In the four years since the financial crisis of 2008 brought a North American-wide collapse in housing prices, the Canadian government has successfully taken measures to bring real-estate prices back to their pre-crash levels. Following in the tracks of the American effort to rescue financial capital, the past four years have seen a joint effort by all levels of Canadian government to re-inflate the housing bubble by deregulating finance, extending new lines of direct investment into real-estate and lowering interest rates. The Canadian government has effectively called on the real-estate industry to lead the economy out of the recession, facing down typical historical patterns in which real-estate is the last industry to recover from system-wide crisis. Next to resource extraction, the only real growth industry in Canada since 2008 has been real-estate.

Yet today, as in 2008, the real-estate bubble is reaching a “tipping point,” according to a recent report by Canada’s Royal LePage. In cities like Vancouver and Toronto, housing prices have climbed to unprecedented levels, with Vancouver prices reaching up to 11 times the city’s average family income. The Bank of Canada has identified the Vancouver market as “ground zero” for the coming financial crisis, and from its perch at a distance, The Economist observes Canadian housing is “more overvalued than it was in America at the peak of its bubble.” All forms of debt are multiplying, but household debt in particular is currently higher in Canada than it was in the United States prior to the subprime crisis, with debt-to-income ratios reaching 153 per cent.

Federal exit from recession

In the two years following the global recession, federal banks across the world lowered interest rates in an effort to loosen the credit crunch and stimulate new rounds of investment. In September 2010, Mark Carney and the Bank of Canada lowered interest rates to 1 per cent, where they have since stayed. By the summer of 2011, the Canadian housing economy was showing obvious signs of escalation, and by June local prices moved well above their pre-recession peak. Having not only stimulated but “over-stimulated” the housing economy, Carney began issuing strong warnings about the unprecedented risk-exposure of Canadian mortgages. In reality, the central bank actually did everything in its power to continue the growing flow of cheap, low-interest money into the real-estate economy. Out of fear of exacerbating the underlying weakness of the recovery itself, the Bank of Canada took the position of searching out ways to buoy housing finance.


Nina Power, One-Dimensional Woman, London: Zero Books, 2009. 81 pages. ISBN: 9781846942419

Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman provocatively takes the cue for its title and premise from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man. Power invokes Marcuse’s concept of a system of production and consumption that creates ‘false needs,’ flattened social relations, and an illusory sense of individual autonomy. Power frames her own book as a retooling of this critique, intended to address a much more recent rhetoric of consumerism and contemporary feminism which – in similar and new ways – creates a barrier to productive critical thinking about work, sex and politics.

Power is based at Roehampton University, part of the University of London, where she teaches philosophy. In the past year, however, she has been just as likely to be seen taking part in student protests against the recent tripling of tuition fees at UK universities, or at the solidarity camp that sought to prevent the eviction of Irish Traveller families from their land at Dale Farm in Essex, or of course, around the Occupy London Stock Exchange encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. She can also frequently be found among the Guardian’s comment is free pages. One Dimensional Woman is published by the upstart Zero Books as part of a series of readable texts intended as ‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’ While this short book came out before the wave of protests surrounding the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement took hold, we might hope that its message will be more immediately understood as a result of these events. And indeed Vancouver, as the birthplace of Botox — and a city long-preoccupied with cosmopolitan surfaces and spectacle — seems its ideal target.



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.


Vancouver’s civic election on Saturday has brought us a new City Council. But as the five million dollar campaign fades, we should take a look at what this ‘new’ council wants to do. By electing Gregor Robertson and the Vision slate, voters have decided to stay the course on a path started in 2008 — but what exactly is the course?

Though progressives might feel relieved for keeping out an NPA majority, we must remember that Vision has and will implement neo-liberal policies — many of them NPA policies from the 2005 – 2008 term under Sam Sullivan. Residents will have to mobilize against council, or else get more of the same. Over the past three years we saw the donning of Vancouver as the City with the lowest businesses taxes in the world, matching an increase, not a decrease in homelessness, and an almost 20% increase in housing prices last year alone. These losses can be weighed against the positive implementation of the unjustly controversial backyard chicken coops, bike lanes, and food carts. While we will be safe from the NPA’s street-car, we will most certainly not be safe from Vision’s land-use policy predicated on eviction and demolition of affordable housing.

Because council has the same developer-funded majority it has had over the past two terms, we can look at the past six years to loosely predict what we will see on council over the next three:

a) Wedge issues

To create the illusion of democracy and choice, NPA and Vision will have to chose a set of wedge issues, which will redirect the discussion of civic politics away from issues onto superficial gossip and ruling-class infighting. Differentiation will have to take place in lieu of actual difference. Over the past three years, we’ve seen the two developer parties focus on personal smears, bike lanes, $1,000 environmental projects, or most recently, the street-car. Many progressives stand with Vision on these issues, but they are only a distraction from the municipal government’s main purpose, which is to regulate land-use and facilitate affordability.

b) Gentrification

We will see much more displacement in Vancouver, especially the Downtown Eastside. Vision Vancouver wants to build condos in the Downtown Eastside as part of their ‘ten-year housing plan’. The only way they can do this without subsidizing (which they are against) is to build in low-income neighbourhoods where the land is least expensive. Even when there was only one NPA councillor, Vision Vancouver embraced the NPA’s plan to rezone the DTES for condo towers. Already, Vision is set to approve a proposal for a 17-storey condo tower for the corner of Main and Keefer. The developer is Westbank Corp, which held a huge fundraiser for Vision during the election. The two new NPA councilors will agree with Vision’s plan to increase condo development in this low-income neighborhood, while COPE will have to make their critique of gentrification from the sidelines

We will also see large condo towers popping up throughout East Vancouver, justified as part and parcel of the NPA’s EcoDensity program, which Vision Vancouver has adopted since 2008. Massive developments in low-income neighbourhoods are the most profitable form of real-estate development, and are therefore the most desired by developers. In anticipation of this gentrification, shops will raise their rents and evict long-time businesses. This can already be seen on Main Street, along Kingsway, in the Downtown Eastside, and elsewhere.

c) Evictions

Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver have said on several occasions that they are unable to stop evictions. But the truth is that they do not want to stop them, because their housing policy is literally dependent upon evictions. To build affordable housing without subsidizing it, you need to evict low-income tenants — that is the only way. Vancouver has “rate-of-change” bylaws that prevent conversion of rental to condominiums, but do not prevent conversion from low-income rental to medium or high-income rental. Vancouver has created its own portmanteau for this ongoing process: the ‘renoviction.’ This is the simple process of landlords evicting tenants to increase rents further than inflation-plus-2%.


 


Definitions

Democracy axis:
City Hall is currently controlled by developers that finance the large political parties. An alternative approach is for council to be responsive to residents, and to promote grassroots democracy. The Mainlander supports candidates who reject corporate control of government in favour of deep political engagement of all affected residents, especially those marginalized by the current system.

Inclusivity axis:

Vancouver needs far more affordable and social housing, as well as social services for those most in need. Some interests organize against having these important things in their own back yard (NIMBY). Others support inclusion of affordable and social housing and social services in their own neighbourhood (YIMBY), leading by example. The Mainlander supports candidates who promote YIMBY politics.

For example, those who support the proposed social housing development at the corner of Broadway and Fraser, or a safe-injection site on the westside, classify as YIMBY, while those who oppose these are classified as NIMBY.

For The Mainlander’s endorsements, click here. In general, we endorsed those closer to the top-right “resident-YIMBY” quadrant, and those farthest from the bottom-left “developer-NIMBY” quadrant.



These are notes towards — what? — a manifesto? list of demands? Not really. Just three key thoughts/impressions about the Occupy movement that have evolved over the weeks I have been watching, participating in, and thinking about it. Call it “Occupy 101.” There’s a lot more nuance to these issues than I go into here — but I’m trying to be schematic, conceptual. I hope it might be useful in the on-going and collective attempt to “explain” the movement—both to those of us involved in it, and those who remain skeptical or even antagonistic to it.

1.

The problems we face in the world today are diverse, wide-ranging, and complex. But here’s a (hopefully useful) short-hand that gets us right into the heart of the matter, and that short-hand is found in the nexus formed by these two words: ECONOMY and ECOLOGY. Both words derive from the Greek oikos, meaning “home.” Simplifying to the extreme, economy is how we make our living and our home; ecology is where we make our living and our home. Obviously, these two concepts need to be in harmony and balance. But today they are not: our economy does constant and often excessive damage to our ecology.

Our global economic system is based on, driven by, and in need of constant growth. Like a shark, if it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. Or better, like cancer, it only knows growth, regardless of the consequences for its “host.” As long as GDPs keep rising, it doesn’t matter how unequally distributed that wealth is, or how badly people suffer, or what happens to the environment. So our ECONOMICS ignores and surpass all limits. But our ECOLOGIES are all about limits — each ecosystem is limited (by climate, geography, resources, etc.), and the ultimate limit is the earth itself, the entire biosphere. Our current economic system has run right past these ecological limits (the excess registering in global warming, the extinction of species, the loss of the world’s forests, huge Texas-sized patches of plastic floating in our oceans, etc. etc.). In Slavoj Zizek’s analogy, we are like Wile E. Coyote, running off the edge of the economical/ecological cliff. When we finally look down, we’ll fall.



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!