EDITORAL INTRODUCTION | From the start, Vancouver has been marked by a history of racism against Chinese and Asian immigrants, a fact which few commentators can overlook (although not few enough, as this article demonstrates in its sharp critique of Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk). Part I of this three-part essay by Nathan Crompton reaches into contemporary Vancouver to find that despite the passage of time, original assumptions and archetypes of race and class have proven indispensable for an ongoing history of scapegoating – a history that has, according to Crompton, reached a peak in today’s discussion of housing in Vancouver. Far from signaling the simple break away from the city’s colonial past, the mystical real-estate economy proves fertile grounds for the re-capitulation of the time-tested logic of political scapegoating. This three-part essay is sure to have an impact not only for its use of historical and empirical research to blow the lid off assumptions that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be explained by Asian capital, but for its direct critique of household politicians and commentators. From Sandy Garossino to Gregor Robertson, few are spared in this militant clarion-call to move beyond the present by clearing out the skeletons of history.


At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”?[1] If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia.

Fin de siècle Vancouver

There was recently a telling moment when Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk used his column to target Vancouver school board trustee, Allan Wong. Hasiuk attacked Wong for a motion put forward at the school board calling on the province to incorporate the history of British Columbians of Chinese descent into the regular provincial curriculum. Curriculum changes were not needed, according to Hasiuk, since there is already too much Chinese Canadian history taught in the secondary curriculum. Hasiuk moreover mocks the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “holy trinity” in both the curriculum and cultural memory of Vancouver.

Three dozen seniors living on fixed incomes in the Lions Manor building at 6th and Main have been served with a 45% rent increase. In a city with an ever-worsening housing crisis, the tenants could be faced with the possibility of having nowhere to go.

The Mount Pleasant Housing Society (MPHS), a non-profit organization set up by the Mount Pleasant Lions Club, has applied to the Residential Tenancy Branch for permission to exceed the annual rent-increase limit by more than ten times, arguing that rents at Lions Manor are below market value. In reality, the 36 residents of Lions Manor already pay between 35-45% of their income on rent, which is higher than the one-third cut-off rate defined by the City of Vancouver as affordable.*

The rent-increase hearing is scheduled for today (February 10) at the Residential Tenancy Branch. The hearing will take place by phone, adding even more anonymity to the fact that the building owners have not yet met face-to-face with the seniors to discuss the increase. Despite pressure to revoke their application, including a rally outside the Lions Manor yesterday, the Mount Pleasant Housing Society has confirmed that it will pursue the rent increase as planned.

In an extensive conversation with The Mainlander, Mount Pleasant Housing Society president Christine Norman confirmed that if the hearing comes down in favor of the tenants, her organization will appeal the decision. “We will do whatever we have to do to win the case,” said Norman by phone.

Rents have already increased within the allowable legal limit for at least the past two consecutive years at the Lions Manor. This year, however, the owners are seeking a special exemption from the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) beyond its allowable yearly limit of inflation-plus-two-percent. Under Section 23(1)(a), the geographic area loophole of the RTA, the Mount Pleasant Housing Society is applying for an additional 45% rent increase. The section reads:

A landlord may apply under section 43 (3) of the Act [additional rent increase] if one or more of the following apply: (a) after the rent increase allowed under section 22 [annual rent increase], the rent for the rental unit is significantly lower than the rent payable for other rental units that are similar to, and in the same geographic area as, the rental unit.

This loophole puts all renters in gentrifying areas at risk. The neighborhood surrounding Lions Manor is part of what the Vancouver planning department calls the Main Street revitalization corridor, stretching from Alexander Street south to 36th Avenue. The advancement of the condo frontier up Main Street has widened the rent gap between the ground rent and highest-best use capitalized rent, increasing the return on capital in the area. As such, market rents bear no reflection of the actual costs of tenancy but rather of the opportunity cost of capital. The Residential Tenancy Act exists to protect renters from the most exploitative aspects of the housing market, but Section 23(1)(a) cancels out the very purpose of the Act.

MPHS states that it needs a 45% revenue increase to funds its renovations, although Norman would not speak further for fear of “jeopardizing” her case before the Residential Tenancy hearing. According to Norman, the building should have been repaired 10 years ago. Balconies were left to decay by the Lion’s Club and only repaired when they became a safety hazard.

Vancouver’s 6-year Director of Planning has been fired by city council. In lieu of a normal transition process, the city has fired Toderian without an immediate replacement. While it is not clear why Toderian was fired, the abrupt decision came after a period of heightened tension with prominent developers, including disagreements with Holborn Group at Little Mountain and Wall Financial Corp at Shannon Mews.

At a press conference today the Mayor stated that Toderian’s dismissal was prompted by the need for “new leadership to deal with new challenges facing the city, especially around housing affordability and economic development.” Rather than focusing on Toderian’s conflicts with developers, Robertson and the city stated that a new planning director should be capable of “balancing competing demands” between affordability on the one hand and market development on the other.

City hall insiders, however, were less vague than Roberston. Bob Ransford emphasized that Toderian “had a hard time with the necessary political skills needed to keep developers on your side.” Michael Geller also acknowledged that Toderian was “unpopular with many developers.” Mike Klassen was even more direct: “Let’s be clear about why Brent is leaving the City of Vancouver now. First, the development community by in large didn’t support him.” This analysis by Vancouver’s three “in-house” right-wing commentators was echoed by a fourth right-wing perspective, from Jeff Lee.

Lee pointed to the development community’s ongoing refusal to pay normal development taxes. According to Lee, Toderian was fired because he was “responsible for enforcing a controversial ‘community amenity contribution’ (CAC) program.” Far from being controversial, the CAC program is a simple tax placed on private developers in exchange for community amenities like daycare, recreation centers and artist studios. While Lee would give the impression that CAC’s are onerous and dig into “the bulk of profits,” the small CACs have virtually no impact on the developers’15 – 20% minimum profit rate.

For the past few years, Toderian and the planning department have also been butting heads with development corporations over the normal taxation on market development with respect to the land zoning process. In Vancouver, land-value is tied to the amount of development allowed on a site, which city planners term the Floor Space Ratio (FSR). When the FSR is increased, it most frequently means that the allowable building height has been increased, therefore the process is called “upzoning” or “land lift.” Upzoning automatically increases the value of the land commodity, but as with most things at city hall, the developer is not required to pay the full value of its commodity: on average, developers are required to pay 75 – 80% of the upzoned value. Sometimes this amounts to millions of dollars of free money if the land has been purchase prior to rezoning.

In a report to the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) members this weekend, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) representative Bill Pegler delivered a strong statement of support for Vancouver’s newly-elected city council. Despite COPE losing all of its council and parks board seats, and all but one school board seat, CUPE has declared the November elections a victory. “For CUPE, the 2011 elections were a success,” Pegler said to a crowd of 100 COPE members gathered at the Hastings Community Centre to debrief the 2011 Vancouver civic election. “The overall goals of CUPE have been met.”

Because COPE accepts few corporate donations, the party relies on unions for the vast majority of its funding. In the 2008 civic election, 80% of COPE’s $350,000 in campaign contributions came from unions, including a full 50% from CUPE locals alone. At the other side of the equation, Vision has identified CUPE as an important piece of the puzzle for electoral success in Vancouver, both in terms of financial donations (CUPE donates more to Vision than to COPE), and in terms of Vision’s ability to secure control over the COPE Executive via its financial donors.

Pegler’s comments send a strong signal to Vision that they should continue the electoral alliance with COPE to keep “the party of renters” in the position of being alive but without seats on council. The comments also signaled to COPE that in order to survive within their current funding structure, COPE volunteers must continue working to elect representatives of CUPE’s preferred party.

While CUPE donates heavily to Vision Vancouver, the majority of Vision’s funding comes from developers. This is due to the fact that city council’s biggest job is to regulate land use — and therefore property values and rents. Under Vision, the city will remain steadfastly right-wing on these core issues, with the result that Vancouverites — including CUPE members — will spend more and more of their incomes on sky-rocketing rents and land values. By considering Vision’s victory a success, CUPE is making the choice to neglect the key issues of affordability, housing security, and public transportation.