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%.



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.

The Vancouver municipal election takes place this Saturday November 19th. Here the editors of the Mainlander present our endorsements for Vancouver City Council, Parks Board, and School Board.

This election should be considered within the context of the past three years. In 2008, Vision Vancouver candidates for City Council ran aggressively against the NPA’s record. But since that time, Vision has continued the NPA’s policy of business tax cuts, gentrification, “ecodensity,” policing the poor, privatization, and cuts to the public service. Previous relationships with community organizations have been severed, rendering city hall even more out-of-touch. Alas, the two developer-funded parties differ less than hairs plucked from the nose of Pinocchio.

Most disturbing is the broken promises. In 2008, Vision appealed to the best in people, and won a strong mandate to tackle unaffordabiliy and homelessness. Unfortunately, developers and the rich 1% remained in the driver’s seat, vetoing any real change of direction. This is disturbing for two reasons: first, it hurts those who need change right now, and second, it taints the chances of more committed people who may come along in the future to make real change — when that happens, who will believe them?

So what is the way forward? Amidst the short-sighted hysteria of election campaigns, which always demand last-minute capitulation to false choices, it’s best to remain calm and take the long-view. When we do that, standing in the eye of the campaign hurricane, new paths reveal themselves. Vancouver is a city where the poor and working-poor, and especially youth, have little future, with nowhere to build a life. It is a real challenge to work multiple jobs, build up one’s community, and at the same time learn the ropes of our government-for-the-rich.

Out of this, however, new lines of demarcation are being drawn up. A line is being drawn between a system rigged for developers and big businesses and one controlled by residents. This time that line is partly obscured by the Vision-COPE electoral alliance, but in the long run ideas are more powerful than temporary opportunities. Of those candidates opposed to the developer-run system, some have been distracted by NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) concerns. But a few candidates in this year’s race remain focused, exposing the link between lack of democracy and unaffordability. Indeed, the candidates we are endorsing are the ones who show the tip of the iceberg of a movement of renters — the majority of residents, the next generation — intent on speaking for themselves instead of being spoken for.

In the end, through the fog, the choice is clear. A person can support a city based on the principles of equality, justice and liberty, a city that embraces social housing and public schools and public parks across the board; or else go on to build a resort town exclusively for the rich. The space in between those two choices has all but disappeared, and if the historic elections of 2008 Vision held out the possibility of having both at once, that dream has been shattered by reality. Now our stance towards Vision and the NPA has to be the slogan, ‘both are worse,’ and we will not be blackmailed by false distinctions and petty differences. Bikes lanes, backyard chickens, “rent banks” and wheat lawns are not legitimate topics for politics in the most unaffordable city on the planet.

Against this election, we insist that politics is the scene of collective action, based on a number of principles working at a distance from dominant interests. All the more, it has become a pressing task to imagine reaching into the foggy depths of city hall and wrest the commons away from the clutches of privatization. We believe that the Mayoral, Council, Parks and School Board candidates we have nominated will fight towards exactly that.

DTES delegation at the 2011 Vancouver mayoral debate

At the recent Homelessness and Affordable Housing debate (Nov 7, St. Andrew’s–Wesley Church), mayoral candidates Gregor Robertson and Suzanne Anton said a lot of things, but they didn’t debate much. They both admitted that they will not slow down or pause destructive market development in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). They agreed that a municipal tax on real estate speculation and non-resident property ownership would not be appropriate. They also agreed that inclusionary zoning, a soft and widely used development permit mechanism that forces developers to include affordable housing in all market developments, would not be good for Vancouver. They even agreed that the solution to the affordable rental housing and homelessness crisis caused by the real estate market is to be found back in the market itself. Put simply, their differences were of degree, not principle.

The most troubling thing about the mayoral debate was the way that both candidates addressed the low-income affordable housing and homelessness crisis: by passing the blame onto provincial and federal levels of government. Both Gregor Robertson and Suzanne Anton avoided the City’s role in building housing, as well as tools in its jurisdiction that could be used to save low-income housing. These are the top-three things the DNC believes a mayoral candidate would do if they were serious about ending the affordable rental-housing and homelessness crisis in Vancouver:

The Mainlander’s Sean Antrim sat down with their Mayoral candidate Randy Helten of Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) to talk about affordability, accountability, the arts, and Vancouver’s future. It is a tall order for a political party that does not receive corporate and developer donations to get candidates elected. NSV has been fighting an up-hill battle.

Sean Antrim: What amount of development do we need in Vancouver right now? And the reason that I’m asking this question is because many people, and the mainstream press, have criticized Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver as being NIMBY-based. A lot of journalists have been around for a while, and in the 1990s with Gordon Campbell, NIMBY-ism was quite a problem.

Randy Helten: To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows the answer. The people who know the answer are concealing the answer. Because the City has removed from public access numbers that show the current zoning capacity. It used to be up and available, but it’s gone now. My understanding is that Professor Patrick Condon at UBC has done some studies, and he’s saying that for construction within the current zoning, the capacity for additional population density is enough for decades into the future. Construction could happen without any rezoning, to fill all of the incoming population.

The City has these numbers, and in January of this year [COPE Councilor] Ellen Woodsworth put forward a motion that was passed, according to which the planning department was supposed to release the numbers of zoning capacity to council some time in February. It’s off the map. Despite repeated requests there’s been no response out of the planning department. So no one knows the answer publicly. The information is concealed. My suspicion is that if you take the West End, for example, I think in the current zoning, without rezoning, we could accommodate another 5,000 people or so. That’s just a sense, because I know the areas that are zoned right now for six stories that are currently two stories. If you take the average of all that and you look at a long term thirty-year plan or a hundred-year plan, and look at the land area in the West End and long term population goals — steady growth, not too extreme, not too rapid — the West End could accommodate several thousand more people.

Sean Antrim: That’s the way most cities do rezoning — blanket rezoning — which is doing an entire neighbourhood at a time. Why do you think we have so many spot rezonings in Vancouver?

Randy Helten: My understanding of the dynamics is that a spot rezoning allows exceptions to happen within the existing zoning. In many cases it offers huge returns to the owner of those specific spots. If you go to the old adage “follow the money” and look at who’s making campaign contributions to our elected officials, it makes sense. They’re making the campaign contributions, the officials get into power, and they have control over land use decisions. They’re supposed to regulate the land on behalf of the entire public and balance all the interests of all of the stakeholders. Both Vision and the NPA as organizations are incapable of avoiding undue influence from that private money, and that’s what we’re seeing as the results of their decisions.

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!

Below, Tristan Markle of The Mainlander interviews Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs, who is running for re-election to Vancouver City Council. We discuss Vancouver’s unaffordability malady: would Meggs make the correct diagnosis, or propose a sufficient intervention? We discuss other cities with similar disorders, but which have more robust public housing programs: would Meggs help implement those programs here, or take responsibility for the ongoing destruction of public housing? We discuss developer contributions to political parties: is Vision passing the buck on campaign finance reform? Finally, we compare 1983’s Operation Solidarity (in which Meggs was heavily involved) to the Occupy Together movement: is Vision misrepresenting, even vilifying, the new movement?

Markle: Why is housing so unaffordable in Vancouver, what’s the main reason?

Meggs: I would say there’s some short term key drivers, and some longer term ones. In the short term, the key reason’s been that the economy’s been quite buoyant here, and we’ve had a lot of people moving here, so it’s been driving up demand, and demand has been coupled with a lot of speculation. Because for about about 15 -20 years housing prices have tended to go up. So there’s a speculative element, there’s no doubt about it. But I think in the longer term I think the bigger picture is that land supply is quite constrained here and the ALR [the Agricultural Land Reserve] is part of that, it’s a positive part but it’s a contributor.

Markle: When you said that speculation plays a part, what exactly do you mean?

Meggs: Well I think many people had an expectation for a long time that if they purchased real estate that they would see gains in their equity that was faster than the rate of inflation. In other words, they could benefit economically by buying real estate more so than buying an RRSP or putting it in a bank account or buying Canadian savings bonds. And for a long time that was true. As a result, there was more pressure on the market than was justified by reality.

Markle: Last year prices went up over 20%, still. So how is that happening?

Meggs: Well I’m not an expert on all of these things, but I believe that because the BC economy and the Canadian economy have been relatively buffered from the global crisis, and because there are a number of underlying factors that make this a very attractive place to live – you know, say, no civil wars or armed conflicts going on, a pretty solid stable legal system, all of these things that are appealing – a lot of people have been coming here to purchase and to some degree to speculate. So we’ve continued to see higher prices than almost anywhere else in North America, certainly in stark contrast to the United States, for sure. That seems to be related to our place in the global economy.

Markle: We hear a lot about people from other countries buying property here on the one hand, but research doesn’t make it so clear that the majority of capital invested in new condos, for example, is necessarily coming from people from elsewhere, at all. You’ve covered some of the research that shows that it’s not so simple as that.

Meggs: I don’t think it’s useful to pursue that line of inquiry at all personally, and potentially dangerous, because it’s a classic deflection in BC politics to blame our problems on outsiders. The reality is that if there are purchases by offshore investors at the high end of the market, it’s not having and impact on anybody that I’m worried about at all. The real problem is at the mid-range.

Markle: Depending on what type of housing you’re looking at, whether it’s stand-alone homes or condos, the median price is way out of proportion to median income. High end properties won’t affect that median much at all. So when Bob Rennie did a study recently which said that all the talk about housing being unaffordable is skewed by the high end, he missed the point. The most simple measures of housing affordability – median income versus median price – are not affected by high end. So what is it then that’s driving up the prices, if it’s for the large part not money flowing in necessarily from elsewhere, not necessarily for high end luxury properties, so what is it?