In an upcoming by-election for a council seat vacated by Geoff Meggs, three candidates’ platforms point to the market as being the source of, rather than the solution to, Vancouver’s housing crisis.
> BY CHARLIE SMITH
For years, Constance Barnes was a loyal member of Vision Vancouver. She was twice elected to the Vancouver park board on the party’s slate, earning more votes than any other commissioner in 2008 and 2011.
But this election, the daughter of Emery Barnes, former NDP speaker of the legislature, is not endorsing Vision Vancouver’s candidate, 21-year-old political neophyte Diego Cardona, in the October 14 citycouncil by-election. Instead, Barnes has thrown her wholehearted support behind Judy Graves, the city’s former tenant-assistance coordinator, who is making her first run for council with Onecity Vancouver.
“The thing about Judy is she’s no-bullshit,” Barnes told the Georgia Straight by phone. “She doesn’t have to pound her fists on the desk. She doesn’t have to yell and scream. She doesn’t have to rant and rave. She has this ability to bring people together with this calm, collected voice of reason.”
This relaxed demeanour served Graves well as she went out in the middle of the night as a long-time city employee looking for homeless people and then helping them find shelter. Graves spearheaded the city’s first homeless count and was optimistic that Mayor Gregor Robertson would seriously address this problem when he became mayor in 2008.
But nearly 10 years later, homelessness has continued increasing as Robertson’s Vision Vancouver has largely pursued market-based solutions to sky-high housing prices and a serious shortage of rental accommodation. Onecity points out the city’s zoning bylaws outlaw building new purpose-built rental housing in about 80 percent of the city.
Barnes acknowledged that her support for Graves might “piss off” some in Vision Vancouver. “Judy has incredible respect across all political lines,” she said. “And I think she could play a very, very powerful role in the city.”
Graves has also been endorsed by the Vancouver and District Labour Council. It’s the first time since Vision Vancouver got elected that its council candidate has not received its blessing. Onecity’s left-wing credentials are burnished by its call for a luxury-property surtax, from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent on the wealthiest five percent of residential-property owners, as well as its proposed flipping levy— ranging from 35 percent to 50 percent of the profits—on all homes sold within three years of purchase.
“Onecity believes those who have passively made enormous wealth off of the housing bubble should pay their fair share to help fix it,” the party declares on its website. “We’ll require real estate speculators and the wealthiest landowners to start giving back through fair surtaxes and other revenue-generating policies.”
But Onecity’s Graves isn’t the only candidate in the race who is making the case that the market is the cause of—and not the solution to—vancouver’s housing crisis. And a crowded field of credible left-wing candidates could enable Cardona, the NPA’S Hector Bremner, or even Sensible Vancouver’ s marijuana-dispensaryadvocating Mary Jean Duns don to win the by-election in a tight race.
Green council candidate Pete Fry has a long history as a Vancouver anti gentrification neighbourhood activist and he was deeply involved in the campaign to block a controversial high-rise at 105 Keefer Street in Chinatown. In a recent video on his Facebook page, Fry points out that market rents for one-bedroom apartments exceed $2,000 per month in Vancouver, with record-low vacancy rates. One of his biggest concerns is that affordable housing stock is being replaced by unaffordable units.
“Consider this: almost 30 percent of our privately owned rental stock are in condominiums, so that’s an incredibly fragile source of housing stock,” Fry said. “We can’t just build our way out of this crisis and we can’t just expect the market to build the kind of housing we need.”
He’s calling for a renter’s office at City Hall. Fry also wants the city to define affordability in terms of average incomes in the city and not by market-rental rates. He’s proposing a one-year moratorium on the demolition of purpose-built rental housing, as well as providing incentives to encourage more secondary suites in order to preserve character homes.
“We need to protect our existing affordable housing and we need to make sure that we’re including affordable housing in all new construction,” Fry emphasized. “We need to encourage the kind of density that builds community, not destroys neighbourhoods.”
Then there’s independent candidate Jean Swanson, a well-regarded antipoverty activist whose two main planks are a rent freeze and a mansion tax. Both would require changes to provincial legislation. According to her calculations, the city could collect $174 million per year by slapping surtaxes on homes valued at more than $5 million. That would pay for modular homes for every homeless person in the city.
“Let’s tax the rich to house the rest of us,” Swanson said in a fiery speech last month outside the $75-million mansion owned by Point Grey billionaire Chip Wilson
Swanson has the backing of some influential figures on the left, including former Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies, East Van author and social activist Matt Hern, and addiction expert and author Dr. Gabor Maté. It has given her grassroots campaign significant momentum.
“For decades Jean Swanson has been an admirable, tireless advocate and organizer for a fair and just society,” Maté said in a statement. “I am glad she is running for office; her candidacy has my enthusiastic support.”