Note: Alex M, the author of this article, currently sits on the Executive Committee of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE).
Over the summer, a battle broke out between the municipal government and local community organizers over the crisis of homelessness in this city. Under the incumbent party, Vision Vancouver, homelessness has been steadily increasing due to massive condo development and the large-scale gentrification of low-income Vancouver neighborhoods. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by the housing crisis: they represent 31% of the homeless despite constituting only 2% of the general population, and are becoming street homeless at the fastest rate. The increasing severity of the problem has not deterred Vision from pretending everything is going swimmingly. In July, in the wake of the highest homelessness count in the city’s history, Mayor Gregor Robertson referred to his administration as “North America’s leaders in solving homelessness.”
Tension around issues of homelessness reached a breaking point in mid-July when the city attempted to evict several homeless residents who had been living in tents in Oppenheimer park. Community members and organizers rushed to show solidarity by joining the tent city and by physically protecting tenters from the police. As the tent city swelled into a full-blown protest, the residents decided to hand the city an eviction notice of their own, asserting First Nations’ right to the land and evoking Vision’s decision to acknowledge the city’s colonial roots earlier this year. The eviction notice read: “the City of Vancouver recognizes the unceded and enduring existence of our Aboriginal Title here. Under this recognition, we now require that you leave this place and cease any attempts to remove people or their belongings from this place.” Since these early events, the tent city has proved resilient and it is still growing in size as the demonstrators continue to demand social housing and meaningful action on homelessness from Vision.
In his first interview on the topic, Vision Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang attempted to undermine the tent city’s message by claiming that few of the campers were actually homeless and belittling those in solidarity with the tenters as “just little mischief makers.” Shifting his rhetoric as the week progressed, Jang later had the audacity to claim that the anti-homelessness demonstrations actually proved that his party is a leader in solving housing issues. “They come to the city because they see we are trying to make a dent in this,” Jang argued, “Vision Vancouver councillors have been very committed (to ending homelessness) … and the [Non-Partisan Association] has not.”
In a more recent and direct response to the tent city protests, Vision has claimed that it will fight for low-income tenants through a renewed use of the SRA bylaw. The bylaw in question is nothing new, the only difference is the lag time for implementation. Jean Swanson, CCAP member and long-time Downtown Eastside community organizer, is doubtful though. . “[A] bylaw allowing the city to do the repairs and bill the landlord has been in place for decades and they’ve only used it once. So the crucial question now, is, will the city actually use the bylaw by doing the repairs and billing the landlord?”. DJ Larkin, housing lawyer for PIVOT legal society, has also spoken at length about the city’s refusal to implement any bylaws that protect SROs as low-income housing stock.
In another apparent testament to this commitment to solving homelessness, the Vision-dominated City Council also recently approved a $35,000 grant for the purpose of funding a conference hosted by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness – an exorbitant sum for a project that will have little to no tangible impact on homeless people living in Vancouver. Tickets for this November conference will cost $525 each, save a few people lucky enough to win the tokenizing “lived experience scholarships”.
The conference fee structure ensures that low and middle income people will be left out of a discussion supposedly centered on their needs and concerns – a sequence that will surely look familiar to anyone who has observed Vision Vancouver’s housing consultation strategy over the past six years. Though Vancouver’s low and middle income neighborhoods had been protected for years by zoning by-laws and official community plans, things have taken a sharp turn under Gregor Robertson. Upon election in 2008, Vision began the project of opening these communities up to allow their real-estate developer donors to make billions of dollars in profits. Marpole, the Downtown Eastside, Grandview Woodland, the West End, and Mount Pleasant have all been rezoned in ways that allow Vancouver’s biggest developers to tear down affordable housing, renovict tenants (more info), and build luxury condominiums.
After six years of Gregor’s reign, the effects of this project are being felt by tenants all across Vancouver, even those who are not on the verge of homelessness. City-wide, average rents are up 15%, well in excess of the overall inflation rate, and the conditions in which low-income tenants live are deplorable – cramped, bedbug-ridden and mice-infested rooms that lack private kitchens and bathrooms are commonplace. We’ve even witnessed the birth of a new local subculture among young renters, based on hopping between houses slated for demolition.
At a surface level, then, Vision Vancouver’s claims that they are taking strong action on homelessness and have “made incredible progress” appear nonsensical. Upon closer consideration, they are revealed to be part and parcel of a highly cultivated communications strategy, designed to gloss over Vancouver’s growing housing issues and absolve Vision of any responsibility in them. Their failure to end homelessness (despite promising to do so), or to provide relief for those who are affected by the much broader housing crisis now has the Vision Vancouver caucus pulling communications strategies straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. This strategy of doublespeak springs from a fundamental contradiction: to be elected, Vision has to find a way to reconcile Vancouverites concerns about housing affordability with the whims of the luxury condo developers who fund their campaigns.
Moving toward actual solutions
Aware that Vancouverites are becoming increasingly concerned about housing affordability and homelessness in the run-up to the election, Vision’s doublespeak was out in full force even before the tent city headlines. At City Council in June, Vision launched its newest housing initiative: a “Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency” that will, according to Councillor Geoff Meggs, act as a “one-stop shop for developers”. Controlled by an undemocratic board that includes “industry experts” and Vision’s city staff, the VAHA will rely primarily on private (read: developer) funding and lead to the creation of exclusively market housing, without any real social housing included. All profits from the housing will also benefit the developers, rather than being fueled back into public projects of affordable and social housing.
Despite the fact that the plan will also provide massive tax breaks for the luxury condo developers who are already fueling the housing crisis, Vision’s campaign website touts it as a key source of new affordable housing stock for the middle class. Several representatives from the Coalition of Progressive Electors went to City Hall to speak against this plan when it was put to a vote, presenting the findings of a report commissioned by the party on international best practices for solving the housing crisis.
COPE’s housing authority policy, as with the many other policies that constitute the party’s 2014 platform, was established based on consultation with the communities that the policy serves to impact on the ground. Top-down policy development isn’t good enough and the events of the past few years under Vision have shown just how impossible it is to tackle homelessness with a developer-minded party in power. The residents of Vancouver, particularly the ones sleeping on the streets and tenting in the park, deserve a city government that gives them meaningful, community-minded solutions rather than doublespeak.