Former city councilor Ellen Woodsworth speaks about her experience not only as a personal loss, but also as another casualty in Vancouver’s diminishing affordable housing stock

When former Vancouver city councilor Ellen Woodsworth saw the For Sale sign go up in front of the row house that she and her partner had occupied for over 30 years, she saw an opportunity. It was August 2011, only shortly before the municipal election, and Woodsworth thought that she might get some friends together in order to buy and maintain the six units of what she describes as “really good affordable housing.” The house had been built in 1918 and Woodsworth wanted to fix it up. “Not much work has been done on it, it’s pretty run down.”

However, by October, the owner of the row houses was seriously negotiating with another buyer, and the sale was completed in December. Due to the time constraints and the pressures of campaigning, Woodsworth was unable to enact her plan.

Shortly after the sale in December, the new owners began fixing up some of the other units, and Woodsworth began asking what their plans were, as she was concerned about the future of her home.

Finally on June 19th , two days before she and her partner had planned to leave on vacation, Woodsworth got an answer. “They put an eviction notice through our mailbox, which is actually not the legal way to do it… legally you have to give it to people in person.”

Along the north eastern shores of False Creek, between Science World and BC Place, lies a vast expanse of land owned by developer Concord Pacific. The parcel of land hosts Concord Pacific’s sales centre and is used primarily as rental space for special events.

Recently however, the lot has become host to an urban farm run by a group called SOLEfood. SOLEfood is a self-described “social enterprise” that grows produce in order to sell it at farmers markets, as well as directly to local restaurants. While initially funded by grants and donations, the project aims to be self-sustaining.

While Concord Pacific is leasing the property to SOLEfood for three years at no cost, the farm is highly profitable for the developer. Under the City of Vancouver’s tax classifications, the property would normally be designated class six: “business or other,” with a taxation rate of 1.75 per cent. The presence of the urban farm re-designates the lot to class eight, or “recreation and non-profit,” which lowers the tax rate to 0.56 — less than a third of the original rate.

Concord Pacific’s project map shows that the company intends to develop a number of sites on the lot, near where the Georgia Viaduct now sits, by 2020. The SOLE in SOLEfood stands for Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical. With a three year lease on a lot intended to be developed in less than a decade, it would seem that sustainability is not its strongest feature.

Concord pays around half a million dollars per year in taxes on the property, 10 Pacific Boulevard. In a recent interview with Zoe McKnight of the Vancouver Sun, the company estimated their savings via SOLEfood in the $15,000 range. However, if the new urban farm tax rate is applied to the entire property, Concord will pay only one-third of its taxes, saving instead over 300 thousand dollars per year.

Yesterday, over 27,000 workers in the BC Government and Service Employee’s Union went on strike; the largest job action the Union has taken in over 20 years.

The one day long strike is part of the escalating action the BCGEU has participated in over the last few months, including the one-day strike of workers at three liquor distribution centres in July.

The BCGEU has around 65,000 members, which include social workers, BC Liquor Store employees, Ministry of Children and Family Development employees, and forest fire fighters.

The BCGEU has decided on a one day strike action after experiencing stagnant wages that haven’t increased since April 2009, says Evan Stewart, the union’s Communications Officer. Stewart says the current salaries lag far behind inflation, a range he estimates at five to five-and-a-half percent.

One day might seem like a short amount of time for a list of demands that include a 3.5 per cent wage increase in the first year, a demand that BC Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid has already publicly opposed.

Stewart says that the primary goal of the current action is to raise awareness, though they will push on if necessary. “If the government doesn’t come back to the table and if we can’t have some meaningful negotiations, there’s every likelihood that we will dial-up our job action,” he says.

The reasons for keeping the action low-key are slightly more complex than they may appear, however.