Two weeks in a row, Allen Garr has written articles attacking Downtown Eastside community members who oppose the Pantages condo project slated for their neighbourhood. Harold Lavender, a board member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC), has called Garr’s recent writings “libelous and horrible articles” filled with “scurrilous attacks.” One would imagine that before publishing something so inflammatory, the veteran columnist would make sure he was on solid ground. Let us examine whether Garr did any investigating, or whether his words are indeed “scurrilous.”

Garr’s article opens with thunder: “By all accounts, it looked like a riot. There was pushing and shoving, cops and security guards trying to control the crowd and death threats being uttered: ‘There will be blood in the streets.'” Is that an accurate representation of what happened? I was there and wrote an article about the same meeting. How could two accounts of the same event be so different?

First, of course, Garr wasn’t there. What I learned, by speaking to staff of city hall and City Manager Penny Ballem, was that the Mayor’s Office determined beforehand to block DTES residents from the public hearing. When residents demanded to be allowed to enter the hearing — which is why they sent a delegation all the way to city hall! — security, police and city managers responded completely out of proportion to anything reasonable. In front of everyone’s eyes the police physically assaulted three members of the public, all who simply stated verbally that the meeting should be publicly open. It is impossible to imagine what would happen if City Hall treated a delegation from Shaughnessy in the same way.

Bob Rennie stands with the Maleks, developers of the Olympic Village.

This past Friday afternoon it was announced that real-estate tycoon Bob Rennie and former public servant Judy Rogers would be appointed as Commissioners of BC Housing. Some journalists noted that the appointment of Rennie was patronage for his support of Christy Clark in her leadership bid. Since the early rise of John Cummins and the B.C. Conservatives, Rennie has also been a proponent of a united right wing. He has contributed heavily to BC Liberal campaigns and often boasts of maintaining close contact with Rich Coleman and other higher ups in the current government.

The appointment of Judy Rogers also appears to be patronage for her mishandling of the Olympic Village project. It was under her oversight that the intended investment in social housing became instead a luxury development. Under her leadership as former City Manager, the developer Millennium was selected for the project, and for all practical purposes given free reign to access city finances. While for most Vancouverites this has been a catastrophe, it would be disingenuous to say it wasn’t what the higher ups in the BC Liberal party wanted the whole time.

On Monday, March 19, current and former tenants of Richard Watson Court, 577 East 8th Avenue, gathered for a press conference on the sidewalk outside their building. Of the approximately 50 people who lived in the building last year, only four remain.

When Richard Watson Court was built in 1983, all of its 39 suites were constructed with accessibility in mind, and 9 were specifically designed for wheelchair and scooter use: lower-set stoves and sinks, wheel-in showers, and five-walled bedrooms, allowing for easier movement around a bed. The property’s mortgage was held by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation until 2006, when it was transferred to BC Housing; up until that transfer, the building was managed by the Voice of the Cerebral Palsied. According to Tristan Markle of the Vancouver Renters’ Union, the building was then neglected under BC Housing’s management. Before the building was sold to a private developer in November 2011, the balconies were rotted and tenants were ordered to stay clear of them.

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.

A new outdoor installation has appeared at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s OFFSITE sculpture garden located outside the Shangri-La luxury hotel in Downtown Vancouver. Perched next to Georgia Street and easily viewable from a car window, Kota Ezawa’s Hand Vote (2012) is a 3-D cut-out of a 2-D image depicting a regular parliamentary meeting with hands raised in a ritual act of voting. In the brief write-up for the piece, the Vancouver Art Gallery has stated:

“In light of recent events in which demands for societal reform have become apparent both in Canada and abroad, Ezawa’s portrait of democracy could not be more timely.”

Prior to exploring how Hand Vote recapitulates other public works currently on show in Vancouver, we should pose the obvious question: what disavowed event is the VAG pointing to when speaking of “recent events”?

The Global Occupy movement and the Arab Spring are of course the events that come to mind. More specifically, we are reminded of the occupation of the VAG’s North grounds in the fall of 2011. The question is slightly thwarted, however, when we recognize that Occupy Together, and the Arab Spring before it, were not generated by vague calls for social reform. On this point we should be careful not to mince words: the popular movements of the past two years sought to strike a fatal blow to a system of extreme wealth and inequality. The movements in the Middle East, Europe and North America were precipitated by the desire for the wholesale transformation of society itself. To grasp Hand Vote therefore – or as Hegel would say, to seize the concept with our hands – we should investigate the temporal-specificity of the piece.

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.

Vancouver’s 6-year Director of Planning has been fired by city council. In lieu of a normal transition process, the city has fired Toderian without an immediate replacement. While it is not clear why Toderian was fired, the abrupt decision came after a period of heightened tension with prominent developers, including disagreements with Holborn Group at Little Mountain and Wall Financial Corp at Shannon Mews.

At a press conference today the Mayor stated that Toderian’s dismissal was prompted by the need for “new leadership to deal with new challenges facing the city, especially around housing affordability and economic development.” Rather than focusing on Toderian’s conflicts with developers, Robertson and the city stated that a new planning director should be capable of “balancing competing demands” between affordability on the one hand and market development on the other.

City hall insiders, however, were less vague than Roberston. Bob Ransford emphasized that Toderian “had a hard time with the necessary political skills needed to keep developers on your side.” Michael Geller also acknowledged that Toderian was “unpopular with many developers.” Mike Klassen was even more direct: “Let’s be clear about why Brent is leaving the City of Vancouver now. First, the development community by in large didn’t support him.” This analysis by Vancouver’s three “in-house” right-wing commentators was echoed by a fourth right-wing perspective, from Jeff Lee.

Lee pointed to the development community’s ongoing refusal to pay normal development taxes. According to Lee, Toderian was fired because he was “responsible for enforcing a controversial ‘community amenity contribution’ (CAC) program.” Far from being controversial, the CAC program is a simple tax placed on private developers in exchange for community amenities like daycare, recreation centers and artist studios. While Lee would give the impression that CAC’s are onerous and dig into “the bulk of profits,” the small CACs have virtually no impact on the developers’15 – 20% minimum profit rate.

For the past few years, Toderian and the planning department have also been butting heads with development corporations over the normal taxation on market development with respect to the land zoning process. In Vancouver, land-value is tied to the amount of development allowed on a site, which city planners term the Floor Space Ratio (FSR). When the FSR is increased, it most frequently means that the allowable building height has been increased, therefore the process is called “upzoning” or “land lift.” Upzoning automatically increases the value of the land commodity, but as with most things at city hall, the developer is not required to pay the full value of its commodity: on average, developers are required to pay 75 – 80% of the upzoned value. Sometimes this amounts to millions of dollars of free money if the land has been purchase prior to rezoning.