This Tuesday, the Vision-controlled City Council struck a developer-run “affordable housing” task force. The public debate surrounding the affordability crisis has begun in earnest – and that is a great thing. Unfortunately, the discussion has been largely limited to pundits in the corporate media and rich people who work in the development industry — none of whom have have direct experience dealing with the affordability crisis. The vast majority of their professional and friendship networks are totally disconnected from the front lines of eviction and tenure insecurity.

As a result, much public commentary has been out-of-touch and condescending. The quality of recommendations has been substandard, the argumentation lazy, all this grounded in a position of apathy. For example, Gary Mason published a piece in the Globe and Mail this morning entitled “Living in Vancouver comes at a price,” which begins by recognizing that we are in the midst of an affordability crisis:

“Most of the world’s major cities are trying to solve this problem – in the most politically palatable way possible. In Canada, the issue is particularly acute in markets such as Toronto and Vancouver, where real-estate prices long ago made home ownership a dream for everyone except the wealthy.”

First we should note that Mason’s main, though concealed, argument here is that Vancouver’s housing problem is no different from that of any other major city. This is decidedly false. The disparity between median income and median market housing price is larger in Vancouver than every other city on the planet except for Hong Kong. But then Hong Kong has 1.2 million units of public housing, which house 40% of the population. Just this week, a report came out showing that Vancouver has the highest rent in Canada. While most readers will know all this intuitively — many of us adapt to the crisis by multiple-subletting and by sleeping in attics, basements, on couches, floors – it’s necessary to cite these figures to remind out-of-touch elites that the crisis is systemic. The situation in Vancouver is not healthy and normal. It is pathological and exploitative.

Mason then addresses some policy approaches he has heard circulating in elite circles: 1) “subsidized” housing on city land, 2) rezone certain areas for more townhouses, and 3) co-op housing.

Here are five basic things you’ll need to know to guide you through the fog of the 2011 Vancouver civic election campaign

1. Both the NPA and Vision Vancouver are bankrolled by developers

The most powerful thing the city does is make decisions about how land is developed. The city decides what kind of development is allowed on a given property, and how big. This is called “zoning,” which largely determines the value of the property. The city can also decide to change what’s allowed on a given property, thereby changing its value — “rezoning.” In short, big developers donate millions of dollars to municipal parties with the expectation that the parties will help increase the value of developers’ properties.

Both the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and Vision Vancouver are bankrolled by big developers. As Vision’s Geoff Meggs said in an interview with The Mainlander this week, of the millions of campaign contributions to his party, “the lion’s share comes from developers.” Vision split from COPE in 2005 in part because of the Vision faction’s pro-developer strategy. In 2005, of Vision Vancouver’s $1.3M in campaign contributions, a full $984,000 was from corporations — largely developers. By comparison, of $525,740.81 raised by COPE during its 2005 campaign, only $25,763 was from corporations. In 2008, Vision raised $1,704,258.81 during, and another $433,560.83 after the election. About 60% of this was from corporations, including half a million from developers (for a breakdown see here). At Vision’s recent fundraising gala at the Westin Bayshore, Nov 3 2011, the list of attendees is dominated by developers.

The Non-Partisan Association has always been a developer party. During the 2008 campaign, the developer donations to the NPA equaled that of Vision: half a million dollars. The NPA’s current fundraising manager is Rob MacDonald, a right-wing developer and realtor. MacDonald’s fundraising pitch of September 2011, directed at developers, claimed that it is “unconstitutional” for the city to tax developers at all! The NPA expects to raise $2.4 million this campaign.

2. Despite the talk, neither the NPA or Vision will take action to alleviate the affordability crisis

No matter which way you slice it, Vancouver is one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. A recent RBC report showed that the average family would have to fork out over 90% of their income to buy an average bungalow, and over 50% of their income for an average condo. CMHC defines “affordable” as having to pay no more than 30% of household income on one’s housing.

The big developers need prices to stay high in order to ensure maximum profits. To protect these donors, the NPA and Vision will go to great lengths to maintain the unaffordable status quo. If you watched Wednesday’s CBC mayoral debate, you would have strained to tell the difference between Robertson and Anton’s approaches. It’s like trying to differentiate between Pepsi and Coke at a taste-test — the difference is that there is no difference!

Below, Tristan Markle of The Mainlander interviews Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs, who is running for re-election to Vancouver City Council. We discuss Vancouver’s unaffordability malady: would Meggs make the correct diagnosis, or propose a sufficient intervention? We discuss other cities with similar disorders, but which have more robust public housing programs: would Meggs help implement those programs here, or take responsibility for the ongoing destruction of public housing? We discuss developer contributions to political parties: is Vision passing the buck on campaign finance reform? Finally, we compare 1983’s Operation Solidarity (in which Meggs was heavily involved) to the Occupy Together movement: is Vision misrepresenting, even vilifying, the new movement?

Markle: Why is housing so unaffordable in Vancouver, what’s the main reason?

Meggs: I would say there’s some short term key drivers, and some longer term ones. In the short term, the key reason’s been that the economy’s been quite buoyant here, and we’ve had a lot of people moving here, so it’s been driving up demand, and demand has been coupled with a lot of speculation. Because for about about 15 -20 years housing prices have tended to go up. So there’s a speculative element, there’s no doubt about it. But I think in the longer term I think the bigger picture is that land supply is quite constrained here and the ALR [the Agricultural Land Reserve] is part of that, it’s a positive part but it’s a contributor.

Markle: When you said that speculation plays a part, what exactly do you mean?

Meggs: Well I think many people had an expectation for a long time that if they purchased real estate that they would see gains in their equity that was faster than the rate of inflation. In other words, they could benefit economically by buying real estate more so than buying an RRSP or putting it in a bank account or buying Canadian savings bonds. And for a long time that was true. As a result, there was more pressure on the market than was justified by reality.

Markle: Last year prices went up over 20%, still. So how is that happening?

Meggs: Well I’m not an expert on all of these things, but I believe that because the BC economy and the Canadian economy have been relatively buffered from the global crisis, and because there are a number of underlying factors that make this a very attractive place to live – you know, say, no civil wars or armed conflicts going on, a pretty solid stable legal system, all of these things that are appealing – a lot of people have been coming here to purchase and to some degree to speculate. So we’ve continued to see higher prices than almost anywhere else in North America, certainly in stark contrast to the United States, for sure. That seems to be related to our place in the global economy.

Markle: We hear a lot about people from other countries buying property here on the one hand, but research doesn’t make it so clear that the majority of capital invested in new condos, for example, is necessarily coming from people from elsewhere, at all. You’ve covered some of the research that shows that it’s not so simple as that.

Meggs: I don’t think it’s useful to pursue that line of inquiry at all personally, and potentially dangerous, because it’s a classic deflection in BC politics to blame our problems on outsiders. The reality is that if there are purchases by offshore investors at the high end of the market, it’s not having and impact on anybody that I’m worried about at all. The real problem is at the mid-range.

Markle: Depending on what type of housing you’re looking at, whether it’s stand-alone homes or condos, the median price is way out of proportion to median income. High end properties won’t affect that median much at all. So when Bob Rennie did a study recently which said that all the talk about housing being unaffordable is skewed by the high end, he missed the point. The most simple measures of housing affordability – median income versus median price – are not affected by high end. So what is it then that’s driving up the prices, if it’s for the large part not money flowing in necessarily from elsewhere, not necessarily for high end luxury properties, so what is it?

Ashlie Gough, only 23 years old, passed away November 5th 2011 during a weekend visiit to Vancouver from Victoria. Ashlie passed before her time, and there is nothing more upsetting, more infuriating, than people passing before their time. This lost future has registered public attention because the overdose occurred at a political protest camp — Occupy Vancouver. In some ways, this tragedy was a chance accident in a unique situation. But it is also true that overdoses are far more common in Vancouver than anyone would hope, or than many would prefer to acknowledge.

During the 1990s, the number of lethal overdoses in Vancouver skyrocketed, with hundreds dying every year. Hep C and HIV reached epidemic levels in the injection drug-user (IDU) community, and people across the city feared that the epidemic would spread. In 1997 the Vancouver-Richmond Health Board called a state-of-emergency. The emergency situation was felt most strongly by those in the Downtown Eastside, who saw their friends and family passing away at an alarming rate. In 1997, community organizers filled Oppenheimer Park with 1000 wooden crosses, each representing a preventable overdose death. Over the next three years, another thousand lives were lost, so in the year 2000 the community planted 2000 crosses.

These thousands of lost futures traumatized the community, but also galvanized the community into action. The time of waiting for government to act was over — it was time to take pro-active measures. Organizers began experimenting with illegal needle-exchanges and safe-infection sites in the Downtown Eastside. An epic political battle erupted between proponents of harm-reduction on the one hand, and business improvement associations on the other — depicted vividly in Nettie Wild’s film Fix: Story of an Addicted City. Eventually, public opinion shifted in favour of harm-reduction, and both Mayor Larry Campbell and even Premier Gordon Campbell came to support Insite as an institution.

Preventable lethal overdoses were not the only lost futures. Women and young women were murdered and went missing from the Downtown Eastside every year, but authorities showed almost not concern, despite an endless stream of evidence and first-hand reports. This struggle is ongoing. One year ago, on September 15 2011, 22 year-old Ashley Machisknic fell to her death from the window of the Regent Hotel. Community members believed Ashley had been murdered, and held an overnight occupation of the police station demanding an investigation. As a result, a hotline was established to report violence against women. Just this past Sept 17 2011, on the eve of the annual DTES Women’s Housing March, Verna Simard fell from her 6th storey apartment, again at the Regent Hotel. March organizers dedicated the day to Vera, another life lost before its time. To this day, Occupy Vancouver is standing in solidarity with those protesting the sham Missing and Murdered Women Inquiry at 701 West Georgia Georgia.

Life-expectancy in the Downtown Eastside is well below the rest of the city, and it is well understood by everyone in the community that these tragedies are the result of systemic violence — legislated poverty, lack of appropriate and affordable housing, ongoing colonization, daily exploitation of women, and criminalization of addiction. These are the “hidden tensions” that underlie our society, and which cause so much inequality and injustice.

Vision Vancouver, Vancouver’s ruling party, won an election in 2008 by promising to “end homelessness.” But since that time, the party has adopted a housing strategy that only causes homelessness: gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.

City hall is actively pushing condo development eastward. In 2009, the city placed a de facto moratorium on condo development in much of the central business district. Simultaneously, they have been incentivizing gentrification of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) through tax breaks (see our previous article “Lowest corporate taxes in the world at heart of Vancouver’s housing crisis“).

What is most concerning is that this model of gentrification is a major component of Vision Vancouver’s “affordable housing plan.” Affordable housing tops most issue polls, but instead of creating true affordability, Vision has deployed the popular issue of affordability in order to market gentrification. Land is relatively inexpensive in the inner city, so developers can make unprecedented profits building condos for less costs than in the central business district. These condos remain unaffordable, and are far more expensive than the units they replace.

The City’s long-overdue housing plan released this summer highlights the Westbank Corporation’s gentrification project at 60 W. Cordova as a “Pilot Affordable Home Ownership Project.” The city planning department is now expending significant resources to work with developers to roll-out this gentrification model. Here are four examples:

1. After the illegal eviction of low-income tenants from the American Hotel, the city worked with the developer to convert the building into condos and market the development as “Affordable Home Ownership” (see here for an article on the American Hotel conversion). Recently, Vision councilor Kerry Jang has gone on record promoting the redevelopment of the American Hotel as evidence of council’s commitment to “affordability.”

2. The Salient Group is preparing to begin selling condo units at their newest gentrification project called “21 Doors,” at 334 Carrall across from Pigeon Park. The building used to house low-income families, and the owner allowed the site to fall into disrepair. In March 2008, the 20 low-income households living in the building were evicted by developer Robert Wilson. (Wilson had been buying up properties in the Downtown Eastside and ‘flipping’ them for profit. He sold seven buildings to the province for $28 million, for a profit of a estimated $12 million). Robert Fung of Salient Group, developer for 334 Carrall, is now marketing the units as ‘affordable’: “This is really ‘small A’ affordable housing. It’s much more affordable than our other product. The unit sizes are small but livable.” Again, these units of are far more expensive than those they are replacing.

3. This past week, Westbank Corp. announced it is planning a 17-story condo tower at the corner of Main and Keefer in Chinatown. The tower will include 145 “regular” condo units. This is one of many towers that developers and City Council have planned for Chinatown. Westbank claims that their tower will contain 24 units of senior housing in addition to the 145 condo units. It is important to recognize that these token units will not make up for the lost affordable units throughout the neighborhood. There are about 350 Chinese seniors in Chinatown alone, and over 10,000 low-income residents in the DTES/Chinatown area. A recent report by Tsur Somerville, Azim Wazeer and Jake Wetzel of UBC’s Sauder School of Business shows that the need for Chinese seniors’ housing is “overwhelming.”

4. A similar fate faces the old Pantages Theatre, next to the Carnegie Centre and across from Insite. After twice rejecting plans to save the Theatre and build social housing on adjacent lots, Vision City Council has been working closely with developer Marc Williams to build 80 condo units on the site. The low-income community has mobilized strongly against the project (see here for details). This week, COPE candidate Ellen Woodsworth came out against the project, saying “The hundred block of Hastings is not a place for high end condos.” The NPA and Vision have remained supporters of this gentrification project.

As protests in solidarity with #OccupyWallStreet spread across the continent, the “99%’ers” here are beginning to think about what #OccupyVancouver might look like. This is a good thing. Left-wing movements have always known that since capitalism itself is global, resistance to it ought to be global.

For New Yorkers, the most obvious and logical target is Wall Street. Staging a protest camp adjacent Wall Street in downtown New York city is no small feat. New York police are highly militaristic in quashing protests. One can only imagine the intensity of police desire, under pressure from New York power-brokers, to disperse the camp. The bravery of the activists is one of the things from which to draw inspiration.

What does it mean, then, to hold a protest in solidarity with that in New York? In part, it means to be inspired by their courage. That means to take spaces that challenge the real seats of power in our local situation. That may mean taking the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, but probably not: the reason protests are often held there is that the space is relatively easy to book. An #OccupyVancouver truly inspired by the original would take a space that is non-bookable, that directly challenges power-brokers.

Throughout Canada, there are many appropriate targets: Bay Street in Toronto, the headquarters of tar sands-related energy corporations in Calgary, and so on. In Vancouver, Coast Salish territories, there are many things to consider. Most importantly, the violence of colonization is felt acutely here, where European settlement began more recently than most other regions of the continent. (Indeed, the word “occupy” is often associated with European colonization of the land; it’s possible that the term, with its multiple meanings, may confuse or distract some from the spirit of #OccupyWallStreet: to stage a collective protest that challenges the 1% who run the capitalist economy).

Arguably the dominant function of Vancouver’s economy is that its housing market acts as a ‘sink’ for global capital accumulation. Investors, most of whom are locally-based, store their extracted wealth in Vancouver’s inflated real-estate market. The inflation of housing prices is managed by a realty oligopoly. This has created an affordability crisis for the working-class. While property-owners rely on the development monopoly to keep their home prices inflated, renters, who constitute the majority, are exploited. The city which most resembles Vancouver in these respects is Hong Kong. Vancouver and Hong Kong rank together as the most unaffordable cities in the world, with the median house price costing more than three times the median household income. As a result, residents are being driven out of their homes, onto the streets, out of the city. In Hong Kong, they have clearly identified the seat of power, and began their own #Occupy-like movement earlier this year. The story may serve as yet more inspiration for those thinking about our own solidarity movement.

Toppling property hegemony: “Down, down with the property tycoons!”

Just this past March 26 2011, Hong Kong activists staged a protest in one of [developer] Li Ka-Shing’s supermarkets “because property developers, not the government, were the ‘real enemies of society'” [1]. As an act of creative civil disobedience, protesters filled shopping carts with items, then stood in line without buying anything, to “paralyse property hegemony for an hour.” One protester said: “We chose ParknShop because it is owned by Mr. Li Ka-shing and we all know Mr. Li is the real boss of Hong Kong…We are not expecting this to change the world, or beat down Mr. Li or the property-developer hegemony. But we want to make it a start of a new satyagraha campaign. We used to protest against the government. But it is no use. We target developers because they are the boss of the government and the real enemy of the society.” Another protester, a recent university graduate, said: “Even if we want to rent a flat, the rents are beyond our reach. It is because the influence of developers is too big.” [1]

Readers may know that Li Ka-Shing’s Concord Pacific bought Vancouver’s massive Expo Lands in 1988, developed Yaletown, and still has long-term plans for 10,000 to 20,000 more high-end condos on North False Creek. Concord Pacific, now run by Terry Hui, remains a major player in Vancouver’s developer oligopoly, with most new housing inventory planned beyond 2013 in Vancouver under its control. Concord’s ‘land bank’ comprises a large portion of Vancouver’s undeveloped lands, including much of False Creek, as well as 58 West Hastings – the site of 2010’s Olympic Tent Village. Concord exerts its power over Vancouver housing prices by developing its ‘land bank’ very slowly as high-end condos. These and similar undeveloped properties and empty condos controlled by Vancouver’s monopolist developers (such as the Aquilini Group, Wall Financial Corp., Concert Properties, Holborn Properties, and marketing ‘coordinator’ Bob Rennie) are reasonable targets for #Occupy. So too is the mostly empty Olympic Village.

This weekend, Vision Vancouver declared its official kick-off of the 2011 civic election campaign. The party sent members a video of a speech by Gregor Robertson, in which he distinguished Vision from its “political opponents.” Election campaigns are in large part about strategically distinguishing oneself from opponents. In this sense, the campaign promises to be a fascinating one, given that the two parties capable of forming a majority agree on all core policy matters.

The opponent to which Robertson refered is the NPA, which he called “highly negative, well-funded.” Both the NPA and Vision are well-funded, so the remaining distinction is that the NPA is ‘negative.’ That claim may seem unfair, given that the NPA isn’t any more negative about Vision Vancouver than vice versa. In the video, Gregor’s critique of the NPA’s negativity is in fact negative.

For us the key term ‘negative’ should be replaced by ‘awkward’. The awkwardness stems from the fact that Vision has adopted the NPA’s policies and is, as a result, at a loss. When the NPA goes on the attack, too, they are found attacking their own policies. Worse, the NPA is now forced to use pseudo-progressive rhetoric when attacking Vision – rhetoric that Vision would have used in the past, but now is forced to reject. The whole game of false distinctions is awkward.

Consider the Vancouver Sun‘s first of eight civic election briefings, also published over the weekend. In the first briefing, about affordable housing, Vision councilor Geoff Meggs discussed some of the implications of the housing crisis. Indeed, when The Mainlander met with Meggs for an in depth discussion last week, he emphasized the need for consensus around recognizing and prioritizing the housing crisis. Excellent. The question remains: what are Vision and the NPA going to do about it?