Bringing the Movement to City Hall: A Conversation with Jean Swanson

Jean Swanson speaking at the Downtown Eastside All-Candidates Debate at Carnegie Community Centre on September 28, 2018. Photo: Sydney Ball

It’s the end of ‘’Gregor’s decade.’’ Are we standing at the possible threshold of a new era in Vancouver municipal politics? There’s no disputing that the ground is moving. The defeat of the NDP government’s 4.5% rent increase is evidence, among other things, of the power of self-organization from below and of a shift in the prevailing common sense. As Horgan’s ‘’progressive’’ government continues to incarcerate the homeless and support colonial land grabs across BC — both urban and rural — a countervailing force has emerged in Vancouver. Renters are organized in a way that they haven’t been since the rent strikes of the 1970s, and are becoming conscious of their own separate interests within Vancouver’s property system. A large number of them have turned to COPE as their party in the wake of Team Jean’s integration into the COPE umbrella. In this series of interviews The Mainlander sits down with COPE’s council candidates to talk about the programs and promises of the party and its movement — as well as its challenges and limitations. The following is a transcription of an interview between Editor Nathan Crompton and COPE City Council candidate Jean Swanson. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

Three steps to a rent freeze

Nathan: In June, you made your first campaign announcement. What was it about?

Jean: The rent freeze. We had our creative crew get together and they rented some scaffolding to make ‘the three steps to a rent freeze’. So the first step is stopping renovictions using powers that the City already has through the tenant relocation and protection plan. Basically, when a landlord goes to get a permit to renovate, he’ll have to show a signed document that tenants can return at the same rent — that would stop a lot of renovictions. Our announcement was in front of the Capri Apartments on 16th avenue. The apartments are for sale and the sales brochure actually has a line where the realtor is suggesting to potential buyers that tenants could be renovicted. 

Nathan: Renovictions are now in the sales pitch for investors and landlords selling their apartments. 

Jean: That was the first step. The second step is doing a landlord registry, and the third is using the City’s licensing power to actually limit rent increases. We’re trying to be creative as to what you can do with municipal powers if the Province won’t come through. It’s very important and there’s a lot of support for it among renters, and now there’s a majority of people in the city who are renters. If we can get them excited enough about things like this, they’ll vote.

Nathan: The by-election was a kind of dry-run, and it showed that there is a popular sentiment that this can’t continue, and that radical solutions are now on the table. In terms of municipal rent control, the option of using City permitting seems like a really good one, any time there’s an application for the renovation permit to the City. For the last decade the Vision government has refused to do anything like that, but my understanding is that they recently introduced a watered down version?

Jean: They have a tenant protection and relocation plan, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. It just applies in certain circumstances, and a certain amount of compensation to the tenant depending on how long they’ve lived there, moving expenses, and in some cases they even say that the landlord has to guarantee that the tenant can return at 20% “below market” (which often means a significant rent increase). So, we’re saying “they can return” — all City has to do is change that one little provision to say that they can return at the same rent as before.

Nathan: In terms of what’s there, is the City enforcing it?

Jean: Not very well.  In some cases however, like the Balmoral and the Regent, they made the owner pay tenants who had to be relocated. So that was good.

Nathan: Maybe the fourth step would be advocacy around the Province, with a kind of aggressive stance that pushes back against current government’s neoliberal housing agenda.

Jean: Up until now, the City has been pushing the Province — or they claim that to be pushing the Province — for vacancy control, but only in Single Resident Occupancy hotels (SROs). Why would they only focus on that when there’s tens of thousands of other renters that need it? So it’s not that we’re saying we’d do something new, we’re saying we’re going to be more fierce about it and it’s going to be expanded to more people. I think that the ability to prevent renovictions is huge, because when landlords can raise rents by getting rid of tenants, that virtually eliminates tenant security. The lower your rent is, the less security you have, because it gives the landlord a profit motive to get rid of you. So, if we could get rid of that, it would make a big difference.

Modular housing and ending homelessness

Nathan: So, that’s the rent control side. In terms of actually building housing, the campaign has been pretty focused on modular housing. Is the idea that with the mansion tax would go to the modular housing first? 

Jean: Yeah. What I keep saying is we start with the people that are most in need and work our way up. Most of these are homeless people. And actually of course we all know by housing homeless people you end up by saving money. So what we’re saying with the mansion tax is it wouldn’t apply if your house is worth $5-million or less, it it’s worth $6-million it would only apply on one million. So you don’t start paying extra until you actually go over the $5-million.

Nathan: Is that what it was during the by-election?

Jean: Yeah. And we think we could get almost $200million from that annually and that would be enough to end homelessness in the first year. I just went and did the public tour of the new modular housing place next to the Olympic SkyTrain station and it’s quite nice. And they put it up in 9 weeks. 9 weeks. We could get homeless people off the street in 9 weeks. We could do it before the rain starts this fall. 

Nathan: I keep hearing from people that live in modular housing that they’re happier with it. I don’t know if it’s because there’s more space or it’s better than an SRO for other reasons, but in particular the management of the buildings seems more hands-off and less intrusive. We would need to do more social investigation, I don’t know. I recently visited Surrey and the modular housing that’s being built here in Vancouver is a lot better than what they have there. 

Jean: These ones up by Olympic Village are bigger than the ones at Science World and they have a full-sized fridge. They still have the bed in the living room, but they have a big window that opens, and it looks beautiful. I mean, it should be bigger. But I think anyone would say that it’s better than the street. And the advantage is that it’s fast. But they don’t have to be temporary; it’s the site that’s temporary, not the building. The more permanent sites we could find the better. The City has this huge Property Endowment Fund and almost half a billion dollars worth of it is more or less unencumbered… We could use that towards the actual land to put it on, or if that land is in the nether-regions of the city with no services, trade it for some land that’s better suited for it.

Then, we build that modular housing, get homeless people off the street, but we’ll keep needing housing for homeless people because evictions are going to continue to happen in this current set up. We just found out yesterday that they’re closing the Ross House. People are getting eviction notices on Alexander Street, it’s 24 units — it’s the one that was trying to ‘up’ the rents using fixed-term leases a couple of years ago and we fought it. We eventually got rid of the fixed-term leases, but by that time most of the people in there were paying $650. Anyway, they’re emptying it out. That’s going to continue to happen and we’ll continue to need places but not as many once we make up this deficit and then we can start putting money into rental housing for low-income renters. As we get more and more people covered, then we can start raising some of the rents so that you can actually subsidize other people. But that’s, as you said, it’s the reverse of what the City’s doing now. They’re putting in rents that are astronomical, the latest I heard was $4,700 a month. And they’re saying “Oh, we need this so we can subsidize one or two low-income tenants.” It’s ridiculous.

Nathan: It’s funny because city council spent all their 10-years denying that they any mechanisms. Now, they’re using them very partially. But in the balance, it’s almost nothing. Then when they do build something, it’s often based on that social mix model, which just causes more displacement.

Jean: Social mix is terrible in low-income neighbourhoods. If we had social mix in Point Grey or Dunbar, that would be cool. We did this little workshop and we were supposed to say “What headline do you envision a year after you’ve been elected?” and Derrick O’Keefe said, “Modular house opens on the Crescent” – Crescent being that really rich area in Shaughnessy.

Nathan: Is that where you did the announcement in the summer?

Jean: Yeah, with the Kleenex box.

Left resurgence and social movements

Nathan: So in terms of this moment that we’re kind of in, we can feel a shift. Talking about inequality and class has been prohibited for so long, but for a few years the neoliberal euphoria has eroded. 

Jean: We had a fundraiser yesterday with Geoff Berner. And he sang his song “Take the billionaires’ money away.” I love that. When you think about it, in this world… What kind of person would you have to be, to be a billionaire, when so many people are suffering? It’s like, I can’t get it.  And if they don’t get it, we’ll have to help them get it.

Nathan:  The Right-wing has always been really class-conscious, but then the Center has always tried to please both sides. And now that the Left is beginning to emerge as a force, the Center is kind of in disarray, globally, in a sense. Whether it’s responding to Corbyn, or whether it’s responding to—

Jean: Bernie.

Nathan: I know that you’ve worked with Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative campaign in Seattle. Can you talk about how you see your campaign within a global context?

Jean: We’re trying to model it after that. [COPE council candidate] Derrick O’Keefe attended the Fearless Cities Conference in New York. The conference invited folks from all over the world, like Barcelona and Valparaiso, Chile. The idea is to use city councils to promote social and environmental movements, rather than empowering politicians and saying “Oh, those people are elected, they’re the kings and the queens and we’ll bow down to them and they make these decisions.” In the Fearless City strategy people are basically the [civic] servants of social movements and that’s what we want to be. And that’s the lesson that we’re getting from Kshama Sawant in Seattle. She’s only one councillor, but she’s really worked hard for the minimum wage and  trying to get taxes on the rich to provide the revenue to reduce homelessness. She’s really making waves.

You have to make sure you have a campaign that’s progressive like this — that you use it to build and reinforce a movement, rather than deplete it. I remember when Libby Davies and Bruce Eriksen got elected from the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, it kind of sucked the guts out of the movement. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen if some of us get elected.

Nathan: You’ve lived your whole life organizing. You’ve come out of the last decade helping build a housing justice movement in Vancouver. In places where social movements have helped get progressive and Left representatives into office, it has been obviously a contradictory or complicated process. You have places like Greece, where Syriza was a similar kind of Bernie or Corbyn moment. But in light of the imperatives of electability or the imperatives of governance, these Left parties shifted to the right. The idea of having a social movement and campaign is that you remain accountable to the movements, but at this moment there are so many contradictory forces. 

Jean: In the past, when COPE was elected to city hall as well as onto the School Board, the Province wanted them to bring in a budget full of cuts. COPE could have said, “Oh well, it’s better to have us administer the cuts than someone else.” The other thing they could have said was, “No, this is wrong” and get pushed out—which is what they did. They voted against the cuts and then the government put in a trustee. COPE has a history of taking a strong stand in things like that.

COPE and class politics

Nathan: COPE has multiple tendencies or different communities within it. I’m curious about some of the differences within COPE. The people who pay property taxes or own property within COPE have a progressive line on some surprising things, like police budgets, where there can be some common ground with social movements and communities fighting the drug war, racialized mass incarceration, and the war on the poor. But they often put up resistance around increased taxation on properties. It’s a challenge to negotiate those differences, which feel irreconcilable. In the past those forces have splintered the party with the “friends of Larry Campbell,” so there’s a history of COPE being vulnerable to its own internal elite.

Jean: Back in the ‘80s and the ‘70s, it wasn’t like that, COPE was pretty brash and out there.

Nathan: It was within the realm of possibility to have that type of class-based politics. So maybe we are re-entering that conjuncture, so in a sense maybe we shouldn’t worry about that — but I do worry. I worry about all the different cross-class coalitions considered necessary for COPE to be successful in our current moment. I don’t think it’s exclusively an electoral problem, it’s problem that occurs in all kinds of organizations. I do feel like there are some messages in the current campaign that try to speak to everybody, which can be a strategy but…

Jean: Which ones are you talking about?

Nathan: There’s the slogan, “We don’t get anything unless we ask for it.”  Who are we “asking”? Because the point is to replace City Council with a people’s government, and even abolish some of its power— that’s the horizon. And then also why “ask”? “Asking” feels like…

Jean: I see what you mean. That slogan came from me,  and I was coming from 40-years of austerity. People have gradually been trained to think, “Oh, we can’t ask for that, it costs too much. Oh, that will contribute to the deficit too much. Oh, that’s the wrong level of government. Oh, we’ll have a capital strike. Oh, we can’t do this. Oh we can’t do that.” And so, the amount of things that we can actually do in an alleged democracy has been whittled right down to practically nothing. What I’m thinking is, we have to start saying what we need. And we have to make it legitimate to say what we need. And we have to keep doing it until we get it.

Nathan: That’s what you used to always say when we’d sit in Our Homes Can’t Wait meetings with the City. They would say vague things about what they were doing, but you would say, “Does that meet the need? Do you even know what the need is? Here’s what we feel the need is.”

Jean: Yes — here’s what we feel the need is, which you’re [the City] ignoring. They do it with their framing. I remember during the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, they kept holding off on bringing in the issue of housing, which of course was the most important issue for the Downtown Eastside. Finally, after months and months — years actually — we had this big meeting in the McLean Tower. All the staff was there and they had all these handouts, and it was 2-hours of them framing the whole housing situation of the Downtown Eastside [as if] it wasn’t a disaster, as if everything was OK. I got up and I demanded to make a 5-minute statement to reframe the situation: “Okay, we have this many homeless people, we have this many housing units that suck. We need this many. We need to do this to get them, right?” Part of asking for what we need is changing the frame so that what we need becomes a possibility. A political possibility, and in fact a political imperative, right?

Defunding the police

Nathan: Your campaign promises to defund the police and to transfer those resources into services. 

Jean: Anne Roberts, who’s served on City Council before, has proposed some ways of doing this. We need to reduce the police budget and there’s a lot of places where it could be reduced, particularly where they harass low-income people and people who use drugs. We just need to do it. Actually, Vision Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer didn’t vote for the police budget last time because of that. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen her on a vote against Vision. I was pretty shocked.

Nathan: It’s maybe a symptom of their coalition crumbling a bit. For ten years Vision has been aggressively increasing the police budget, maybe some of them are regretting it.   

Jean: It’s also a symptom of the work that you guys at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users have done, showing how the treatment of people by police — of low-income and racialized people by police — is not good. And all these “toys.” That’s another thing I’d really like to look at. How can we reduce and roll back the militarization of the police?

Nathan: Absolutely. That would be a massive shift and simultaneously free up resources.

Jean: There’s all this evidence that shows that when you have a more equal society, everything gets better. Voter turnout goes up, there’s less racism, there’s fewer teenage pregnancies. The life expectancy of the poor goes up, because a huge impact of inequality is that poor people die young. Even the rich have a higher life expectancy. Chip Wilson, we’re taking your money for your own benefit! [Laughs]

Colonialism and gender violence

Nathan: In the last ten years in our movement, the depth of the social democratic or socialist framework has been expanded or broadened. Some people dismiss it as “identity politics” and claim that it’s divisive, but it’s important and I want to now talk about this. 

Jean: It is important.

Nathan: It’s a parallel question to the one I asked earlier about limitations, but also possibilities within COPE. How do these question play out within COPE, which is also a traditionally white organization. 

Jean: We are trying to improve. We have some amazing people of colour that are really involved in the campaign. I’m trying to encourage them to run. I think it would be amazing, and to be active in the next period of time, so that running — getting elected — becomes a possibility. One of the things we’d like to do with the mansion tax is use it to work with host nations to give some land back.

Nathan: And that’s in the platform.

Jean: COPE school board candidate Diana Day is really working on Indigenous high school and proactive measures to combat racism. We’ve been talking about bringing back the City’s anti-racism committee, and allowing permanent residents to vote (1) — which we’d really push. I talk to so many people in the street and they say, “Oh, I can’t vote, I’m a permanent resident.” There are tens of thousands of permanent residents in Vancouver, like sixty-thousand in the city. It’s ridiculous. In terms of Vancouver’s Sanctuary City policy, we really want to start training city staff so that they understand that the Sanctuary City is actually implemented, rather than just something on paper. We also want see what we can do to actually get the police to stop taking people to border security.

Nathan: What does a COPE campaign deliver for women, for people who are gender non-conforming, for LGBTQ and trans people?

Jean: So Anne Roberts [COPE council candidate] is really great on women’s stuff. I’ve never really been that great on women’s stuff. I’ve always worked in a “man environment” here in the Downtown Eastside, but I mean that’s cool. We have in our policy that we want a gender lens on everything. I’d like to see a poverty lens and an environmental lens and an Indigenous lens as well. So I think we really have to work on those lenses, and we obviously need trans-specific stuff, like shelters — we don’t need shelters, we need housing — but we also need to see if trans folks want trans-specific housing.

Nathan: Recently there have been legitimate feelings that gender-based violence within our own movements isn’t consistently addressed or taken seriously.

Jean: We have a policy at COPE that is supposed to be addressing a code of conduct. It has a thing so that if you feel like you’re harassed or assaulted or anything there’s a safe way for you to get support and there’s a neutral person for you to talk to, and a process for it. We have that now, we didn’t have it before. So the idea is to prevent problems from happening, and if they do, to have a fair way of supporting victims and seeing that they get what they need and sorting it to.

Nathan: And doing both, dealing with it as a conflict-resolution or transformative justice in that moment, but then also seeing it as systemic and tying those two together. Rather than just seeing it as a small thing between individuals that gets in the way of our larger work, or pretending that these are just side-issues rather than something that goes to the heart of our organizing.

COPE council candidates Jean Swanson, centre left, and Anne Roberts, centre right speak to supporters near Broadway and Cambie Street in Vancouver. (JENNIFER GAUTHIER / FOR STARMETRO) (Via. Vancouver Star)
COPE council candidates Jean Swanson, centre left, and Anne Roberts, centre right speak to supporters near Broadway and Cambie Street in Vancouver. (JENNIFER GAUTHIER / FOR STARMETRO) (Via. Vancouver Star)

Labour and transit

Nathan: It’s clear housing has been centred in the campaign. What about labour or transit?

Jean: Transit. We want to work towards free transit. We’ve endorsed All On Board, which is a group that’s working on free transit for kids under 18 and a cheaper pass for low-income people. That’s a first step. It’s just insane that they’re thinking of putting all these billions of dollars into a SkyTrain line to UBC. How are they going to pay for it? By increasing fees? There’s so many folks that are getting huge tickets because they can’t afford to travel. We also want to see what we can do to get rid of those transit cops. That would be a source of revenue.

Nathan: Okay. Can you talk about what it means to be a worker in Vancouver under a COPE government?

Jean: One of the things we want to work for is a Vancouver-specific minimum wage that would be higher than the minimum wage in the province. And of course, a living wage for city workers, including contract workers, who aren’t covered now.

Last remarks, and the environment

Nathan: I feel like we touched on a lot. Going forward, what do you want to tell the readers about the campaign?

Jean: We’re trying to have a bunch of policies that will make the city affordable for people who aren’t millionaires. The only way for us to actually be able to implement them is 1) for people to work with us as part of the movement of their choice, and 2) to come out and vote. Because we’re not going to get elected unless we get more low-income people voting. You didn’t say anything about the environment.

Nathan: Right. One of my weak points. [Laughs]

Jean: It has been mine too, until recently. Not in the back of mind—like in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Oh shit, this is really huge.” But we really do need to do our part and more to tackle global warming. And free transit would be part of that. But we can do things with building codes. Like these modular housing should incorporate passive solar design, which would probably boost their cost a bit in the beginning, but not in the end. Also, no new fossil fuel infrastructure in the City, and of course doing our part to stop Kinder Morgan. You see my t-shirt. [Laughs]

Nathan: Yeah, Sinister Seniors, it’s great. Speaking of how to free up land, I couldn’t believe there’s a massive part of the centre of this City which is just car dealerships. [Laughs] From an environmental perspective. So, one day we can dream, if we have an actual transit system that works for people, then the car dealerships will be gone, all of False Creeks Flats….

Jean: That would be great. I should have put that in my questionnaire for the Force of Nature Alliance.

Nathan: Thanks so much Jean. You’re an inspiration.

Jean: Oh, I don’t know about that.


[1] City Council passed a motion in April 2018 to pressure the provincial government to grant voting rights for permanent residents. This has not yet been implemented.