Battle Vancouver: Election Showdown Over Housing Heats Up

Mayor Gregor Robertson. Photo by kk+.


We started this campaign by talking about homelessness and tonight, I’m going to finish right where I started.”


Gregor Robertson is standing before a wall-to-wall audience inside the ballroom of the Hotel Vancouver. It’s Saturday night on November 15, 2008, and he has just been elected the new mayor of Vancouver.


Allowing for a short pause, the mayor leans forward.


“We are going to end homeless in Vancouver.”


The crowd cheers wildly.


Robertson famously pledged that year to end street homelessness by 2015. Some criticized that election pledge to be unrealistically bold, but it was bold by political necessity. With more people crowded into shelters or sleeping on the street than at any other time in the city’s recent history, homelessness was only the most palpable symptom of a larger affordability crisis in 2008. Campaigning on a message of transformative change, Gregor Robertson swept decisively into city hall that autumn because the public wanted to believe in that message.


Three years later, affordability and housing endure as Vancouver’s perennial issues. With the city preparing to head back to the ballot box, Vancouver’s three major political parties have constructed their respective housing and homelessness platforms atop, against or tactfully around the mayor’s track record on these issues. Recalling his initial pledge to end street homeless in Vancouver by 2015-modified later to be contingent on the support of senior levels of government-the public is now being asked whether the mayor has so far made good on his promise.


“Our goal is still the same,” says Kerry Jang. “To end street homelessness by 2015.”


On this, the city councillor and Vision Vancouver’s unofficial czar on homelessness and housing policy, is adamant. And he takes comfort in the numbers.


According to the most recent count, Vancouver’s estimated 1,605-person homeless population declined this year from an all-time high of 1,715 in 2010. This year’s count marked a slight overall increase since Robertson took office in 2008, when the homeless count for that year was 1,576. The figure Jang is quickest to recount is the drop in people sleeping on the street: from 811 in March 2008 to just 145 in March 2011.


Vision Vancouver attributes this decline to the city’s Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) shelters, the so-called “low-barrier” winter shelters that provide accommodation with few restrictions on drug or alcohol use, pet ownership, couples sharing beds or storage space. By making the HEAT shelters as undiscriminating as possible, Jang explains, the city was able to bring more homeless “into the system”—within reach of healthcare personnel, addiction specialists, and social workers.


“Our first goal as we were designing our housing strategy was to figure out how to get people off the street and stable,” Jang explains.


The HEAT program represents a vital stopgap measure, he says, until the remaining 10 of 14 supportive housing sites slated for development around Vancouver are completed in 2013. Though Jang described the program as a stopgap, when Robertson was asked during a November 7 mayoral debate on affordable housing and homelessness whether provincial shelter funding should be made a permanent program, he replied ‘yes’.


Last month, after Jang publicly scolded provincial housing authorities for stalling on their decision to extend shelter funding, B.C. housing minister Rich Coleman announced that the provincial government would be funding the operation of three HEAT shelters this winter.


From the initial success of the HEAT program, the city now faces a host of new problems, Jang says. Supportive housing units are establishing themselves too slowly to clear the bottleneck of applicants in the shelters. Meanwhile, a shortage of “workforce” housing in the Downtown Eastside pits existing residents against incoming working professionals. Higher up the income ladder, the dream of home ownership seems an antiquated fantasy.


Photo by Shogun_X.


The word “continuum” repeatedly pops up in Vision’s campaign literature to describe this range of housing needs across Vancouver’s diverse and economically stratified population.


“This election, we’re looking at the general issue of affordability,” says Jang. “It’s not just about homelessness. That’s only one part of the continuum.”


Offering a glimmer of what that comprehensive strategy might look like, Vision released its affordable housing and homelessness platform last month. The one-page document outlines plans to set aside more city land for affordable housing, to take a harder line against negligent landlords, to increase funding for seniors’ housing, and to expand affordable housing construction by “incentivizing new rental units.”


Most informative is the party’s recommitment to the city’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness Plan. Passed by city council last July, the plan calls for over 5,000 additional supportive housing units with a larger focus on tweaking zoning ordinances and financial incentives to encourage the development of private rental and ownership units “with a housing mix across all neighbourhoods.”


It’s a strategy that navigates a pragmatic middle ground, says Jang. Between the NPA, which he says has no real interest in providing affordable housing, and certain community groups that “think we should have nothing but supportive housing,” Jang says the Vision approach ensures that the entire continuum of housing needs is met.


“The solution is to build a wide range of rentals at different price points,” he explains. “We’re committed to building mixed communities for people from all different socio-economic statuses.”


Lacking in detail, what can be inferred from the party’s platform is that Vision is confident in the policies it has so far offered the city. Running on its record, the party is offering the city more of the same—and proudly so. After the previous NPA council secured provincial funding for supportive housing development on 14 sites across the city, for example, the Vision platform promises additional “leveraging.”


Likewise, satisfied with the city’s Short-Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program—a city initiative that encourages property developers to build rental units by providing them with tax breaks, fee waivers, and other financial inducements—the platform proposes the familiar housing solution of “incentivizing new rental units.”


NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton. Photo by Brent Granby.

Having run their campaign consistently on the offensive, the NPA seems as eager as Vision to draw attention to the administration’s record on housing—if only to point out its apparent lapses. Bundled into the larger narrative of their campaign, the city’s continuing struggle with homelessness and affordability three years into Robertson’s tenure are presented as evidence of the mayor’s inability to deliver on big promises.


“This administration came in with very high hopes,” says Sean Bickerton, NPA council candidate. “There was a movement and a readiness to move forward. But homelessness is higher now than it was when Vision began.”


Bickerton is unconvinced by Vision’s so-called progress on street homelessness. Acknowledging that winter shelters have saved lives in the past, he insists that the distinction between street and sheltered homelessness is not a meaningful one.


“If you’re homeless, you’re homeless,” says Bickerton. “And if you’re in a shelter, you’re still homeless.”


It’s a familiar line from the NPA. Throughout the summer, NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton has regularly accused Vision of papering over the homeless crisis while failing to prepare long-term solutions. Solutions, presumably, like the three that make up the party’s homelessness plan: to “fast track” the opening of the10 remaining supportive housing sites, to coordinate further with senior levels of government, and to refocus on former mayor Philip Owen’s “Four Pillars” strategy on drug use, a program still in effect but which the NPA says the current administration has ignored.


Bickerton says the NPA could achieve these goals by “cutting through some of the inertia at city hall.” That is, in essence, a promise to change the culture at city hall, to do the same job and pursue the same goals, only better. A plan that could politely be described as concise, it seems unlikely to convince critics who disparage the NPA for having little to offer on the issue.


With a larger stated focus of improving economic prosperity across the board, the NPA presents a more robust platform on housing.


“We have to concentrate scarce city resources on those that are most in need,” says Bickerton.


Specifically, these are the homeless, those suffering from mental and physical disabilities, people requiring addiction treatment and vulnerable senior citizens. These groups, he says, can be helped by using existing city programs and assets, such as the longterm supportive housing stock or the composing elements of the Four Pillars policy, or by facilitating the delivery of specific provincial and federal assistance programs.


For the housing demands of other groups, he says the city shouldn’t try to be an active player within the housing market. Bickerton reserves a particular degree of scorn for Vision’s STIR program. Scheduled to expire this year, he calls the program a “disaster for the city.”


“STIR has wasted scarce tax dollars on subsidies to developers to produce market housing that has rented at one-and-a-half to two times the average rental price in Vancouver,” he says. “The government shouldn’t be doing what the market is supposed to do on its own.”


Instead, the NPA proposes to enable the market by simplifying development processes while rezoning land along transit corridors. The resulting increase in housing supply, the argument goes, will naturally bring down prices.


Bickerton insists that streamlining development does not preclude community consultation. Just the opposite, he says. Development has been complicated by what he characterizes as the Vision administration’s lack of transparency.


“Communities aren’t consulted by the city until development plans are actually finalized,” Bickerton explains. “Identifying the needs of the community so that they can become part of proposals at an earlier date would make for a much smoother process.”


But identifying the needs of a community and crafting policy based around those needs are different things entirely. Responding to community groups in the Downtown Eastside who protest condo construction and SRO renovations, Vision and NPA provide an oddly unified front.


“We have a policy in the city of Vancouver to encourage mixed income neighbourhoods,” says Bickerton, echoing Kerry Jang. “A lot of groups in the Downtown Eastside only want social housing built. I reject that.”


Jean Swanson is the coordinator of one of those aforementioned groups, the Carnegie Community Action Project. She says that recent development has only raised rents and reduced the little remaining rental stock that Vancouver’s most vulnerable can afford.


“There are about 10 hotels in this neighbourhood that have already been or are in the process of being upscaled,” says Swanson. “The result has been that all the social housing units which have opened up this year—and it has been a good year for that with 328 in the Downtown Eastside are getting filled up with former SRO residents who can’t afford the new rents, instead of the homeless residents who are still languishing in the shelters.”


Of the three major parties, COPE is the only one to take up this message. Since forming an electoral coalition with Vision before the last election, the party has struck a delicate balance between supporting its electoral partner, while distinguishing itself as the unmistakable “left” of that centre-left coalition.


“Housing should be a right, not a commodity,” says COPE city councillor Ellen Woodsworth.


There are a number of practical implications of this position. Having recently called for a freeze on condo development in the Downtown Eastside, COPE supports a policy of “inclusionary zoning” across the city. Under such a development plan, at least 20 per cent of residential units within a neighborhood would have to be offered at quantifiably affordable rates.


“Given that we’re in the middle of one of the biggest housing and homeless crises the city has even seen, I think everybody should be helping,” Woodsworth explains.


Everyone, especially property developers-a group that she says has benefited enormously from the city’s STIR program without having to provide affordable units or community amenities in return.


To indicate what voters can expect from COPE, Woodsworth points to her support for city-funded tenants’ advocacy groups, a 24/7 women’s shelter in the Downtown Eastside and a rent bank. But given that that the party will field only three councillors under its agreement with Vision, the portions of COPE’s platform considered more radical are unlikely to ever pass either a Vision or NPA city council.


As a result, COPE and Vision may see their marriage of convenience undermined this election with the emergence of Neighbourhoods for Sustainable Vancouver. Focused on the issues of neighbourhood-centered development planning, NSV’s platform overlaps with that of COPE on almost every major issue — with the notable exception of the latter’s support of Vision.


While Ellen Woodsworth concedes that she frequently disagrees with her centrist colleagues, she warns progressives who consider Vision ideologically impure to consider the likely result of a split vote on the left.


“COPE and Vision both agree that we need real affordable housing and that we need to make sure that everyone is in a shelter,” she says. “The NPA, on the other hand, want to give the developers free reign.”


After the election results come in on the evening of November 19—after the ballots are counted, the winner is declared, and Vancouver’s next mayor-elect delivers a rousing victory speech before a cheering crowd of supporters somewhere in downtown Vancouver—there may be the temptation to see the electoral results as a conclusion of sorts. With one policy regime validated over the other, the public interest in municipal policy may dissipate.


But on matters of housing and homelessness, the crisis is, of course, ongoing. To address that crisis, the new government, regardless of composition and ideology, will need to expand social housing development, increase community consultation on issues of development, navigate the varying and often conflicting housing interests of diverse income and neighbourhood groups, all the while working to procure funding for shelters, housing, and assistance programs from Victoria and Ottawa in these times of austerity.


As with any election, the real work will begin after election night.


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