The 2011 Vancouver municipal election is in full swing. What do the candidates really think, and what can we expect of them? The Mainlander has interviewed some of the council candidates, and will be publishing a series of candidate interviews over the next few weeks. Recently, we sat down with COPE City Council candidate Tim Louis. A transcription of the interview follows.

The Mainlander: Why are you the best person for the job of City Councillor?

Tim Louis: I don’t believe there’s ever anybody who’s the best. Don’t believe that I would ever say that I am the best. I think many different people bring many different skills, positions and world-views to the table. The reason that I’m running for Council is that I believe, and always have believed, that it is very, very important that issues are framed in a way for the public to clearly understand the differences between the developers’ agenda on the one hand, and common sense on the other hand. I think in life, unfortunately, the media, the mainstream media, the corporate media, do a very poor job, in the sense that they make most issues appear to be far too complicated, and don’t leave the public with a clear understanding of what the choice really is.

ML: What would you say you would have done differently over the past three years?

TL: Without meaning for a moment, any criticism of anybody currently on Council, including my two good friends [COPE Councilors] Ellen and David, I would have clearly, and without pulling my punches, without muddying the waters, articulated the choices to be made by Council. For instance, with regards to the tax shift, from business owners to property owners, criticism was couched. Criticism of a view that we should be shifting taxes off of businesses and onto property owners, where technically the businesses pay with pre-tax dollars, taxes the property owners pay with after-tax dollars – in other words, taxes that business owners can write-off but that homeowners can never write off. I believe that that policy, of the current Council, when criticized, was criticized very tepidly, and very timidly, and not with a clear message being sent to the public. The average person, the average homeowner in this city, to this day, is unaware of the fact that tens of millions of dollars have been removed from their pockets, and put into the pockets of business owners, and business property owners.

So to come back to your question, what would I have done differently, I’d like to believe that for the six years that I was on Council, I tried very hard to present a very clear picture between what should be done on the one hand and what was being proposed to be done, by the developer Councilors on the other hand. We need to do as public officials a better job of making the choices that we are making clearly articulated to ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the choices we’re making. A clear understanding of the choices at hand.

ML: What are the top two policies you’re planning to work towards if you are elected?

TL: For me, the number one, is social housing. It is perhaps the one item that any Council has the greatest control over. Many would disagree with me and say no, social housing falls into the jurisdiction of the provincial or federal government, and it’s the one item that municipalities have the least control over, but I very vigorously disagree. There’s not a lot of good that a municipal Council can do as far as say, recalibrating income tax, which is federal, or implementing social programs, which is provincial. Most of what a municipal Council does is fairly routine, mundane stuff – getting clean water into our homes, pick up the garbage, et cetera. But as Harry Rankin, my mentor, always said, what we need to do is understand that City Councilors should be concerned with much more than dogs and garbage, and that their most powerful tool is the power they get at rezoning hearings. At rezoning hearings, Council turns dirt into gold. By way of a single motion, they literally, not figuratively, create tens of millions of dollars. As the Council, we have the authority and the ability, to make it a condition for any and all rezoning that this crisis of social housing is addressed then and there. Not in a policy document that gets cut-up outside the rezoning hearing as a meaningless set of watered down goals, but right in that rezoning hearing, that either a) or b). That a) build, in that development, a certain number of units of social housing, or b) pay a certain amount of money into a pool that the City would then use to build social housing. This City Council, as have previous City Councils, have done a wholly inadequate job of using that very powerful tool.

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.

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.

Anyone who witnessed on 19 April 2011 the seven hours — all morning and all evening — that Vancouver City Council spent cobbling together last-minute amendments to Vancouver’s Street and Traffic By-law (reference Agenda Item 1) should have an excellent idea of how bureaucracy cannot cope with freedom.

More than two weeks earlier on April 7, the issue of “Structures on Streets for Political Expression” had already eaten up an entire afternoon. By one well-placed account, the contentious report first appeared online and available to the public at 1:30 pm on Tuesday April 5. Report presenter Peter Judd made several apologies for the lateness of a document that the City had had more than five months to prepare. The public had only 48 hours of lead time. The five speakers heard on that first afternoon included Clive Ansley, legal representative for Falun Gong, and Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Despite the generality of the bylaw amendments proposed, the report to council (amended version) made clear a desire “to align with direction provided by the B.C. Court of Appeal in the matter of the Falun Gong.” The elephant in this bylaw closet was the ongoing protest outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street. The bylaw amendment itself adopted a cumbersome and much vaguer designation to generalize its effect and coverage.