Jenn Jackson July 2012, installed at The Crying Room, Vancouver
This past December, the Conservatives forced through legislative changes to nearly every aspect of First Nations life in Canada. The reforms of omnibus Bill C-45 have sparked the Idle No More movement, and while First Nations have been far from idle in recent years, Canada is experiencing an upsurge of Indigenous activism not felt since the late 1980s and early ‘90s. One focus of the opposition to Bill C-45 is the First Nations Property Ownership Act (FNPOA), a law to convert First Nations reserve land into private property for sale on Canada’s housing market.
Urban housing crisis
To understand the implications of Bill C-45 it is necessary to interpret the current state of the Canadian housing market. The housing crisis engulfing Canada today affects First Nations worse than any other group. In Vancouver, 32 percent of homeless people are aboriginal, despite making up only two percent of the city’s population. In Calgary the rate is 35 percent and in Toronto it is almost 20 percent. The people whose land forms the basis of the colonial nation are the most likely to be left without a home. If they do have an apartment in one of Canada’s largest cities, First Nations are in turn the most likely to be evicted and dispossessed by Canada’s aggressive housing market and colonial tenancy laws.
Yet, as Canada enters an affordability crisis unprecedented since the 1940s, policy-makers are seeking to extend the reach of the private housing market beyond the class-divided cities and onto the reserves.
This weekend NDP voters in the Vancouver-Fairview riding rejected Vision councillor Geoff Meggs as their representative in the upcoming provincial elections. The defeat of a sitting councillor represents a significant defeat for Vision Vancouver, but also a strong sign of disapproval for NDP’s leadership and union hierarchy. The party’s base of active membership has voted for George Heyman, striking down the endorsement of Meggs by the NDP-Fairview Executive, which includes CUPE’s Paul Faoro, a key player in labour’s rightward turn at the municipal level since the creation of Vision Vancouver in 2005.
Fairview is the former riding of Mayor Gregor Robertson. Due to this alone the rejection of Meggs signals a serious upset for Vision Vancouver. Fairview is a “battleground riding” in provincial politics, but also a weather-vane for the political climate of the city itself. But why exactly did members turn against Meggs?
Yesterday Vision Vancouver released its final report on Housing Affordability in Vancouver. Shortly after being elected for a second term, Vision created an Affordability Task Force to address issues of housing affordability. The high-profile Task Force was co-chaired by the Mayor and right wing millionaire developer Olga Ilich, a former member of Gordon Campbell’s cabinet. The remaining members were comprised of fourteen Vision appointees drawn from the development industry: prominent developers, landlord lobbyists and industry insiders. Not a single renter or renter representative was appointed to the Task Force, despite the fact that renters — making up 55% of the city’s population — are the worst affected by the housing crisis.
For a long time Vancouver elites have struggled to square the circle of how to produce housing affordability without negatively affecting developer profits and property owners’ interests. The Task Force has proved no different in encountering this clash between ideal and reality, vexed by the challenge of balancing profitability with public anger about the housing crisis. That contradiction is the sharp rock upon which the Task Force is now shipwrecked. Despite Olga Ilich’s statement that “the biggest cost in Vancouver is the cost of land,” the Mayor admitted yesterday to the Province that he “doesn’t see the affordability plan having a broad impact on land values in Vancouver.”
The final recommendations of the Task Force show little advance from the neoliberal recommendations offered in the interim recommendations of last March. The first, and arguably the most disastrous for deregulating the private housing market, is a recommendation that planners abandon the city’s Inclusionary Zoning requirements. “The City’s current inclusionary zoning policy requires developers to set aside 20% of land for affordable housing,” the report states. “While this approach creates the opportunity for affordable housing development…a different approach will be needed to deliver affordability.”
Current city by-laws require 20% non-market housing in all new large-scale development projects, as well as in the DEOD (Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District). This year, however, inclusionary zoning policies have already been flouted by major city council decisions, including 800 Griffiths Way, “market rent” social housing at 955 East Hastings, and the decision to rent “social housing” for $900 per month at Sequel 138 Pantages redevelopment. The Task Force recommendation goes a step further in pushing council to put the deregulation approach into writing, thereby further lowering the bar for maintaining safeguards against privatization. The Mainlander has warned as far back as January 2011 that Vision Vancouver was planning to remove inclusionary zoning in Vancouver. This proposal will only make Vancouver more unaffordable for the long-term.
This is the first part in a series by Nathan Crompton on the redevelopment of Heather Place, an imperiled affordable housing development in central Vancouver. The second part of the article, titled “The Politics of Repairs,” addresses the politics of negligence and disrepair at Heather Place and similar housing projects in Metro Vancouver.
For thirty years, Heather Place has been the largest affordable housing quarter in Vancouver’s Fairview neighborhood. Acting as the heart and the anchor of Fairview – both geographically and socially – the two-block development provides family housing for almost three-hundred parents and children in 86 separate apartments. VGH support staff, single mothers attending university, artists, service industry workers, and a large number of Canadian immigrants all live at the foot of the Vancouver General Hospital thanks to the housing of Heather Place. “As a microcosm of Vancouver,” Heather Place resident Julie Okot Bitek says, “we also represent the world, having at Heather Place people from all corners of the earth.”
Vancouver curator and filmmaker Amy Kazymerchyk grew up at Heather Place and remembers the diversity and community. By six years old she could speak six languages and would visit neighbors by ducking in and out of the project’s interlocking buildings. With its overlapping 2- and 3-bedroom apartments, connected together by a unique network of elevated walkways, Heather Place is something of an architectural anomaly. Next to generic retail-inspired residential construction, its buildings are distinctly well planned. In more ways than one Heather Place has served as an affordable housing stronghold in Vancouver, safe from the rent increases, shock evictions, renovictions, and negligent landlords of Vancouver’s private housing market.
Today, however, the 86 homes of Heather Place are at risk of demolition. Since last February, the developer-backed politicians and home-owning bureaucrats who control the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation have made the decision to collaborate with private developers to demolish Heather Place. Fifty-eight of the eighty-six affordable units will be lost forever in the redevelopment plans, to be replaced by three towers of condos, market suites and unaffordable rental housing.
In the four years since the financial crisis of 2008 brought a North American-wide collapse in housing prices, the Canadian government has successfully taken measures to bring real-estate prices back to their pre-crash levels. Following in the tracks of the American effort to rescue financial capital, the past four years have seen a joint effort by all levels of Canadian government to re-inflate the housing bubble by deregulating finance, extending new lines of direct investment into real-estate and lowering interest rates. The Canadian government has effectively called on the real-estate industry to lead the economy out of the recession, facing down typical historical patterns in which real-estate is the last industry to recover from system-wide crisis. Next to resource extraction, the only real growth industry in Canada since 2008 has been real-estate.
Yet today, as in 2008, the real-estate bubble is reaching a “tipping point,” according to a recent report by Canada’s Royal LePage. In cities like Vancouver and Toronto, housing prices have climbed to unprecedented levels, with Vancouver prices reaching up to 11 times the city’s average family income. The Bank of Canada has identified the Vancouver market as “ground zero” for the coming financial crisis, and from its perch at a distance, The Economist observes Canadian housing is “more overvalued than it was in America at the peak of its bubble.” All forms of debt are multiplying, but household debt in particular is currently higher in Canada than it was in the United States prior to the subprime crisis, with debt-to-income ratios reaching 153 per cent.
Federal exit from recession
In the two years following the global recession, federal banks across the world lowered interest rates in an effort to loosen the credit crunch and stimulate new rounds of investment. In September 2010, Mark Carney and the Bank of Canada lowered interest rates to 1 per cent, where they have since stayed. By the summer of 2011, the Canadian housing economy was showing obvious signs of escalation, and by June local prices moved well above their pre-recession peak. Having not only stimulated but “over-stimulated” the housing economy, Carney began issuing strong warnings about the unprecedented risk-exposure of Canadian mortgages. In reality, the central bank actually did everything in its power to continue the growing flow of cheap, low-interest money into the real-estate economy. Out of fear of exacerbating the underlying weakness of the recovery itself, the Bank of Canada took the position of searching out ways to buoy housing finance.
EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION| The first part of Nathan Crompton’s three-part essay introduced the history of anti-asian racism in Vancouver, while the second part focused on contemporary versions of scapegoating in Vancouver culture. But if racism and scapegoating are used to hide reality, the following essay asks a simpler question: what is the reality it hides? Behind the “empty signifiers” of culture and its discourses, what exactly is happening on the ground in Vancouver?
Despite constant invocations of “the Chinese” in debates on the housing crisis, a full third of all people living in poverty in Vancouver are Chinese. Today, in the shifting world of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, the gentrification of East Vancouver is in fact having its most direct effect on immigrants and racialized communities. Crompton draws from countless academic publications and recent demographic studies to reveal that the complex diversions of scapegoating conceal the racial and class divisions that define contemporary Vancouver.
Ground Zero: Mount Pleasant
The signs are difficult to ignore for anyone taking a walk down Main Street. Since at least 2008, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood has experienced a renewed wave of gentrification. Major shifts in the movement of capital have brought a sea-change in the number of rental apartments upgraded, renovicted, converted into strata condos, or altogether demolished to make way for new condo towers. High-end storefronts and promotional materials from the local BIA give an impression of a settled middle-class neighborhood, and the image depicted by local boosterism is slowly in the process of matching up with a new reality. But yet the hype also tells us surprisingly little about the neighborhood. At this stage of gentrification, image-making still lacks control over the world it might hope to represent. A vast majority of residents in the North Mount Pleasant area are renters (70%), most of them first and second-generation immigrants (58%). Despite being put in the unforgiving cross-hairs of gentrification, and despite superficial appearances suggesting urban lifestyle and conspicuous consumption, Mount Pleasant is today a proud and alive immigrant neighborhood.
EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION | Since publishing Part I of this three-part series, other publications have followed suit, with similar columns appearing in the Vancouver Sun and the Vancouver Courier. The articles signal a recognition that the phenomenon of affordability-scapegoating is quickly losing ground in Vancouver. There is a growing realization that, to quote Pete McMartin, “race is the unspoken issue surrounding real estate prices.” At the same time, those short articles fit into a mode of commentary increasingly associated with Vancouver: oblique and evasive, identified by an ability to ask questions rather than provide answers. Either by the practice of method journalism, faux-naïveté, or the constraints of journalistic neutrality tinged with what Am Johal calls “the epidemic of politeness,” such writing cannot help but come up short of its target. Here in Part II, Crompton shows that while racialized scapegoating relies on unsubstantiated anecdotes, the economic facts clearly show that Asian buyers are not responsible for Vancouver’s housing crisis. Crompton argues that the responsibility lies squarely at the feet of Vancouver’s local ruling-class and its neo-liberal policies.