Vancouver historian Michael Barnholden has written that there are at least two recurring themes in Vancouver’s political discourse. The first is a theme of revision, where low-income and working-class lives and stories are erased from the history of the city. The second is a history of criminalization, where the poor are associated in the political imagination with crime and police control. A truly contemporary example of the use of these two motifs occurred today in a Globe and Mail article on the conversion and upscaling of the American Hotel.

In the coming weeks, the American is set to open with almost 50 market-rate apartment units and an entrepreneurial “izakaya-themed” bar below. The project at 938 Main Street will establish the building as part of trendy developments extending the “Crosstown” area beyond Chinatown South. The Globe piece, written by Frances Bula, sets out in journalism’s formulaic terms to booster the development. Most notably, the article gives a vivid documentation of the history of petty crime and drug trafficking at the American hotel, and it is in light of this dark past that a bright, “revitalized” future is posed for the American.

Yet in all of its emphasis on crime, Frances Bula fails to mention the biggest crime of all: the illegal eviction of all low-income tenants from the hotel in 2006. In contrast to the “grunge” of the city, Bula chooses to write exclusively for the quasi-artistic retail bourgeoisie, making it “hard to mourn the American Hotel and its bar that died in 2006, unless you were into super-cheap blocks of stolen cheese, cocaine, motorcycle gangs, grunge or all of the above.” The list excludes the low-income history while at the same time making it so that if the history were to be included, it would have to do so only by being inserted into a predetermined list of crimes. But for a moment let us remember – mourn – the true history of the American Hotel.


According to Metro Vancouver’s Homelessness Count released today, the number of homeless folks in Vancouver increased from 1,580 to 1,605 over the last 3 years. [i] But you wouldn’t realize it from today’s Vision Vancouver press release and fundraising callout. Neither would it come across in any of the articles found in the mainstream press, which praised the government for “plummeting” rates of street homelessness. Nothing is further from the truth.

It should first be pointed out that the count was conducted on March 16, a day of snow and one of the colder days of 2011 – in other words, not a day to get an accurate street homeless representation. For example, Burnaby, a city which does not currently have a homeless shelter, opened a temporary Extreme Weather Response Shelter on the evening of March 15. On March 15-16, the government took exceptional measures, and it can’t be doubted that people living on the streets did the same, finding floors and couches to sleep on throughout the Lower Mainland.

More importantly, the count was completed on March 16, 2011, several weeks before the City of Vancouver shut down four emergency homeless shelters. Therefore in terms of “street homelessness,” the current situation is far worse than represented in the recent count, and in fact another shelter is scheduled to shut down at the end of next month.

Cambie Street just got a little ‘denser’, in more ways than one. By approving Phase 2 of the so-called Cambie Corridor Plan, not only did the Vision-led City Council open the door to higher condo developments along the stretch, it also proved its own ‘density’: its incapacity to respond to residents, to stand up to developers, or to adequately address Vancouver’s staggering unaffordability.

The Cambie condo plan calls for upzoning the full length of Cambie St, from City Hall to South Marine Drive. Six-storey condo development would be allowed along almost the entire stretch, punctuated by 12-storey condo towers around Oakridge Mall, and 40-storey ones at Marine Drive. In the midst of our almost pathological affordability crisis, where Vancouver often ranks as the most unaffordable city on the planet, it is crucial take advantage of every opportunity to create affordability. But in the Cambie plan it is anticipated that at least 80% of new units will be unaffordable condos, and the remaining 20% purpose-built rental units will go for an unsubsidized market price.

This upzoning is the second free give-away to Cambie private property owners in recent years. First, construction of the Canada Line pushed up land values, especially around transit stations. Simply, people will pay more to live near them, so developers can profit by building condos for speculators and prospective upper-income buyers. But contrary to the logic of using better transit to increase property values, it is a matter of justice to build purpose-built affordable rental housing around transit hubs. It is lower income residents who can’t afford to drive cars.

With land values rising around Canada Line stations, public intervention into the market would be required to retain or create low- and middle-income spaces (residential, commercial, and public spaces). For example, downzoning could be used to keep land values under control, so that land can first be secured by public agencies for the purposes of public housing. Rent Caps or Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI) could be enforced. But on the contrary, the Cambie Corridor Plan serves no purpose other than to multiply property values along the stretch yet again.

Both residential and commercial tenants will be duly evicted, while property owners sell-out to larger development companies consolidating land-holdings for condo complexes. The irony should not be lost that Gregor Robertson’s main accomplishment as an MLA was advocating for small commercial tenants on Cambie Street whose businesses were disrupted by construction of the Canada Line. They will now be dislocated wholesale by property owners without a semblance of consultation or compensation.

This week, Taiwan implemented a “luxury tax” on housing properties lying dormant due to speculation (as reported by the BBC). This begs the question: why not take action in Vancouver, where the affordability crisis is similarly severe?

During his 2008 campaign, Gregor Robertson proposed such a “empty condo tax” to get more housing onto the market and cool-down prices. But as with other promises, he has failed to deliver or take responsibility. (BC law allows strata councils to ban renting-out condos – whereas Ontario law, for example, does not – and this partly explains the high condo vacancy rates. Armed with this excuse, and under pressure from developers, Robertson grew content to blame the provincial government instead of using tools at his disposal to slow speculation.)

Another reason for lack of action on speculation is that the real estate lobby has been spinning the numbers. In May 2009, Andy Yan of Bing Thom Architects published a study estimating the percentage of “empty condos” (identified by low hydro usage) at 5-8%. Real Estate interests who were against the “empty condo tax” suggested that Yan’s work disproved the empty condo “theory.” But even this “low” estimate suggests that the condo vacancy rate is 250-400% that of the 2010 rental vacancy rate. With 80 thousand condos in Vancouver, there are about 5000 empty condos, many of these downtown.

The City’s Housing Centre Director Cameron Grey estimates that, in total, there are about 20,000 empty housing units in Vancouver (including all condos, houses, duplexes, etc). For comparison, that number is roughly equivalent to the total number of social housing units in the city (21,500, according to City numbers).

Andy Yan told The Mainlander that the ’empty condo’ phenomenon is only one driver of Vancouver’s spiraling housing prices. “The point of our story is that even if you make 5,000-10,000 available through an ’empty condo’ tax, it might not make a big difference. Other behaviours of property owners, such as ‘flipping’, might be also contributing to skyrocketing housing prices.” He suggested that while an ’empty condo’ tax might be difficult to enforce, regulations on speculation such as property transfer fees are relatively simple to implement. Yan also emphasized that Vancouver is in desperate need of affordable rental, while empty condos rented-out at market price would not fill this need.

Whereas the real estate lobby saw Yan’s study as a vindication of unregulated speculation, on the contrary we at The Mainlander propose an inverse take-home-message: that a multi-pronged approach will be required to regulate the market. Penalizing owners of empty condos is not a silver bullet for the speculation spiral driving up housing prices in the Lower Mainland. But it is a start.