This open letter was originally published in the Georgia Straight. It is a response to a letter originally posted here.

The time has come for Vancouver’s only progressive civic party to stand on its own two feet. The situation is urgent: Vancouver has become the most expensive city on the continent and the second most unaffordable city in the world. Our friends and family are being priced-out, as social housing is privatized and demolished at an unprecedented rate. People are longing for real change and real social justice.

As community organizers, the three of us are determined to turn this situation around and make Vancouver affordable for everyone. To that end, we are running for the executive of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) at this Sunday’s AGM. We believe that renters, who form the majority of residents in this city, need housing stability and firm rent controls. Existing affordable housing stock must be protected through stronger civic bylaws, and new affordable housing created through a robust housing authority. We realize that the only way for this to happen is for COPE to stand strong and independent of the two developer-funded parties — the NPA and Vision Vancouver. A few recent examples will serve to illustrate why.

Just last week, the Vancouver Renters’ Union — an organization to which we belong — successfully worked with 33 brave seniors to fight a 45% rent increase at Lions Manor in Mount Pleasant. The landlord’s rationale for the proposed extraordinary rent increase was that local property values are escalating due to high-end condo developments in this historically working-class neighbourhood. The current developer-backed city council actively facilitates this upscaling, but refuses to use its tools or influence to protect the most vulnerable renters. Unfortunately, Lions Manor is only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout East Vancouver, migrant communities, seniors and those hit hardest by Vancouver’s housing crisis are being displaced. To halt this process, it is essential that COPE withdraw support from developer-funded parties, and present an independent alternative.

Three dozen seniors living on fixed incomes in the Lions Manor building at 6th and Main have been served with a 45% rent increase. In a city with an ever-worsening housing crisis, the tenants could be faced with the possibility of having nowhere to go.

The Mount Pleasant Housing Society (MPHS), a non-profit organization set up by the Mount Pleasant Lions Club, has applied to the Residential Tenancy Branch for permission to exceed the annual rent-increase limit by more than ten times, arguing that rents at Lions Manor are below market value. In reality, the 36 residents of Lions Manor already pay between 35-45% of their income on rent, which is higher than the one-third cut-off rate defined by the City of Vancouver as affordable.*

The rent-increase hearing is scheduled for today (February 10) at the Residential Tenancy Branch. The hearing will take place by phone, adding even more anonymity to the fact that the building owners have not yet met face-to-face with the seniors to discuss the increase. Despite pressure to revoke their application, including a rally outside the Lions Manor yesterday, the Mount Pleasant Housing Society has confirmed that it will pursue the rent increase as planned.

In an extensive conversation with The Mainlander, Mount Pleasant Housing Society president Christine Norman confirmed that if the hearing comes down in favor of the tenants, her organization will appeal the decision. “We will do whatever we have to do to win the case,” said Norman by phone.

Rents have already increased within the allowable legal limit for at least the past two consecutive years at the Lions Manor. This year, however, the owners are seeking a special exemption from the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) beyond its allowable yearly limit of inflation-plus-two-percent. Under Section 23(1)(a), the geographic area loophole of the RTA, the Mount Pleasant Housing Society is applying for an additional 45% rent increase. The section reads:

A landlord may apply under section 43 (3) of the Act [additional rent increase] if one or more of the following apply: (a) after the rent increase allowed under section 22 [annual rent increase], the rent for the rental unit is significantly lower than the rent payable for other rental units that are similar to, and in the same geographic area as, the rental unit.

This loophole puts all renters in gentrifying areas at risk. The neighborhood surrounding Lions Manor is part of what the Vancouver planning department calls the Main Street revitalization corridor, stretching from Alexander Street south to 36th Avenue. The advancement of the condo frontier up Main Street has widened the rent gap between the ground rent and highest-best use capitalized rent, increasing the return on capital in the area. As such, market rents bear no reflection of the actual costs of tenancy but rather of the opportunity cost of capital. The Residential Tenancy Act exists to protect renters from the most exploitative aspects of the housing market, but Section 23(1)(a) cancels out the very purpose of the Act.

MPHS states that it needs a 45% revenue increase to funds its renovations, although Norman would not speak further for fear of “jeopardizing” her case before the Residential Tenancy hearing. According to Norman, the building should have been repaired 10 years ago. Balconies were left to decay by the Lion’s Club and only repaired when they became a safety hazard.

Two weeks after Vancouver was once again named one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, Mayor Gregor Robertson has unilaterally appointed the members of the city’s “Blue Ribbon Affordability Task Force.” The fourteen appointees of the task force are drawn from a list of prominent developers, landlord lobbyists, architects, and industry insiders. There is not one person on the task force to represent renters, who are the most negatively affected by the housing crisis, and who represent 55% of the city’s population.

The task force was first announced in the Mayor’s opening speech after the re-election of Vision Vancouver in November 2011. Since November, the Mayor has been laying the groundwork and ‘terms of reference’ for the task force. The most important term-of-reference outlines how the city will carry out the privatization of Vancouver’s social housing stock, its demolition, and subsequent sale to private partners. While initially the idea was made in vague reference to “leveraging the city’s land base to help create partnerships with private and public bodies,” the Mayor has recently made it clear what the city has planned:

We’re looking at opportunities to leverage City land. Vancouver has a huge portfolio of land and buildings that we need to get highest and best use out of…What can we do with our existing public housing stock to maximize the opportunity?

The announcement of a “task force” recalls the city’s “affordable rental housing roundtable” process in 2009. In the wake of the financial crash of 2008, developers, financiers, and other stakeholders were invited to a series of workshops in the spring of 2009. The result: a report recommending tax breaks for developers in order to “incentivize” the development of rental housing. The policy that emerged was STIR, which the Mayor referred to as an “economic stimulus” for the hard-done-by development industry. Unsurprisingly, the balance sheet of the past three years shows that the tax-breaks-for-developers housing strategy delivered few rental units and literally zero affordable units of housing. It did deliver generous campaign donations from the development industry to Vision Vancouver.

Although the Mayor’s “affordable housing task force” is unlikely to drive real change, it could have the positive impact of triggering public debate around the mechanisms and causes of Vancouver’s permanent housing bubble. Much of the conversation, like the task force itself, includes only elites — a monologue of the 1%. The Mainlander‘s COUNTERPOINT series aims to take the conversation out of the board rooms.