Editors’ note: This is the first part of a series exploring the politics of sustainability, development and urban entrepreneurialism. The second part of this series will build on the analysis put forward by exploring specific case studies in Vancouver.

Vancouver has a complicated relationship with nature. Over the last decade sustainability discourses and city policies are increasingly mobilized to defend private development, in particular, condo mega-projects which are marketed as transit-oriented developments. Sustainability is embedded within a broader language and policy framework of urban entrepreneurialism and relentless ‘global city’ posturing. Urban sustainability is constructed as post-political, striving to avoid traditional ideological divisions between left and right…

This article was originally posted on thecityfm.org

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Task Force on housing affordability avoided using Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) definition of “affordable housing” in its recently-released final report. The report, entitled “Bold Ideas for an Affordable City,” instead opts for a flexible and vague definition of housing affordability.

In the glossary (page 40) of the task force’s final report, “affordable housing” is defined as housing that:

can be provided by the City, government, non-profit, community and for-profit partners. It can be found or developed along the whole housing continuum, and include SROs, market rental and affordable home ownership. The degree of housing affordability results from the relationship between the cost of housing and household income. It is not a static concept, as housing costs and incomes change over time.

This definition stands in contrast to the widely accepted definition provided by the CMHC:

The cost of adequate shelter should not exceed 30% of household income. Housing which costs less than this is considered affordable. However, consumers, housing providers and advocacy organizations tend to use a broader definition of affordability.

The Mayor’s Task Force is attempting to argue that affordability is not a “static concept,” as quoted in the above glossary excerpt. Housing affordability is based on household income, which, yes does indeed change based on income level over time. But none of this changes the fact that the dominant definition of affordability is static at 30% of household income.

Vision Vancouver and city planners have recently launched a series of highly branded “ideas competitions” with design-heavy titles like re:THINK and re:CONNECT. While the stated purpose of these competitions has been to generate creative new ideas for the city’s greatest planning challenges, the reality is that these events represent staged spectacles that obscure Vancouver’s housing crisis. The story of re:THINK and re:CONNECT offers a textbook model for how to distract residents away from the the social injustices of extraordinary housing costs and incredible developer profits, displacing politics through the spectacle of competition.

The re:THINK housing competition encourages ordinary residents to submit and vote on ideas for “protecting and creating affordable housing in Vancouver,” while re:CONNECT called on the citizens of Vancouver to “join with local and international designers to ignite discussion and dream new possibilities for the future of the viaducts and the City’s broader Eastern Core.” By launching these flashy spectacles of competition, oriented primarily around designing our way out of the crisis (or ignoring the housing crisis completely in the case of re:CONNECT), Vision Vancouver is embracing the creative neoliberal language of community and citizen participation, while actually sidelining the fundamental socio-economic injustices of our developer-run city.