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Real estate developers were noticeably upset when, on Jan 20, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside scored a partial but significant victory against the City’s undemocratic condo-tower plan. Instead, the City was forced to finally allow a (potentially) resident-driven planning process for the area.

Shocked by their defeat, it took developers and their friends in the Corporate media over one week to respond to the democratic turn of events. Finally, on January 27, the Vancouver Sun editorial board published their talking points in an editorial titled Giving a lift to the Downtown Eastside: Build taller buildings. The piece is so counter-factual, misleading, and bigoted that it is worth unpacking line-by-line.

The Sun’s convoluted editorial begins by acknowledging that Vancouver needs more housing. Indeed, Vancouver needs more purpose-built social and affordable housing – but not more purpose-built luxury condos as the Sun prefers.

The Sun then asserts that because the Lower Mainland has a limited land-base, we must build higher buildings in the Downtown Eastside. But the Downtown Eastside already has a higher-than-average population density – why not build the towers in Shaughnessy instead?

The Sun then notes that there are “300 to 1,000 souls” who are homeless in the Downtown Eastside, but offers no solutions at all, nor any response to residents’ valid concern that gentrification will compromise the remaining low-income housing stock, pushing more people onto the street.

Instead of advocating a sophisticated approach to problem-solving in the Downtown Eastside, the Sun insults and stereotypes groups trying to address problems: “[The DTES] serves as the raison d’etre of swarms of social agencies, NGOs and self-proclaimed anti-poverty activists…Some activists have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. A gloomy ghetto of misery, destitution and squalor keeps them in business.”

Firstly, it is not acceptable to use language (“swarms of…”) which insinuates that community organizations are like insects. Nor is it ethical to suggest that it is a bad thing for people to form organizations to help each other out, to work for social justice, and to make their neighbourhoods better places.

For the last few years the City has repeatedly claimed that there is no money for housing. As the Mayor said last October when rejecting social housing above the Strathcona Library: “we don’t have the money in the drawers…we have real limitations and uncertainty in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do.”

The reality, however, is that Vancouver has the lowest business taxes in the world. This surprising fact is complimented by another little-known fact: City Hall controls a multi-billion dollar fund it could use to develop social and affordable housing, called the Property Endowment Fund.

The Property Endowment Fund (PEF) was originally created in 1975 and was valued at around $100 million. It holds all of the city’s long-term land leases – for example, the parking lot on which the Vancouver Art Gallery hopes to construct its new building, at Cambie and Georgia. The Fund was initially created by the centre-left municipal party TEAM (TEAM was the result of a similar left-wing split that spawned Vision out of COPE). TEAM created the Fund in order to hem an NPA policy of selling city owned properties and then shifting the sale over to the operating budget in order to decrease taxes. The PEF was a strategy to stop the dead-weight loss of city land holdings while creating funds to “support the City’s public objectives.”

Today, the board of the PEF is comprised of the Mayor, two Councillors, the City Manager, and the Director of Finance. Minutes to meetings of the board have, in the past, not been available to the public. However there have been both successful and unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests for documents of the PEF board.  There have been several calls by City Councillors to make this fund more transparent. COPE Councillors Tim Louis and Ellen Woodsworth have both spoken out about the fund’s lack of accessibility. However, secrecy remains the status quo. This has led to wide speculations and criticisms of its value and current use.

In the mid 2000’s it was proposed by some that the PEF should be used in ways outlined in its mandate: to support the City’s public objectives. For a long time the city has desperately needed more social housing and the current Council has done next to nothing to stop homelessness. In the mid 2000’s, NPA mayor Sam Sullivan quashed proposals to use the PEF for progressive initiatives, instead arguing to “restore sustainability” to the Fund. What he meant was to maintain a profitable fund that adds a few millions dollars to the City’s operating budget to keep down our low business taxes.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the Property Endowment Fund is estimated to be worth almost $3 billion. The fund is rarely itself discussed, but has a tendency to loom over municipal politics. It was discussed briefly in 2010, when conservative blogger Daniel Fontaine of city-caucus filed a Freedom of Information Act request for PEF board meeting minutes, of which there were none in 2009. The revelations of the FOI were significant: the PEF board had not met that year.

Right now, the Fund is managed in secret by the Real-Estate division of the City government. The holding of such a large fund is not only an internal conflict of interest, since councillors can directly affect land prices by the powers of rezoning, but also a public conflict of interest, because while the people of Vancouver have prioritized housing affordability as a number-one issue, the fund makes the city into a real-estate speculator, helping to further push up the property values that make our city so unaffordable.

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Last Thursday, grassroots pressure forced Vancouver City Council to halt plans for two condo towers, as well as halting overall plans for height upzoning in the Downtown Eastside. Over 80 speakers were signed up to speak at City Hall, most against the City’s gentrification plan. But rather than listen to the delegations, Vision Vancouver introduced a so-called “emergency” motion. The motion agreed to grassroots demands to conduct a community plan and social impact study before rezoning.

It is time to take stock of what happened that day. Or rather, the night before, at 4am!

The first thing that stands out is this: why didn’t Vision Vancouver agree to these demands last year? Or last month, when The Mainlander published the arguments clearly. Or the day before the public hearing, so that 80 people wouldn’t have to take the day off work, school and life to come all the way down to City Hall? Apparently, Vision Councilor Andrea Reimer wrote the emergency motion at “4am” the night before. What made Vision change its mind at the last minute, after literally years of pressure from grassroots low-income organizations? Was it the letter signed by dozens of professors? Was it this dialogue between Mike Harcourt and Councilor Andrea Reimer on Jan 19? Was it our pull-no-punches editorial (we wish)? Was it the prospect of having to listen to 80 public speakers?


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Mayor Robertson and his party won power on the backs of the poor, claiming to represent their aspirations and promising to “End Homelessness.” Today, Vision Vancouver is waging war on the Downtown Eastside, the last refuge for Vancouver’s low-income residents.

One might wonder at the use of a military analogy – “waging war” – but sadly Robertson’s party has employed ruthless political tactics to outmaneuver Vancouver’s most marginalized residents who, despite negligible resources, are nonetheless fighting back stronger than ever.

As we have reported previously, Vision Vancouver is moving to implement the NPA’s gentrification plan for the Downtown Eastside (deceptively called the “Historic Area Height Review”). The plan, which goes to Council for a vote this Thurs, Jan 20, calls for seven 15-storey condo towers in the Downtown Eastside. It is certain that these developments would impact surrounding property values. Low-income residents, as well as the stores, services, and amenities they use, would be displaced at a pace even greater than what is already underway, with the social and economic goal of gentrifying a low-income community by importing a new class of residents (which City Planning staff like to call “body heat“).

The Decoy

To distract the broader public from their undemocratic plan to gentrify the Downtown Eastside, the Vision-led City Council will be voting on a separate “view-corridors” proposal for towers in the central business district at the same Jan 20th meeting as the DTES plan. The City has purposefully attempted to link these very different plans in the public’s mind, with some success. The supposed link between them is the abstract notion of “height.” The two plans both deal with building heights, but will inevitably have more significant impacts on density and social demographics. Focusing on height instead of density changes the debate. This article from Sunday’s Province, for example, is stuck in the City’s frame about “height,” ignoring any question of social impact, and referring only fleetingly to the Downtown Eastside at the end of the article.

Gregor Robertson’s 2008 campaign for Mayor rode the Obama wave. At the time, however, positive comparisons between the two were decidedly false. Ironically, present criticisms of the American president apply equally to Vancouver’s Mayor.

In 2008, Obama was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, and Gregor an embarrassing one. I attended an early Robertson campaign event in the Dowtown Eastside, after which the 70-year-old woman sitting next to me remarked with conscious understatement: “not very inspiring, is he?”

Obama was a thinker — almost a pop-philosopher! And while Obama cultivated a blank-slate image onto which voters could project their hopes and dreams, Gregor could not escape the perception that the blank-slate was between his ears.

The most realistic likeness between Gregor and Obama in 2008 was that their supporters were Obama fans. These supporters longed for a politics that appealed to the best in people, a politics confident in the capacity for transformational collective action to overcome inequality, poverty, and discrimination.

In the summer of 2008, neo-liberalism had been thoroughly discredited, and voters had not yet forgotten that responsibility for the financial crisis lay squarely at the feet of right-wing policies. They voted in droves for Obama, who promised hope over fear, and for Gregor, who promised to End Homelessness by fighting day in and day out for the most marginalized in our City.

Comparisons between Obama and Gregor in 2008 were largely false. Ironically, in 2010 the comparison is far more plausible.

Marshall Ganz, who managed the grassroots component of Obama’s presidential campaign, recently published an influential article in the Los Angeles Times, outlining the reasons for Obama’s failure in his first two years. The analysis is similarly useful for evaluating Gregor Robertson.

Last month City Council adopted the Mount Pleasant Community Plan (MPCP). The MPCP, the culmination of three years of community feedback and consultations, is the first city-sponsored community plan for the area since 1989.

Many residents of Mount Pleasant are concerned about what is happening to their neighbourhood – and with good reason. There have been significant demographic shifts since the last census was performed in 2006. Condos have been popping up along Kingsway, Broadway and Main. Mount Pleasant is a traditionally working-class neighbourhood, the average income in Mount Pleasant being thousand dollars below the citywide average. 23% of people living in the neighborhood are low-income and 67% in the neighborhood are renters.

Mount Pleasant residents have been becoming more active in recent months – many concerned about gentrification and affordability, others concerned about height of new buildings in the abstract.

This summer, these issues came to the surface in a debate about a development at one of the area’s hubs – a social housing and rental development project at Broadway and Fraser. The City Council meeting dealing with the rezoning had to be extended to three days to accommodate the more than 70 speakers. Some members of the community argued that the proposed 11 story development was too tall, where others argued that the neighbourhood is in dire need of more rental and social housing units. In the end, the project was approved with minor adjustments.

The MPCP passes over many of these issues, and attempts to reconcile the wishes of existing residents with developers’ desire for increased density.

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It is common for Vancouver journalists to bemoan the “fiasco” of the Olympic Village, but they are so often bogged-down in financial matters above their pay-grade that they forget the true fiasco of South East False Creek. Indeed, the Village embodies a profound scandal. At the core of the scandal is that governments broke their social housing promises at the site and then lied about it.

The original plan for the Olympic Village was that 2/3rds of the 1100 units would be affordable, a full half of which would be social housing for those most in need (“deep core”).

The rationale for these promises goes back to the very start of the Olympic bid process. There was much concern that Vancouver’s affordability crisis might grow on account of winning the Olympic bid, pushing the most vulnerable residents into homelessness. In their Inclusivity Statement, the Olympic partners committed to mitigating these impacts, and to providing a positive social housing legacy through projects like the Athletes’ Village at South East False Creek (SEFC). This latter promise was repeated constantly by government officials for years in the lead-up to the Olympics.

A rigorous community planning process between 2003 and 2005 produced the Official Development Plan (ODP) for South East False Creek (SEFC), which was approved by Vancouver City Council on 19 July 2005. The exact wording of the Plan read:

“The goal for household income mix is one-third low income, one-third middle income (or ‘affordable’ housing) and one-third market.”