This means that in total, the 200 units of government-funded social housing claimed by Vision are actually closer to 100.
It should also be said that many of those 100 units of housing were not built not thanks to Vision, but were the result of a bitter fight between Vision and local housing activists. Without their relentless pressure it is likely that Vision would have built no housing at all. From the beginning activists argued that since the city-owned Strathcona site (in partnership with the YWCA) was being used for a new library, council should also add low-cost housing units above it. Throughout September 2010, activists lobbied for the housing, including the submission of 1,500 signatures on a petition backing the demand.
Yet on October 7, 2010, Gregor and city council voted against the housing in favor of a “stand-alone” library, citing financial limitations and austerity. “We don’t have the money in the drawers,” argued Robertson. “We have nowhere near what we need for housing. We have real limitations and uncertainty in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do, we can’t make a commitment.” Today, as then, Vancouver has among the lowest corporate taxes in the world. Only the neoliberal rationality of Vision says there’s no money for housing, and then in the next breath make a campaign claim for “record levels of new rental and social housing being built in Vancouver.”
Vision’s campaign promises on new social housing
The biggest lie of all is not about the social housing Vision claims to have built already, but rather the amount they claim they will build if elected on November 15th. The claim, according to Vision, is that thousands of units are awaiting construction between now and 2021. How will these new “social housing” units be built? The answer is pretty bleak: Vision Vancouver has dramatically changed the legal definition of social housing.
The new city-wide definition of social housing – approved by Vision and the NPA at the April 1st, 2014 meeting of council– is a devastating reversal. The previous definition stipulated that social housing in the City of Vancouver has to be “for housing senior citizens, handicapped persons or individuals or families of low income.” This has now been replaced with a watered down and meaningless definition of social housing.
The new Vision-NPA city-wide definition of social housing states that a full 70% new “social housing” units in Vancouver can be priced at any market rate whatsoever. A new social housing unit can now be legally priced at $2,000/month, for example, and still be categorized as social housing. The only condition is that the remaining 30% of units in the same building rent for the average market rent in the city, currently pegged at $875 per month.
What this means is that while more than 1,000 units of affordable housing are demolished per year in Vancouver, new luxury condos built in their place will be counted as “social housing.” In a massive sleight of hand, the usual projections for yearly market housing construction are therefore incorporated in Vision’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness Plan.
Last year the City wrote itself a Report Card on affordable housing and gave itself an A+. The report card cited upcoming “social housing” announced in Vision’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy. This included social housing as part of a condo project by Wall Corporation at 955 East Hastings. But yet Wall’s gentrification project is anything but affordable. As with the Sequel 138 project at Main and Hastings, where the city will be renting its social housing at a rate of $900/month, the majority of the 70 “social housing” units in the Wall Corporation’s project will be well out of reach for low-income people.
Affordable and rental housing
When it comes to the definition of affordable and rental housing, the track record of Vision is no better. Since 2008, Vision Vancouver has justified large subsidies for real-estate developments through the STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental housing) and Rental 100 programs. The subsidies have ranged from $1m to $35 million for large private developments. The housing produced by STIR since 2008 has lacked any working definition of affordability, leaving it to the market to decide.
This was also the basis for the West End Residents Association’s lawsuit against the city last year. In response to the lawsuit, the Vision Vancouver-dominated council was finally forced to define affordability. What was the new definition they came up with? $1,433 a month for a studio unit and $2,061 for a two-bedroom.
These “affordable” rates are almost twice the existing market rent in Vancouver. The CMHC defines affordability as 30% of a person’s income spent on total housing costs. Using this definition, a person would have to earn $81,615 per year to pay for Vision’s two-bedroom rental housing. Yet the median household renter income in Vancouver is $41,433. A full 38% of renter households in Vancouver earn under $30,000 a year.
Vision has changed the definition of social and affordable housing in order give the appearance of real numbers. In addition to playing with the numbers, Vision has claimed responsibility for the provincial government’s long-delayed 14 sites of social housing in Vancouver. But all of the sites were built on land donated by the previous NPA administration.
Vision has not willingly set aside land for real social housing, nor have they protested against the recent BC Liberal decision to discontinue the construction of all social housing in BC. The provincial government will be replacing its social housing program with a rent supplement model, echoing Vision’s model of tax cuts and subsidies for developers and private landlords. The result with be the loss of social housing at Stamp’s Place and beyond, a reality that Vision already incorporated into their DTES Local Area Plan (LAP) back in May.
The recent surge in high-end profit rental housing in Vancouver has come at the cost of a worsening housing crisis. The City of Vancouver has now the largest homeless population in the city’s history, with a growing share of Indigenous people and seniors on the streets. Despite not doing anything about it, Vision is dramatically stretching the truth to make people think they have. But lies on affordable housing won’t solve the housing crisis, and an empire built on lies can’t last forever.
 Eventually the hundreds of units demolished at Little Mountain and Heather Place may be replaced by the private developers, but having the Little Mountain site sit empty for more than half a decade hasn’t been worth it. The Vision-approved demolition of Little Mountain was recently given new light with the disclosure that Holborn (the private developer of Little Mountain) donated $75,000 this year to Vision’s re-election campaign.