A plan to redevelop the Oakridge Mall at Cambie and 41st, unveiled this past week, includes 2,800 condo units in 16 buildings, 6 of which are above 30 storeys. The current developer-friendly City Council is sure to approve the proposal with only minor adjustments. One city councilor anticipated some community concerns about height and density, but my concern goes deeper. I’m not against height or density in the service of affordability, but in this case, height and density primarily serve corporate interests and reflect poor transit planning choices.
Looking at the redevelopment plan, it’s clear to me that the fundamental principle at work is maximization of corporate profits. The developer is asking to triple the amount of housing allowed on the site, which could triple the land value in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. How much of that value the city recoups to fund affordable housing, and how much the developers keep as profits, depends on the political will of City Council. As it stands, however, only 50 of the 2,800 housing units proposed for Oakridge are planned to have below-market rents – that’s less than 2%.
There is unlikely to be much pushback from City Council. The Oakridge landowner is the Ivanhoe Cambridge Corporation, which cleverly hired the developer, Westbank, and architects, Henriquez Partners, to bring City Council on board with the plan. These firms are very close to the ruling party Vision Vancouver – having also collaborated on the Woodward’s redevelopment in the Downtown Eastside. It does not hurt that Westbank donated $12,000 to Vision’s electoral campaign last fall, and an equal amount in previous campaigns.
Most of the few remaining rights and affordable housing that tenants have in British Columbia were earned by working class activists and renters in the 1970s. This piece, written in 1981 by former housing activist and COPE City Councilor Bruce Yorke, provides some insight into the local past. It documents struggles that won tangible victories in the late ’60s and ’70s, while hinting at how new ground can be won today. In the context of unending evictions, a neoliberal municipal government, and a right-shifting provincial NDP under Adrian Dix, tenants must now more than ever take to the streets, organize buildings, and look land-owning interests straight in the eyes.
The pioneer and leader of the tenants’ movement in B.C. was the Vancouver Tenant Council established in 1968. This was an individual membership organization with membership dues at $2.00 a year. The fees were used to set up an office with a phone.
In August, 1968, we held our first meeting of tenants. It was at the Driftwood apartment in Kitsilano. I took the initiative in calling that meeting. The main issue disturbing tenants was a 5% increase in rents imposed on very short notice, plus a rather insulting letter from Block Brothers.
The meeting was held at Kitsilano Beach. About 75 tenants attended. Alderman Harry Rankin was also there and gave us his support.
The media coverage of this meeting created a lot of interest and led to many telephone enquiries.
We didn’t win that battle but we did establish the fact that tenants were determined to get organized and make their voices heard.
Vision Vancouver has recently approved a long-term transportation plan. One of the stated aims of the plan is to increase the percentage of foot, bike and transit trips in Vancouver from 44 to 66% by 2040. Is this one of those “radical plans to attack motorists,” as the editors of the Province claim? Certainly not. Despite a dramatic lack of public funding for transit, Vancouver is already in the midst of a long-term shift away from primary dependence on the private automobile.
The plan is alarming, but not because it represents a “war on the car.” In keeping with the BC Liberals’ premise of austerity and declining public funding, the 2040 plan adopts TransLink’s logic of regressive fees and privatization. Vancouverites should reject the plan first because it accepts the provincial government’s framework of neoliberal financing for buses and trains.
The 2040 Plan is also a developers’ Charter of Rights dressed up as a transportation plan. Under the rubric of transit-oriented development (TOD), the plan delivers a reckless blank slate to developers at the expense of housing affordability. Among other things it builds an umbilical cord between transit funding and new high-priced market condo development. This strategic move by developer-backed Vision goes beyond the policy framework of the BC Liberals pioneered by Kevin Falcon, which ties transit development directly to the private development industry. By approving the 2040 plan the city is positioning itself politically to the right of the provincial government, rejecting the notion of a commercial property tax increase in a city with the second-lowest combined corporate tax rates in the world.
Yesterday morning, tenants of non-profit housing near Commercial Drive held a press conference to support two of their neighbours currently fighting evictions. In collaboration with the Vancouver Renters’ Union, the tenants called on the Residential Tenancy Branch to strike down the evictions. They also spoke out against lack of repairs, inadequate pest control and rent increases.
Their landlord is the Housing Foundation of BC, a registered charity which owns and operates 24 buildings across the city with a mandate to provide “income-based, rent-controlled housing to mature Vancouverites in need.” HFBC tenants sign a lease stating that their “rent is based on income,” yet many tenants pay rents above 55% of their income. Most tenants also receive a subsidy from HFBC that keeps their out-of-pocket rents affordable.
Recently HFBC began revoking subsidies from still-eligible tenants, making apparent the problem of landlords ‘subsidizing’ tenants instead of simply setting rent at affordable rates. Suddenly these elderly renters were faced with rent increases upwards of $185, or 28% of their original rent. Even with SAFER grants (Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters) from the province, they could not afford to start paying 60% of their meagre fixed incomes on rent.
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