Today, 614 COPE members cast ballots to nominate candidates for this fall’s Vancouver civic elections. The turnout was large, at least when compared to the nomination meetings of the other two major parties, NPA and Vision, neither of which brought out much more than 100. Throughout today’s nomination meeting, not a few COPE executives pointed to the turnout as testimony to COPE’s strength, appeal, and democratic vibrancy.

The truth is that the party establishment was extremely anxious about the meeting, especially its large turnout. The party establishment, including incumbents and the executive, had preselected slates to recommend to the membership – for City Council, Parks Board, and School Board. Indeed, the Parks Board slate-of-two was uncontested, and rubber-stamped by acclamation. The establishment School Board slate was only contested by a single SFU student, who forced an election in that category. The establishment much prefers preselection and acclamation to elections – the latter signifying lack of “unity” and loss of control.

The reason for the large turnout was that the race for council was hotly contested. In general, the 614 members were of two tendencies: one group supported of the establishment slate of Ellen Woodsworth, David Cadman, and RJ Aquino; the other group supported Tim Louis, who recommended that his supporters vote for himself, Ellen Woodsworth, and Terry Martin (previous Chair of the Board of Variance).

Although there are 10 seats on City Council, COPE was only nominating three candidates. The decision to nominate only three candidates was made at the June 26 2011 special meeting, where an electoral agreement with Vision recommended by the COPE establishment was approved – although with a substantial vote of opposition from the membership.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the June 26 vote was the more important one, shaping our city’s government for the near future. The agreement with Vision virtually ensures three more years of a Vision majority. The NPA team is weaker than ever, and is not running a single incumbent for City Council. The only NPA incumbent is Suzanne Anton, who is now running for Mayor, and is likely to be unsuccessful. TEAM was in the exact same position in 1980, and was wiped-out, permanently. Therefore, it made no sense for the COPE establishment try to scare the membership into supporting Vision by holding up the NPA bogey-man. It is true that right-wing parties are based on fear, but as philosopher Alain Badiou notes, “fear of fear” is not a viable alternative strategy.

As for Vision, its city councilors have shown that they will not caucus with, or even work with, COPE councilors. It’s worth recalling that Vision held their nomination meeting, and nominated seven candidates, a week before the COPE membership had even ratified the electoral agreement! Vision is fully supportive of, and funded by, the developer oligopoly that controls housing prices in this city. Vision is committed to the gentrification model of development in the Downtown Eastside. Vision has proven unwilling to take bold action to address the affordability crisis, and on the contrary has taken to neoliberal “solutions” at every turn. The majority of their new “affordable housing plan” consists of free market condos. If there is anything to fear, it is this: around the world, after pseudo-social-democratic parties have done the dirty work of implementing neoliberalism, right-wing parties are sweeping into power on a wave of populism, with the slogan “we can’t possibly be worse than those guys!”

That said, despite the relative unimportance of today’s nomination meeting, something surprisingly interesting happened: the substantial opposition from June 26th became the majority. Many expected the establishment slate to win handily today, but the results for council nominees came in as follows:

534 – Ellen Woodsworth
345 – Tim Louis
316 – RJ Aquino
309 – David Cadman
240 – Terry Martin
98 – Colin Desjarlais

Because of the coalition with Vision, only Woodsworth, Louis, and Aquino, made the cut, while thee-time incumbent David Cadman did not. Many people in the room were visibly shocked. The surprising take-home-message was that Tim Louis had mobilized at least as many members as the entire establishment slate combined.

“Vancouver – Is homeownership becoming a far-fetched dream?”

That is the question at the heading of a new housing affordability report by RBC Economics Research. And the answer is “yes.” The report claims that to purchase a bungalow, the average Vancouver household has to dedicate 92.5% of its income to housing costs. The second most unaffordable Canadian city is Toronto, where the average household would have to dedicate 51.9%. CMHC defines “affordable” as having to pay no more than 30% of household income on housing.

For a ‘standard two-storey’ the average Vancouver household would have to dedicate 95.5% of their income. Again Toronto is second worse, at 61.4%. Even a ‘standard condo’ in Vancouver is severely unaffordable at 47.1%, also the worst rate in the country.

This is of course not the first report showing how housing prices are out of reach for Vancouver residents. Demographia’s annual housing affordability survey has ranked Vancouver in the bottom three out of about 300 global cities for several years in a row. According to Demographia, the average housing price has been 9 to 10 times the average family income. A report by BMO in June of 2011 calculated that ratio at an even higher 11. For our review of these reports, see here.

Realter Bob Rennie has been trying to argue that these numbers are skewed by high-end sales. But this is simply not the case, because Demographia uses medians (which exclude both low and high end sales for the analysis), and RBC uses ‘standard’ dwelling, to distinguish from the ‘average’.

There is a renewed grassroots effort to stop condo development on the site of the historic Pantages Theatre at 138 East Hastings. Worthington properties currently has plans to build 79 condo units on the site. The project may be approved by the Director of Planning, Brent Toderian later this summer unless there is a public outcry. In order to force a hearing, the public has until August 12 2011 to address concerns to:

Alice Kwan: 604.871.6283, and
Scott Barker: 604.873.7166,

A coalition of community groups has launched a website called The DTES is not for condo developers, which includes a petition and outlines the coalition’s concerns about condo development in the “heart” of the Downtown Eastside. The 100 block of East Hastings includes many community assets that could be negatively affected by gentrification, including the Carnegie Community Centre, Insite, and 400 low-income housing units.

The coalition is calling on the City to reject the developer’s proposal, and asks “the Pantages owner to sell the property at its 2010 assessed value of $3.7 million to the City of Vancouver.” Worthington Properties bought the Pantages Theatre in 2004 for only $440,000. Worthington also purchased the adjacent lots, spending just over $1M to assemble the block for redevelopment. By 2010, the City assessed the value of the lots at $3.7M. But when Worthington Properties tried to sell the block to the City in the spring of 2010, the corporation asked for a price well above market value, and City Council turned down the offer at an in camera meeting on March 22, 2010.

The developer has made millions simply by speculating on an affordable block. Beyond that, they are now insisting on even more profits instead of working with the City to restore one of Vancouver’s three historic theaters, and to build desperately needed social housing. When the City makes every reasonable attempt to purchase a property to meet the ‘public interest’, but the owner won’t sell at a fair price, the City’s next legal step is expropriation. Under the provincial Expropriation Act, the City has the authority to expropriate properties to meet its policy goals in the public interest.

The above picture depicts City Engineers tossing the complete belongings of two homeless residents of the Downtown Eastside – shopping carts inclusive – into a garbage truck for destruction.

This event occurred Saturday, June 25th at 10:30pm, on East Hastings near Main Street. The Vancouver Police had called on the City Engineering Department to carry out these micro-house-demolitions.

In a seemingly similar incident in Feb 2009, the VPD and City Engineers destroyed a homeless man’s belongings. Legal advocate David Eby was passing by and videotaped the incident, which can be found here. Eby notes that these are likely not isolated events.

Tomorrow, June 30th, Vancouver City Council will decide whether to seek legal injunctions to force repairs of the Palace and Wonder single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The living conditions in these buildings are intolerable. The City report mentions that the Wonder Rooms is in an utter state of disrepair on account of being neglected by its owner. The City found Wonder Rooms to be in violation of 141 Standards of Maintenance Bylaws and 24 Building Bylaws including, for example: “The entire basement and first floor are littered with rat feces and smell very strongly of rat urine.”

Unfortunately, these conditions are representative of many residential tenements in the Downtown Eastside, where landlords increase profits by avoiding maintenance costs. Despite the poor state of repair, owners get away with charging unusually high rents because there is nowhere else in the city for low-income tenants, who are often subject to housing discrimination.

There are about 10,000 low-income housing units in the Downtown Eastside, and a full half of these are SRO hotel rooms. Of those 5,000 SRO units, 1,500 have been purchased in recent years by the Provincial government (although the majority of these still languish in terrible disrepair). Housing advocates have long argued that these 5,000 SRO units must ultimately be replaced with self-contained social housing as soon as possible. The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) has calculated that, at the present snail pace, it will take governments over 50 years to replace the units! CCAP is calling for the units to be replaced with real homes in 10 years or less.

For housing conditions to improve for those in SRO hotels, several things should happen. First, pressure should be brought to bear on the owners. The City must enforce building bylaws as rigourously in the DTES as in Shaughnessy. In the case of the Wonder and Palace hotels, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) is calling for maximum fines to be applied. The Wonder Rooms alone incurred so many violations that if maximum fines are sought, the owner could face $30,000,000 in fines since the Mar 31 2011 repair deadline! That is enough to incentivize construction of 7,000 affordable units throughout the city.

Today was quite a day in the world of partisan Vancouver civic politics. The civic Green Party held a special general meeting at noon to discuss electoral cooperation with COPE and Vision Vancouver. Meanwhile, COPE also held a special general meeting at 3pm to debate and potentially ratify an agreement with Vision, proposing the following slate:

City Council: Vision 7 / COPE 3

Parks Board: Vision 5 / COPE 2 – (plus one position offered to civic Greens)

School Board: Vision 5 / COPE 4

Interestingly, the civic Green Party membership voted to reject the Vision-COPE offer of one seat on Parks Board. The Greens voted instead to work with COPE alone, should the COPE membership reject Vision’s terms later in the afternoon. The Greens also voted to reject any cooperation with Vision, and to hold their nomination meeting in mid-August 2011.

COPE’s special general meeting, with about 200 members in attendance, began with a member from the floor trying to get a motion on the agenda to negotiate with the Greens instead of Vision, but was defeated in a close vote.

The highly polarized membership then heard arguments for and against the proposed deal with Vision. Those against argued that the last three years have proven that Vision City Councilors do not vote progressively, that they won’t caucus with COPE, that they continue core NPA policies, and that COPE needs to distinguish itself more clearly from Vision in order to win and make real change. Those in favour of Vision’s offer argued that COPE and Vision share more commonalities than differences, that the NPA is much worse than Vision, and that it is desirable to avoid vote-splitting with Vision. The coalition vote passed, with more than one third present voting against.