Over the past two years, Vancouver City Council and its Planning Department have been increasing height allowances throughout the City. Almost every neighbourhood faces or has faced either a wide sweeping height plan or a precedent setting rezoning application: the DTES, the West End, Mt. Pleasant, Norquay, the CBD, and now Cambie St. This surge in upzonings is a key causal factor of Vancouver’s plummeting affordability.

In their current form, increases in height allowances essentially constitute deregulation of the real-estate market. By removing limits placed by either community-led groups or the planning department, developers can build whatever they think will be most profitable on a piece of land. In Vancouver, this means maximizing views, which means maximizing height. It also means luxury condos. If this process continues, the City’s affordability will continue to worsen.

Increasing height and density allowances on a piece of land drastically increases its value. Whether through a neighbourhood-wide ‘blanket rezoning’, or through a single plot ‘spot rezoning’, increases in density equate to windfall profits for real-estate developers. Even without any new construction, upzoning a parcel of land plays a huge role in how it is valued. This is why developers buy up properties and then “donate” to political parties like Vision Vancouver, with the expectation that their properties will be upzoned. This can lead to spiraling speculation throughout an area. There is a lot of money to be made from these rezonings.

COPE’s Executive announced today that it has negotiated a coalition deal whereby COPE will limit the number of council members it will run in the upcoming November 2011 municipal election in order to support Vision Vancouver. Under the proposed deal, yet to be approved by the general membership, COPE would run only three members for Council, four for the School Board and two for the Parks Board.

Leading up to the 2008 election, a similar deal was made to prevent a NPA majority. It was argued at the time that Vision, having split from COPE, shared similar principles. However, since the 2008 election the differences between the two parties have become even clearer.

Vision maintains a deceptive stance, claiming to support transparency and affordability, when in fact it does neither. Led by businessman Gregor Robertson, Vision is a pro-business party. Just last week they shifted property taxes from businesses onto residents for a third time. Vision staffers are closely connected with the BC Liberals and Christy Clark, while COPE is still a left-wing, working class party with connections to the NDP.

The coalition may have made sense in 2008, given Vision’s promises to end homelessness and increase transparency at City Hall. But Vision hasn’t delivered. There has been no new social housing built or planned. Neighbourhoods are suffering as lax zoning at City Hall leads to speculative property value increases. There was outrage last week as Vision passed a bylaw limiting public expression and shelter rights. Meanwhile, COPE has spent the past two years speaking out against Vision’s policies. The two parties couldn’t be less compatible.

Looking at voting records from the past two years, it would be more appropriate for Vision to form a coalition with the NPA. Both parties systematically eliminated most of the promised social housing from the Olympic Village and supported tax shifts from businesses to residents. They both refuse to use tools available to them to limit gentrification and skyrocketing housing costs.

Neighbourhoods across the city have been frustrated by City Hall’s current pro-developer stance, and have begun organizing against processes that put developers before people. Through this coalition deal, COPE is significantly limiting its ability to represent, and win victories for, the poor and working class in the midst of an affordability crisis.

There are more than enough votes in East Vancouver, COPE’s traditional base of support, to elect a legitimate working class party. The recent surge in popularity of the federal NDP is a sign of what’s possible when people start paying attention to politics and showing up at the polls.

The results from the March 20th hearing were displayed last night at a City-hosted open house. The Heritage Hall on Main Street was full of concerned citizens giving feedback on the modifications that City staff have since made to the Rize Development’s rezoning application. Most of the changes had to do with the height and scale of the building. What had been a 26 story tower has been downsized to 19 floors. The massing has been decreased on Watson and 10th Avenue, but increased on the side facing Broadway. A huge majority of residents said that a building between 6 and 12 stories would be more appropriate for the location – the smallest option on the City’s feedback forms. The drop in height reduced the density from 6.44 FSR (Floor to Space ratio) to 5.33 FSR. This is still significantly higher than the standard 3 FSR for the neighbourhood. Another new development containing social housing was talked down at City Hall from 11 stories to only 8 last July.

The massing and form are now set to be similar to those of the Lee Building on the North-West corner of Broadway and Main. The developers have been trying to spin this new tower as becoming the “signature” building for Mount Pleasant, but most see the historic Lee Building as already filling that role.

While the City has lowered the building by a few floors, as proposed it is still almost twice as tall as anything else around the Main and Broadway hub. To meet the concerns of the community, the development will still have to change significantly. The City will also need to find a way to address the neighbourhood’s affordability concerns. As it stands the development would still be very detrimental to the socio-economic makeup of Mount Pleasant.

Most of the residents were also against the Community Amenities and Benefits that had originally proposed. People are concerned that even the STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental) housing would not be affordable to people who currently live in Mount Pleasant. STIR units rent at market rates. Mount Pleasant has traditionally been an affordable, working class neighbourhood, and STIR rent in a luxury tower would likely be much higher than most in the neighbourhood could afford. In combination with the market rental, some community art space and public art have also been proposed to compensate the community for the developer’s gains from rezoning. Many were concerned that the proposed artist space would be too expensive for artists, and that artists are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to live in the neighbourhood.

At the open house, there was an opportunity for residents to express further concerns. The sense in the room was that 19 stories is still much too high. Height is being framed as the major issue for this development, but there are also serious concerns about who will be able to afford living in Mount Pleasant. Residents are worried that this development will have a domino effect, leading to further large luxury condos being built in the neighbourhood.

The council meeting for this development has not yet been announced. More information is available on the City’s website for the rezoning here.

The City has announced modifications to a city bylaw that will make it much more difficult for people to exercise their democratic right to political protest. The proposed change would regulate the use of any “structure, object, substance or thing” for a political purpose on City-owned land. Those who wish to protest will need to apply to the City for permission, at a cost of $200, and put up a deposit of $1000. Most activists and citizens movements are not funded, and these monetary requirements would essentially prohibit protests or expression by groups who could not afford it. Also, no structures would be allowed before 8am or after 8pm, eliminating the possibility for extended protests.

The City claims that the change in bylaw is a response to the long-lasting Falung Gong protest that was erected outside the Chinese Embassy in 2001 and forcibly taken down by the city in 2006. The protest consisted of a small structure and several billboards with information on civil rights abuses and religious persecution taking place in China. Not only did the protest last for five years before the City ordered it taken down, there was someone at the site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After the city’s injunction, one protester, Sue Zhang, began an uphill legal battle against the City, arguing that the removal of the structures, which had allowed the protest to proceed safely and continuously, went against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She eventually won the case in October of last year. The BC Court of Appeal argued that the city’s action was unconstitutional and its bylaw on political structures was too vague. The protest was not allowed to continue, but numerous other forms city street use were allowed for other commercial and non-commercial uses. The City’s proposed bylaw changes would mean that, despite the court ruling that it was unconstitutional to remove the original structures, no further protest would be allowed outside the Chinese Embassy. Public expression will only be allowed on commercial and industrial zoned City land. The Chinese Embassy is zoned as residential.

Over the past few years, there have been several other protests that have included the use of structures. As Vancouver becomes increasingly unaffordable, grassroots organizations have campaigned for controls on development and a stop to the gentrification of the city. Often these protests have taken the form of occupations of space. Notable examples include the 2005 squat of the Woodward’s buildings and the 2010 Olympic Tent City, both of which called for more social housing to be built in the Downtown Eastside, and involved people camping out to ensure their voices were heard. While some are saying that the policy will only be used to prevent the return of the structures outside the Chinese Embassy, many protests do use “structures, objects, substances and things.” The bylaw as proposed is so vague that should the police or future governments decide to limit citizen protests, they will have an easy bylaw to use. It’s difficult to imagine a protest or gathering of people that doesn’t include “things.”

Over two hundred people packed themselves into the still-empty Salt building at the Olympic Village on Sunday afternoon. They were there to hear from the City and developers, and to have their say about the 26 story luxury tower planned for Broadway between Main Street and Kingsgway. Most of those who attended were property owners in the area, with a few renters in the mix. Several business owners, renters, and concerned citizens from outside of the neighbourhood were also present.

The sentiments expressed in the room were almost unanimously against the project. Most of the discussion seemed to focus on the height of the building. The development is twice the allowable density for the neighbourhood at an FSR (floor to space ratio) of 6.44, compared to the current zoning FSR of 1 and the allowable FSR of 3 for the neighbourhood. Concerns about the height are focused on several issues in particular. A tall building will set a precedent for the allowable height and density in the neighbourhood in the future. Many attendees claimed they didn’t want a “Yaletown-sized tower” in their neighbourhood, and that this tall building in particular will block sunlight from hitting the well-used streets to the North and East of the development.

The most problematic effect of the tower will be on the affordability of the neighbourhood. It is increasingly difficult to find a reasonably priced place to live in what has historically been a working class neighbourhood. As Mount Pleasant is one of the few remaining “affordable” neighbourhoods in the city, many residents are faced with leaving the city altogether, and Mount Pleasant is their departure point. A luxury tower built without a comparable amount of affordable rental housing built in the neighbourhood would have the effect of increasing property taxes and rents in the neighbourhood.

Another serious problem with the consultation was the social representation at the meeting. Mount Pleasant, in addition to being a working class neighbourhood, houses many immigrant families. A 2008 report by the PIVOT Legal Society was very explicit about the problems faced by immigrant families who rent in Mount Pleasant. It notes the difficulties that many families have with the intimidating prospect of organizing against gentrification. It also highlighted the phenomenon where, in wituations where home ownership opportunities do arise in the neighbourhood, the families who already live there cannot afford them, and they are taken up by usually young white families from wealthier Vancouver neighbourhoods. The presentation by RIZE on what the finished development will look like confirmed that this is the demographic the project is marketed towards.

For the last few years the City has repeatedly claimed that there is no money for housing. As the Mayor said last October when rejecting social housing above the Strathcona Library: “we don’t have the money in the drawers…we have real limitations and uncertainty in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do.”

The reality, however, is that Vancouver has the lowest business taxes in the world. This surprising fact is complimented by another little-known fact: City Hall controls a multi-billion dollar fund it could use to develop social and affordable housing, called the Property Endowment Fund.

The Property Endowment Fund (PEF) was originally created in 1975 and was valued at around $100 million. It holds all of the city’s long-term land leases – for example, the parking lot on which the Vancouver Art Gallery hopes to construct its new building, at Cambie and Georgia. The Fund was initially created by the centre-left municipal party TEAM (TEAM was the result of a similar left-wing split that spawned Vision out of COPE). TEAM created the Fund in order to hem an NPA policy of selling city owned properties and then shifting the sale over to the operating budget in order to decrease taxes. The PEF was a strategy to stop the dead-weight loss of city land holdings while creating funds to “support the City’s public objectives.”

Today, the board of the PEF is comprised of the Mayor, two Councillors, the City Manager, and the Director of Finance. Minutes to meetings of the board have, in the past, not been available to the public. However there have been both successful and unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests for documents of the PEF board.  There have been several calls by City Councillors to make this fund more transparent. COPE Councillors Tim Louis and Ellen Woodsworth have both spoken out about the fund’s lack of accessibility. However, secrecy remains the status quo. This has led to wide speculations and criticisms of its value and current use.

In the mid 2000’s it was proposed by some that the PEF should be used in ways outlined in its mandate: to support the City’s public objectives. For a long time the city has desperately needed more social housing and the current Council has done next to nothing to stop homelessness. In the mid 2000’s, NPA mayor Sam Sullivan quashed proposals to use the PEF for progressive initiatives, instead arguing to “restore sustainability” to the Fund. What he meant was to maintain a profitable fund that adds a few millions dollars to the City’s operating budget to keep down our low business taxes.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the Property Endowment Fund is estimated to be worth almost $3 billion. The fund is rarely itself discussed, but has a tendency to loom over municipal politics. It was discussed briefly in 2010, when conservative blogger Daniel Fontaine of city-caucus filed a Freedom of Information Act request for PEF board meeting minutes, of which there were none in 2009. The revelations of the FOI were significant: the PEF board had not met that year.

Right now, the Fund is managed in secret by the Real-Estate division of the City government. The holding of such a large fund is not only an internal conflict of interest, since councillors can directly affect land prices by the powers of rezoning, but also a public conflict of interest, because while the people of Vancouver have prioritized housing affordability as a number-one issue, the fund makes the city into a real-estate speculator, helping to further push up the property values that make our city so unaffordable.

This past Thursday, the Vancouver Police Department published a press release about a series of arrests made in the Downtown Eastside. It describes eight suspected drug traffickers who used violence, torture, and fear to cruelly control residents involved in the drug trade. Some of the conditions the victims of these criminals had been put through include being stabbed, beaten, and held in cages. As the press release states, this is the first case of Criminal Organization charges in Vancouver police history.

It took community protests to pressure police to investigate exploitation of Downtown Eastside residents. The two police initiatives leading to the arrests were part of an umbrella program called “Sister Watch,” which was designed to curb violence against women in the Downtown Eastside in response to grassroots protest.

Although it would be an improvement for the police to begin protecting residents from exploitation, it must be said that the strong-arm approach of both the VPD is a significant part of the problem of violence in the Downtown Eastside. The “war on drugs” diverts resources away from social services into policing. It simply has not been the case that police use these resources to protect residents from exploitation. On the contrary, the police impose added violence onto the poor, who are unfairly shuffled through the revolving door of “justice.”