Statement on the Mayors Debate

Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territory: November 8, 2011

Three solutions to Vancouver’s housing and homelessness crisis

DTES housing activist responds to the Mayoral Debate

The mayoral candidates said a lot of things but they didn’t debate much at their debating debut on Sunday night. They both admitted that they will not slow down or pause destructive market development in the DTES. They agreed that a municipal tax on real estate speculation and non-resident property ownership would not be appropriate. And also that inclusionary zoning, a soft and widely used development permit mechanism that forces developers to include affordable housing in all market developments, would not be good for Vancouver. They even agreed that the solution to the affordable rental housing and homelessness crisis caused by the real estate market is to be found back in the market itself. Put bluntly their differences were of degree, not principle. For example, while they both agreed that the DTES should remain a low-income community “in the short term,” Anton was the only one of the two who dared to state that there should not be any more social housing built in the poorest off-reserve neighbourhood in Canada.

But the most troubling thing about the mayoral debate is that both candidates took on the low-income affordable housing and homelessness crisis by blaming the provincial and federal levels of government. Both Gregor Robertson and Suzanne Anton avoided the city’s roles in building housing, and city jurisdictions that could save low-income housing. These are the top-three things we believe a mayoral candidate would do if they were serious about ending the affordable rental-housing and homelessness crisis in Vancouver:
  1. Buy 10 sites a year in the DTES for 5 years and dedicate these sites for social housing to replace all 5,000 units of unsafe, unstable, unhealthy SRO hotel housing. Within social housing construction the city’s responsibility is to buy and provide land. As well as properties the city should buy any SRO hotel that comes available on the real estate market in order to remove all low-income housing from the hostile waters of the real estate market. City Council has not bought one single new property in the DTES for social housing in at least three years. Everyone recognizes there is a housing and homelessness crisis in Vancouver and the DTES in particular, but neither mayoral candidate is willing to buy the land necessary to build the housing.
  2. The city must close the holes in the SRA bylaw: Define “conversion” of SRO hotels as raising rents above welfare and pension-affordable rates of $375/month. The DTES low-income community is losing SRO hotel rooms, the last stop for most residents before the street, to developer greed and the city is helping by leaving loopholes in the SRA anti-conversion bylaw big enough to drop entire buildings through. By tying SRO hotel conversion to a dollar value city council would stand with low-income tenants against landlords who may be trying to squeeze more rent monies out of their investment properties and force those landlords to go through public application processes for exemptions to this bylaw. This simple action would cost Vancouver taxpayers nothing and would save thousands of units of low-income housing like the formerly low-income rooms in the Columbia, Lotus, Alexander Court, Golden Crown hotels which are now renting to students and young workers for more than double welfare shelter rates. It would also provide leadership to the provincial government to create effective rent controls in the Residential Tenancy Act to stop rewarding landlords with rent-increases without ceiling after evictions.
  3. Implement an immediate moratorium on market development in the DTES to allow the DTES Local Area Planning process, not developers and market forces, to direct the future of the neighbourhood.This solution will also cost taxpayers nothing and will have more than one powerful meaning for the low-income community in the DTES. Low-income residents of the DTES are reliant on low-income affordable housing, on the availability of services in the neighbourhood, and on affordable shopping options for food, clothes, and other necessities of life. Gentrification, the transformation of the neighbourhood block-by-block into higher-end shops and higher rents, more policing on the streets, the upscaling of hotels to students and young worker housing, threatens all these essentials. The city’s policy has been to encourage, reward, and even directly subsidize gentrifying developments: the uber-high-end Keefer bar and celebrity hotel received a $50,000 heritage grant and an award from city council; mega-corporations London Drugs and Nesters Market received a 10-year tax holiday from the city for setting up shop in the Woodward’s condo complex; and the London Pub and Brixton Cafe received $1.4Million in taxbreaks and kickbacks from council for their heritage development on the corner of Main and Georgia. A moratorium on market development would give the low-income community the breathing room necessary to work on getting the secure, safe, healthy social housing we all need rather than having to work to defend the substandard but affordable SRO hotel housing we currently have. A market development moratorium would also send a powerful signal to the DTES low-income community a powerful signal that their needs, interests, and future are being taken seriously by council and that the local area planning process is more than a token or placating gesture.

Amidst all the bombast about housing and all the claims about ending homelessness we hope that these top-three solutions get some attention. The mayoral candidates can take three real steps to end homelessness and take on the Vancouver housing crisis, and two of them don’t require spending a dime… but they will hurt the profit margins of the richest people in the city. This is, as they say, where the rubber hits the road. Homelessness may, yet again, be the issue of this election but is ending it the priority of either major candidate? We await their responses to these challenges.