Cambie Street just got a little ‘denser’, in more ways than one. By approving Phase 2 of the so-called Cambie Corridor Plan, not only did the Vision-led City Council open the door to higher condo developments along the stretch, it also proved its own ‘density’: its incapacity to respond to residents, to stand up to developers, or to adequately address Vancouver’s staggering unaffordability.

The Cambie condo plan calls for upzoning the full length of Cambie St, from City Hall to South Marine Drive. Six-storey condo development would be allowed along almost the entire stretch, punctuated by 12-storey condo towers around Oakridge Mall, and 40-storey ones at Marine Drive. In the midst of our almost pathological affordability crisis, where Vancouver often ranks as the most unaffordable city on the planet, it is crucial take advantage of every opportunity to create affordability. But in the Cambie plan it is anticipated that at least 80% of new units will be unaffordable condos, and the remaining 20% purpose-built rental units will go for an unsubsidized market price.

This upzoning is the second free give-away to Cambie private property owners in recent years. First, construction of the Canada Line pushed up land values, especially around transit stations. Simply, people will pay more to live near them, so developers can profit by building condos for speculators and prospective upper-income buyers. But contrary to the logic of using better transit to increase property values, it is a matter of justice to build purpose-built affordable rental housing around transit hubs. It is lower income residents who can’t afford to drive cars.

With land values rising around Canada Line stations, public intervention into the market would be required to retain or create low- and middle-income spaces (residential, commercial, and public spaces). For example, downzoning could be used to keep land values under control, so that land can first be secured by public agencies for the purposes of public housing. Rent Caps or Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI) could be enforced. But on the contrary, the Cambie Corridor Plan serves no purpose other than to multiply property values along the stretch yet again.

Both residential and commercial tenants will be duly evicted, while property owners sell-out to larger development companies consolidating land-holdings for condo complexes. The irony should not be lost that Gregor Robertson’s main accomplishment as an MLA was advocating for small commercial tenants on Cambie Street whose businesses were disrupted by construction of the Canada Line. They will now be dislocated wholesale by property owners without a semblance of consultation or compensation.

This week, Taiwan implemented a “luxury tax” on housing properties lying dormant due to speculation (as reported by the BBC). This begs the question: why not take action in Vancouver, where the affordability crisis is similarly severe?

During his 2008 campaign, Gregor Robertson proposed such a “empty condo tax” to get more housing onto the market and cool-down prices. But as with other promises, he has failed to deliver or take responsibility. (BC law allows strata councils to ban renting-out condos – whereas Ontario law, for example, does not – and this partly explains the high condo vacancy rates. Armed with this excuse, and under pressure from developers, Robertson grew content to blame the provincial government instead of using tools at his disposal to slow speculation.)

Another reason for lack of action on speculation is that the real estate lobby has been spinning the numbers. In May 2009, Andy Yan of Bing Thom Architects published a study estimating the percentage of “empty condos” (identified by low hydro usage) at 5-8%. Real Estate interests who were against the “empty condo tax” suggested that Yan’s work disproved the empty condo “theory.” But even this “low” estimate suggests that the condo vacancy rate is 250-400% that of the 2010 rental vacancy rate. With 80 thousand condos in Vancouver, there are about 5000 empty condos, many of these downtown.

The City’s Housing Centre Director Cameron Grey estimates that, in total, there are about 20,000 empty housing units in Vancouver (including all condos, houses, duplexes, etc). For comparison, that number is roughly equivalent to the total number of social housing units in the city (21,500, according to City numbers).

Andy Yan told The Mainlander that the ’empty condo’ phenomenon is only one driver of Vancouver’s spiraling housing prices. “The point of our story is that even if you make 5,000-10,000 available through an ’empty condo’ tax, it might not make a big difference. Other behaviours of property owners, such as ‘flipping’, might be also contributing to skyrocketing housing prices.” He suggested that while an ’empty condo’ tax might be difficult to enforce, regulations on speculation such as property transfer fees are relatively simple to implement. Yan also emphasized that Vancouver is in desperate need of affordable rental, while empty condos rented-out at market price would not fill this need.

Whereas the real estate lobby saw Yan’s study as a vindication of unregulated speculation, on the contrary we at The Mainlander propose an inverse take-home-message: that a multi-pronged approach will be required to regulate the market. Penalizing owners of empty condos is not a silver bullet for the speculation spiral driving up housing prices in the Lower Mainland. But it is a start.



This week, Downtown Eastside residents rallied at the abandoned Pantages Theatre on the 100 block of East Hastings, and painted its facade with slogans like “100% social housing here.”

The Pantages Theatre and adjacent properties (158, 138, 134, 132, 130 East Hastings) have been bought up by developer Marc Williams, of Worthington Properties (for the company’s *interesting* history, read this and this). Last month, the City granted Williams’ request to begin demolition of the heritage building. Development permits have been issued, and Williams will be presenting his plans for a condominium complex to the Development Permit Board on August 22nd 2011.

Downtown Eastside housing advocate Wendy Pederson says a condo development next to the Carnegie Centre would be “like a bomb in the middle of the low-income community.” The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council has identified the Pantages as one of ten sites to be bought by the City for social housing before the 2011 municipal elections.

It should never have come to this. Williams and the City failed twice to come to an agreement on saving the Pantages Theatre and to bring in other partners to create social housing in the surrounding abandoned buildings.

In 2008, Williams, the City, and the Province devised a plan to save the theatre and build social housing. But the deal fell through at the last minute on Sept 30 2008, shortly before the municipal election.

The preservation project languished under Vision Vancouver’s leadership. In Dec 2009, a disillusioned Heritage Vancouver, which had identified the Pantages as the city’s most important threatened heritage site, announced it would abandon its campaign to save the building.

On Mar 22 2010, City Council met in camera, to discuss purchasing the site. City staff recommended not purchasing the site, and Vision caucus supported this decision.

COPE AGM 2007

Last week Sean Antrim outlined how the past three years of a Vision government has been anything but progressive. For reasons of principle and policy, he argued, COPE should not enter into another coalition with Vision. In addition to principles and policy, there are also strategic questions to consider.

What, then, are some of the strategic reasons COPE’s executive has negotiated a proposal with Vision to run a joint slate in the upcoming municipal elections? There are several possible strategic reasons, all of which don’t hold up under analysis.

1. At least COPE will have a “voice” on Council.

In the 2008 election, COPE and Vision made a coalition agreement. Vision ran 8 and COPE ran 2 candidates for City Council. Both of COPE’s candidates won seats, and yet have wielded no decision making power on Council. Vision holds a majority of seats, and all decisions are made in private by Vision’s caucus, without consulting COPE.

Although powerless in terms of voting, COPE Councillors could theoretically use their position to voice opposition. NPA Councilor Suzanne Anton has used her position to criticize from the reactionary right. But COPE has been an ineffective opposition voice. COPE often votes against Vision, but quietly. You have to follow the live audio-visual feed of Council meetings to hear about it.

COPE’s role has been as “conscience” of Council. Unfortunately, COPE’s alliance with Vision only makes them the fig leaf for Vision’s aggressive pro-developer, anti-resident agenda. There is nothing noble in propping up that status quo.

2. If COPE and Vision run separate slates, they will split the progressive vote, allowing the NPA to come up the middle.

As discussed, Vision is not a progressive party. Although Vision ran on a progressive platform in 2008, its actions have proven otherwise. Lack of consultation has alienated community after community; pro-gentrification policies are undermining affordability; and instead of implementing the homeless action plan, Vision has resorted to evicting the homeless from shelters. Even apparently positive positions, such as Vision’s pseudo-opposition to the Casino expansion, turned out to be all spin. There is no excuse for being fooled this time around.

Should COPE publicly criticize Vision’s policies, and clearly distinguish itself from Vision, there is no reason it wouldn’t be capable of securing the loyalty of progressive voters throughout the City, especially East Van. Criticism from the left would help properly characterize Vision as anti-progressive, forcing vote-splitting on the right, not the left.

3. Vision is identified strongly with its popular leader Gregor Robertson. It is too difficult to defeat Robertson, but after a leadership change, COPE can then run a Mayoral candidate and a slate.

Gregor Robertson’s favourability ratings have continued to decline since his election. The main reason his approval rating are not even lower is precisely that COPE has not criticized Vision strongly enough (if at all) from a progressive perspective. Vancouver is a progressive city, so without criticism from the left, Robertson’s approval ratings are artificially buoyed. People fear criticizing Robertson on account of his popularity, when in reality his popularity derives from a lack of progressive opposition from the people most familiar with the policies of Vision: COPE.

Suzanne Anton of the NPA has been a consistent critic of Robertson, creating the false impression that Vision is not a pro-developer, pro-corporate party (when in fact it is). The effect of this is that right-wing and centre-right voters will line up behind the horrible NPA this fall, giving hope to the NPA’s Rob Ford-ist dreams.

4. COPE will get wiped out if they run a slate and a Mayoral candidate.

It is important to understand that there are very few coalition scenarios whereby COPE might wield any power on Council. Vision has shown that it will not willingly work with other parties, so COPE would have influence only if Vision won a minority of seats and COPE held a balance of power. But it should be noted that if COPE holds the balance (for example, if COPE has two seats and Vision has four), the likely outcome will not be greater power for COPE so much as a new alliance between NPA and Vision, who already vote together on all major decisions. NPA and Vision are natural allies on all major issues.

In this ‘tight race’ scenario, COPE is in fact more likely to be wiped-out than to win the balance of power. On the other hand, with a full slate of strong candidates, there is no telling how many seats they might win (it all depends on the strength of the candidates). This election season, Vision has recognized the power of Vancouver’s only progressive party (COPE) by pre-empting their possible surge and giving them three candidates for Council. It is up to COPE’s membership to now agree with Vision’s analysis (but not their offer) and take the point all the way to its logical end: COPE can run independently and join the momentum of a progressive Vancouver.

By deciding to arrest the group of eight, Mayor Robertson made a clear choice, sending a clear message. Robertson is no longer the “End Homelessness” Mayor. Robertson created almost no new social housing during his first term. His one and only significant initiative was opening these emergency shelters, which concluded in this “week of shame” of 200 evictions and eight arrests.

The Broadway and Fraser St shelter was the fourth shelter this week slated for closure by the City and Province. The shelter is the largest of the four, and is widely understood to be the safest for women. The City-owned space will now sit empty for at least the next six months.

A rally was held outside the shelter Friday morning, attended by over 50 shelter supporters. There were speeches by shelter residents and housing advocates. “Some of my friends here are probably going to die if we are forced back to Downtown Eastside SROs,” said one shelter resident.

The evictions were to be complete by 11am, but several dozen residents and advocates occupied the large building. Throughout the day, activists helped residents negotiate with BC housing for better “alternative arrangements.” Activists promised to leave the building only once each shelter resident had secured appropriate alternative arrangements.

Meanwhile a delegation went to Christy Clark’s campaign office, refusing to leave until they met with Premier Clark (see CBC article). Clark sent the Housing Minister Rich Coleman to meet with the delegation. The meeting was sometimes heated, but the feeling of the dozen attendees was that Coleman’s arguments in favour of shelter closures fell apart upon discussion, but he remained extremely stubborn and arrogant. Afterwards, Coleman made nonsensical and rambling comments to the press, as reported by CKNW:

Coleman says everyone has been offered housing, but not everyone has taken it,”Instead of working with us and understanding what the long term plan is, and just working with us on a long term plan, it’s just never enough…And so it’s never enough for them so they want to find something they can hang their hat on every once in awhile to be activists about, and I don’t know why.”

Activist Wendy Pedersen says low barrier shelters are critical to giving people a place to land if housing options don’t work out, “We have a goal and that’s to end homelessness. Until people are not homeless, we’re not going to be happy, and somebody has to keep up the pressure, and that’s our role.”

At 8pm, back at Fraser & Broadway, there remained several dozen people in the shelter, including residents who were committed to keeping the shelter open. The shelter remained filled with the belongings of evicted residents. Police, under orders from City Deputy General Manager Brenda Prosken, told everyone to leave under threat of arrest. The squatters decided that a core group of eight would take a stand to keep the shelter open for all who need it. The group of eight sat in a circle in the middle of the shelter, putting the decision clearly to the City General Manager and Mayor: if you want to shut down this homeless shelter, the fourth in one week, you will have to arrest eight peaceful demonstrators to do so.

The eight were arrested and held in jail overnight in holding cells Main and Cordova. Upon release at 1pm on Saturday, they were greeted by cheering supporters who had set up a jail-solidarity camp

By deciding to arrest the group of eight, Mayor Robertson made a clear choice, sending a clear message. Robertson is no longer the “End Homelessness” Mayor. Robertson created almost no new social housing during his first term. His one and only significant initiative was opening these emergency shelters, which concluded in this “week of shame” of 200 evictions and eight arrests.

And where was Robertson himself throughout the week? Announcing his New Deal with developers to drive through massive, but unspecified, re-development of the central business district. I don’t remember that being a key Vision priority. Maybe they can build a condo tower on the site of the Howe St shelter.

IMGP7595

Five homeless shelters are scheduled for closure in Vancouver this week because the provincial government refuses to regularize funding. Each of the 5 shelters has a capacity of 40 people.

One of the five shelters, at Fir and 4th, was already shut down last Wednesday. About half of those kicked onto the street were seniors, according to Gail Harmer of the Council of Senior Citizens of BC (COSCO). Some of the seniors were offered SRO units in the Downtown Eastside, but all refused because of the deplorable conditions of the SRO units.

Three of the shelters, run by RainCity, are set to be shut down this week. One of these, the Cardero St. shelter in the West End, is set for closure this Wednesday, April 27th, despite support from many local organizations – even the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). There had been a noticeable reduction in street homelessness in the West End, but since the Cardero St. shelter stopped accepting new residents at the start of April, more people are living on West End streets.

A coalition of organizations is scheduled to hold a press conference at the Cardero St. shelter tomorrow demanding that all the shelters be kept open until appropriate housing is secured for the shelter residents (see media release below).

The fifth shelter is the New Fountain shelter on Cordova St. Earlier today, Housing Minister Coleman announced that he would extend funding for the New Fountain shelter for only two months, and would not fund the other four shelters at all. This announcement was timed to distract from the fact that four shelters are being shut immediately.

The anti-protest bylaw passed by Mayor Robertson this week will hurt the homeless, Darcie Bennett of PIVOT Legal Society told The Mainlander. The bylaw states that any “structure, object, or substance” – including tents – placed on public space without permission of the City Engineer can receive a minimum $1,000 fine. “We are of the opinion that the bylaw should change, to bring it line with homeless peoples’ rights,” says Bennett.

Given that there are no specific provisions allowing the homeless to apply for permits to pitch tents or structures, and given that the $1,000-$5,000 fine is extreme, the bylaw is effectively a prohibition on people pitching tents in public spaces.

In October 2008, the City of Victoria’s bylaw banning tents on public lands was struck down by the BC Supreme Court’s Adams decision for infringing on peoples’ Charter right to shelter. At that time, says Bennett, PIVOT wrote a letter to Vancouver City Council asking that Vancouver’s bylaws be brought in line with the Adams decision, but the City offered no response.

Now, two years later, the City’s new anti-structure bylaw does nothing to protect the right to shelter of those with nowhere else to go. On the contrary, it introduces new exorbitant fines. Last week, PIVOT proposed a series of amendments to the bylaw, including making explicit exceptions for homeless people, but City Council approved the bylaw without incorporating any of these changes.

City lawyers have taken the position that “Adams doesn’t apply here in Vancouver,” and as of yet no one has challenged that position in court.

According to Bennett, the City told PIVOT that the right to shelter on public land does not exist in Vancouver because there is enough shelter space and housing to accommodate everyone. But Bennett points out that the City’s own numbers show there are far more homeless people in the City than shelter beds. On top of that, 5 additional shelters are slated to be shut down next week.

The City admits that the bylaw gives police the power to fine homeless people, but is asking critics to trust that this power won’t be used. The City Administrative report claims “compassionate” intentions toward homeless people, and a “holistic” approach toward homelessness, but offers no actual legal protection or exemption from the bylaw.

This attitude is reminiscent of the Province’s response to critics of the Olympic Kidnapping Act, which gives police the power to forcefully apprehend and detain homeless people against their will. Minister Coleman claimed that the power “probably wouldn’t be used,” but rammed the bill through the legislature nonetheless.

Bennett also criticized the anti-structure bylaw’s impact on political expression. “When you try to use zoning bylaws to regulate political expression, it’s not good governance,” she said.