Vision Vancouver-dominated city council voted yesterday, Tues Dec 13, to approve the terms of reference for a so-called “affordability task force.” The task force will consult developers, financiers, architects, and other members of Vancouver’s real estate oligopoly — the very interests responsible for the city’s permanent housing bubble and for the city’s culture of rent gouging — in order to produce policy recommendations by March 2012.

Earlier this week, before the terms of reference were even approved by council, Mayor Robertson announced that the task force would be co-chaired by himself and ‘multimillionaire’ developer Olga Ilich.

Olga Ilich is a firmly entrenched member of the lower-mainland’s real estate oligopoly. Ilich is founder and president of Suncor Development Corporation. Most inappropriately, she was president of the Urban Development Institute (UDI), which is the development industry’s primary lobby organization. The UDI lobbies City Hall regularly to destroy and gentrify low-income neighborhoods, to over-ride local community planning processes, and to undermine renters rights.

Ilich is also a BC Liberal. She was a cabinet minister under Gordon Campbell from 2006-2009. News articles about Ilich’s appointment in other publications (The Sun, 24hours, The Straight, Observer, etc) refrain from mentioning the words “BC Liberal” and “Gordon Campbell,” downplaying these connections in order to protect Gregor Robertson from criticism from the left. When the NPA appointed BC Liberal insider, and Gordon Campbell confidante, Geoff Plant to run project civil city, progressives in Vancouver denounced the decision in the strongest terms. But now that Robertson has made an equivalent appointment, progressives seem committed to self-censorship, amnesia, and capitulation.

Certainly the appointment of Ilich sends a strong message to the city’s elite, and especially to the development industry. The message? “Don’t worry, we have put a BC Liberal, multimillionaire developer, UDI president in charge. Nothing will happen that creates true affordability. Prices will not go down. Profits will not go down. Corporate taxes will not go up. All solutions will be private solutions. The real estate industry will remain in the driver’s seat. There will be no new public housing. Don’t worry, dear developers who donated over a million dollars to Vision’s election campaign. Thank you, developers — this is our repayment to you!”

Vision Vancouver dominated yesterday’s Vancouver civic election. They elected each of their candidates for City Council, Parks Board, and School Board. The right-wing NPA only increased their council seat count from one to two, despite almost doubling their campaign spending to about $2.5 million. The Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) are in an even tighter spot, clearly not benefiting from their electoral agreement with Vision. Like last time, COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth was fighting for the tenth and last council spot (some news reports originally stated that the advanced polls were yet to be counted, but Frances Bula later confirmed that the 18,000 votes were included in the poll-by-poll website).

The take-home message is that, three years after 2008, the electoral scene remains largely unchanged, only with COPE faring somewhat more poorly. How do we make sense of this? How did it happen — or how did change not happen?

1. A big lesson from the past month is that you need a mayoral candidate and a strong slate in order to be part of the election process. The corporate media framed the election as a duel between the mayoral candidates. This meant that COPE received very little air time, either in terms of branding or policies. As a result, COPE candidates suffered at the polling stations, and the people of Vancouver suffered for not having any substantive policy discussions over the past month. Also, running so few candidates made COPE appear marginal, comparable to Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) and other secondary parties, rather than as a serious contender. This is especially true for first-time voters, who guessed (wrongly) that COPE has a small base.

2. COPE supporters voted for Robertson and Vision, but not vice versa. The results here are clear-cut and shocking. While COPE appeared to pull its historic base of 40,000 voters, it seems that Vision’s base of about 30,000 almost completely ignored COPE. This tragic case of unrequited love allowed Vision to dominate absolutely, trouncing the other parties, and leaving COPE feeling rejected and dumped — at COPE’s election after-party, the sentiment could be heard everywhere: “But I thought Gregor liked us!” Of course, by no means can the blame for COPE’s poor showing be placed enitirely at the doorstep of Vision; but nor should there be any illusions about Vision’s lack of solidarity with COPE.

3. Already Vision pundits are blaming third parties like NSV for COPE’s defeat. The numbers prove beyond a doubt that this is untrue. COPE’s most painful losses were on School Board and Parks Board, where there were no NSV candidates at all. Vision’s electoral machine seems to have completely thrown these COPE school and parks candidates under the bus. There are no third parties to blame here.

4. COPE is not in an unusual situation. Across Canada, and the world, wherever there is a strong centrist Liberal party, truly progressive parties often live in the shadows. In central and eastern Canada, the history of the NDP is the history stubborn commitment in the face of relentless defeat. There, as here, Liberal parties campaign from the left and govern from the right. Only rarely, and after years of building a base, can labour parties expose and break through this liberal sleight-of-hand. Make no mistake, Vision is Vancouver’s Liberal Party run by highly skilled and patently successful political operatives. The sooner Vancouver’s parliamentary left faces the fact that Vision is a top-down Liberal machine aimed at exploiting the left, the better. Better for morale, because we realize there’s nothing exceptional about the situation. And better for justice, because only after making an accurate diagnosis may we make the right prescription, and organize to win.

5. Too many working-class people stayed home. Vancouver is a working-class town, with a median household income of only $35,000 and with a population of over 50% renters — far more than any other city in the Lower Mainland. Meanwhile, the cost-of-living is through-the-roof. With these demographics, and with this inequality, Vancouver should have a downright socialist majority — as do many other similar cities. But it seems that most of these folks did not feel inspired enough to vote. Ellen Woodsworth stated explicitly after hearing the results: “progressives stayed home.”

6. Poor people who were inspired to vote were turned away at the polls. COPE campaign manager Nathan Allan alleged on Sunday that Downtown Eastside residents who had no fixed addressed were questioned by NPA scrutineers and later turned away at the polls. In an interview with David P. Ball from the Vancouver Observer, Allan stated, “Scrutineers on behalf of NPA created enough tension so [city] officials erred on the side of disenfranchising people…[The NPA] frustrated the vote by making the lines long and the process arduous — many people were not able to vote today.” Allan estimated that at least 50 people were turned away from the polls. The NPA denies the claim, and no city officials have been available to confirm the report. In the meantime, COPE is considering making an official complaint.

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.

Mayoral candidates debate against the public

Tonight’s mayoral debate on homelessness and affordable housing was a heated fight — not between the two candidates, but between the City and its residents. Mayor Gregor Robertson and mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton were supposed to face off and debate the issues, but the real debate was with the people of Vancouver.

Rather than reveal disagreements, the event brought to the fore the overlapping politics of Robertson and Anton. If before tonight there was a sense that the candidates’ two parties — Vision and the NPA — were different in their respective policy platforms, tonight’s debate showcased agreement on housing strategy: let the market do it. When asked in vague terms if the market could provide all the solutions, both candidates hesitated, and Anton frequently brought in her party’s history of buying sites throughout Vancouver for social housing — admittedly more than could be said for Vision. But on actual concrete politics, the candidates converged more than they differed. Most importantly, both candidates stressed that they do not support a speculator tax on housing and do not support inclusionary zoning in Vancouver.

Inclusionary zoning is an urban planning policy used in cities throughout the world — including Vancouver’s Oppenheimer district (“DEOD”) — mandating the inclusion of affordable housing in all new multi-unit housing developments. In exchange for pushing up property values and exposing low-income renters to evictions, developers are forced to build a percentage of new units as affordable. In Oppenheimer it’s 20%. Tonight, the question was: “Would an inclusionary zoning policy, one where you require developers to build a certain percentage of affordable units into their projects like Richmond does, be workable in Vancouver?” Gregor and Anton said categorically: no.

Gregor was referring to city staff’s current review of inclusionary zoning in the Oppenheimer district. Earlier this year head Planner Brent Toderian stated that the city will have to make “tough decisions” about inclusionary zoning in the Oppenheimer district. Tonight Gregor repeated this plan for affordability: replace affordable housing in East Vancouver with $300,000 condominiums. Like Anton, who tonight argued for a “common sense revolution” of “removing red tape” for the developers, Gregor wants further de-regulation to accompany more STIR tax breaks.

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Throughout the debate, however, dozens in attendance disagreed with Robertson and Anton, shouting slogans like, “Housing is a Human Right,” “Stop the Evictions,” “Drown Out the Developer Parties,” “Gregor Lies,” and “Three More Years of What?” A big theme of the night was the debate format itself, pitting two candidates “against” each other in a false opposition. Attendees — dozens of them from #occupyvancouver, arriving at the debate with the recent announcement that Mayor Roberston has ordered an eviction of Occupy — rejected the format of the debate, which excluded any political party or candidate not funded by developers.

Here Sean Antrim of The Mainlander interviews Sandy Garossino, who is running as an independent candidate for Vancouver City Council this November 19.

Sean Antrim: You launched your campaign in the Georgia Straight attacking the affordability crisis in Vancouver. At the Mount Pleasant all-candidates, every candidate from every political party gave lip-service to this issue. I think that everyone recognizes that there is an affordability crisis in the city. In 2008, Vision Vancouver was elected on a platform that would address housing, homelessness and the affordability crisis, but we all know they have done little to tackle the problem. How will you address this issue, and what distinguishes your platform from that of Vision Vancouver?

Sandy Garossino: Almost everyone that I have heard discuss this sees the affordability issue. I’m talking here about broadening this beyond homelessness and subsidized housing, but also market housing for the average working person. Almost everyone who talks about this, talks about it in the simple supply and demand equation, and their point is to increase supply. Because I deal with Asia, I understand capital markets in Asia, and I have dealings there, this seems to me to completely miss the true nature of the issue and the challenge that we confront. Just to give you a little bit of a background, our median income levels in Metro Vancouver place 20 out of 28 urban regions in Canada. Our median income levels for 2010 were below Sudbury, Windsor and St. John’s Newfoundland. We have the highest real estate prices in Canada, relative to median income. We have almost the highest real estate in the world. Relative to median income, we are 56% higher than New York City and 31% higher than London, so there’s clearly a serious distortion in the market. One of the first challenges we have is we don’t have the data. We don’t have information that can pin-point exactly what is going on and the extent to which capital is entering, and the extent to which that capital is non-resident, and how much that is affecting the market. We need to know a lot more than we do. But based on anecdotal information, which is turning out to be corroborated in news reports, it looks like global capital is having a massive impact.

This weekend, Vision Vancouver declared its official kick-off of the 2011 civic election campaign. The party sent members a video of a speech by Gregor Robertson, in which he distinguished Vision from its “political opponents.” Election campaigns are in large part about strategically distinguishing oneself from opponents. In this sense, the campaign promises to be a fascinating one, given that the two parties capable of forming a majority agree on all core policy matters.

The opponent to which Robertson refered is the NPA, which he called “highly negative, well-funded.” Both the NPA and Vision are well-funded, so the remaining distinction is that the NPA is ‘negative.’ That claim may seem unfair, given that the NPA isn’t any more negative about Vision Vancouver than vice versa. In the video, Gregor’s critique of the NPA’s negativity is in fact negative.

For us the key term ‘negative’ should be replaced by ‘awkward’. The awkwardness stems from the fact that Vision has adopted the NPA’s policies and is, as a result, at a loss. When the NPA goes on the attack, too, they are found attacking their own policies. Worse, the NPA is now forced to use pseudo-progressive rhetoric when attacking Vision – rhetoric that Vision would have used in the past, but now is forced to reject. The whole game of false distinctions is awkward.

Consider the Vancouver Sun‘s first of eight civic election briefings, also published over the weekend. In the first briefing, about affordable housing, Vision councilor Geoff Meggs discussed some of the implications of the housing crisis. Indeed, when The Mainlander met with Meggs for an in depth discussion last week, he emphasized the need for consensus around recognizing and prioritizing the housing crisis. Excellent. The question remains: what are Vision and the NPA going to do about it?

[First published at The Tyee. Tyee Editor’s Note: Vancouver revels in its reputation as North America’s most ‘livable’ city. Yet for as many as half of Vancouver’s households and thousands of others across Metro who rent rather than own their accommodation, finding a place to come home to can mean a nail-biting search. More worrisome still, even once an affordable rental has been found, it can be abruptly snatched away again. In this installment of our latest reader-funded Tyee Fellowship series, journalist Jackie Wong investigates one common practice that has a growing number of renters up in arms.]

The hallways in The Seafield apartment building have been stripped of their carpets. Pebbles and dust line the dark walls. It’s the first day of March, and the 80-year-old, 14-unit walkup in Vancouver’s West End is in rough shape — in more than one sense. For two and a half years, the Pendrell Street dwelling has been the site of a vocal battle between the people who until recently owned The Seafield, and the people who live there.

Brothers-in-law Chris Nelson and Jason Gordon purchased the building for $3,447,000 in July 2008, through their company Gordon Nelson Inc. (GNI). Over the following months GNI issued a number of eviction notices, claiming it needed the suites vacated in order to renovate the elderly building.

Tenants protested. As they saw it, once in possession of a vacant renovated suite the landlords could increase the rent, collecting more from new tenants than they would from its former occupants. Residents regarded the derelict conditions in the hallways as intimidation tactics, meant to motivate tenants to move out on their own when eviction notices weren’t enough.