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The Mainlander

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The Mainlander is the Lower Mainland’s go-to online publication for coverage of municipal politics. Traditionally a working-class city, developers and speculators have transformed Vancouver into North America's most unaffordable resort-town -- but not without a fight. The Mainlander chronicles the daily struggle between residents and capital, a struggle waged from the legal terrain of zoning bylaws, to the halls of resident councils, to the streets of the Downtown Eastside.

Bob Rennie’s $25,000 lunch: Why Vancouver is unaffordable

| March 7, 2014
Bob Rennie’s $25,000 lunch: Why Vancouver is unaffordable

 

For $25,000 you could have attended a private roundtable lunch meeting today with Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. Organized by real estate marketer Bob Rennie, it’s the most recent, and perhaps most tasteless, case of the real estate industry filling Vision’s coffers.

Bob Rennie is the most prominent condominium marketer in British Columbia. His following of real estate agents, brokers and, more importantly, developers, has earned him the moniker condo king.

The biggest players in real-estate keep him as close as possible, ensuring they’ll have the ear of BC’s most powerful politicians. Peter Wall of Wall Financial Corp, for example, maintains access to Rennie by paying him $25,000 a month as a consultant.

In this role as real-estate co-ordinator, Rennie has been a key to the creation of both the Vision and BC Liberal political dynasties.

After the deposition of Gordon Campbell, he threw his weight behind Christy Clark’s leadership bid in 2011. He has been credited with being a key part of Clark’s comeback, and his support for her during the provincial elections was critical for the BC Liberal victory.

In 2012, he was rewarded with an appointment to the board of BC Housing by Clark and Housing Minister Rich Coleman.

At the municipal level, Bob Rennie wholeheartedly backs Vision Vancouver. In 2005 he contributed a hefty $96,639 to help Vision Vancouver – a party bankrolled by real estate corporations since its inception – get off the ground and split from COPE.

That year, Vision’s first big fundraiser was a who’s-who of real estate magnates.[1] To name a couple of notables, Concord Pacific gave $65,750 and Polygon Homes gave $12,980.

Rennie marketed the condos in the Woodward’s development under the slogan “Be Bold or Move to suburbia,” working closely with the Vision’s Jim Green and Westbank’s Ian Gillespie. Presumably, he was asking condo buyers to be “bold” by buying condos in a low-income neighbourhood.

During the 2011 election campaign, real-estate firms in the city gave Vision Vancouver over $1 million dollars, or half of its campaign budget. Ian Gillespie organized a big-money corporate fundraiser for Vision Vancouver, similar to Rennie’s lunch.

In the 2011 election, Wall Financial Corporation and its affiliates gave a whopping $280,000, more than a quarter of Vision’s real estate-connected donations that year. The next year Wall Corp was granted one of the largest re-zonings in East Vancouver’s history at 955 E Hastings, which local residents are dubbing “Woodward’s East.”

Since donations between election years are not made public, the available statistics are only the tip of the corporate donations iceberg. After the 2005 and 2008 campaigns, Vision disclosed that it held post-elections fundraising drives, raising hundreds of thousands from real estate sources. But after the 2011 election, Vision chose to no longer reveal its post-election contributions.

When developers give Vision $25,000, what kind of government do they get in return?

“There was a time in Vancouver where we had a surplus of housing and maybe developers were evil in that environment, I don’t know. But they sure aren’t now. There’s a spectrum of developers who range from the amazing to maybe not amazing, but we need them.
–City Councilor Andrea Reimer at Vision Vancouver’s 2008 nomination meeting [2]

Corporations and the real-estate industry donate to Vision Vancouver because it pays off.

The ruling party strategically approves developments that make their donors rich. Most notably, Wall Financial was a founder of Vision Vancouver and donated $280,000 in 2011. Since Vision came to power in 2008, Wall has seen its profits increase from $18 million to $61 million.

Rize Alliance (who donated $10,950 to Vision in 2011) had their 26 story tower approved at Broadway and Kingsway, right in the heart of working class Mount Pleasant, despite community opposition of 80%.

Westbank, which donated $11,705 to Vision and $31,000 to the BC Liberals in the last municipal and provincial elections, was given a rezoning in Chinatown right in the middle of a community planning process. Next week council will be giving Westbank hundreds of millions of dollars of new density in exchange for building almost zeronew social housing on the Oakridge Mall site.

The Aquilini Family, who has donated at least $10,000 to Vision over the last two elections, and donated over $285,000 to the BC Liberals before the provincial election, got a $35 million tax exemption for their project next to GM Place.

Concord Pacific, which donated $36,250 to Vision in 2011 and $40,000 to the BC Liberals, is allowed to use urban farms to evade property taxes. They also get to flex monopoly powers on housing supply: in 2009 Concord, in combination with Westbank, built 58% of all of the condos constructed in Vancouver that year.

These super-profits are in turn buoyed by across-the-board tax-cuts, which have led Vancouver to host the second lowest tax-rate in the region next to West Van, and the second-lowest combined corporate taxes in the world according to KPMG.

Corporations see affordable and social housing as a threat to the market and an unwelcome competitor in the scarce supply of housing. As a result, Vision has worked to liquidate the existing affordable housing stock.

Under Vision’s corporate governance, condos are targeted at the most affordable existing neighbourhoods: Marpole, Grandview Woodland, the DTES, Mt. Pleasant, and the West End. These neighbourhoods are currently more affordable and land is the least expensive, meaning their land base can be purchased and gentrified more easily, resulting in the highest profit margins.

Residential evictions are now widespread, whether it is within blocks of City Hall or on the backs of Chinese seniors and long-time residents of the DTES facing dramatic rent increases. Next week the city will be voting on a policy report recommending the redevelopment of Heather Place. This means that evictions notices for 86 families may come soon as well.

In response to all this, Councillor Geoff Meggs said that stopping rent hikes will unfairly force landlords to lose money.

Cultural venues are also struggling to survive, a large number of them having to shut down in 2013. The Waldorf,The Zoo Zhop, the Red Gate, and Dynamo for instance all fell victim to gentrification, as through the sting of arts cuts that came before the Olympics weren’t enough.

Even the very concept of affordable and social housing is at risk. Vision has affirmed a practically meaningless definitions of affordability, such that councillor Kerry Jang said: “Well, you know, affordable housing is something that somebody can afford.”

This week Vision has given us a new definition of “social housing” that includes market housing the poor cannot afford. In 2006 Bob Rennie proposed moving away from social housing to for-profit “social housing condos.” Now, under Vision, the definition of social housing is being mutated to make Rennie’s dream a reality.

The housing crisis deepens

Given that housing is the most important issue for residents of Vancouver, according to a recent poll, we should consider what a developer-controlled city hall means for the majority of us.

Since the 2008 election victory of Vision Vancouver, rents have increased by over 15%. The number of homes being demolished has been steadily increasing, from 758 in 2008 to 1,034 in 2012. The number of low-income households in Vancouver has decreased by 18% and public school enrolment is dropping by 2% per year as low-income families leave the city.

These statistics are only a quantification of what most people in Vancouver already know. It’s clear that some of us are struggling to pay our bills or find a job while others are enjoying unprecedented profits at our expense.

Ironically, the corporations that caused the housing crisis are even put in charge of fixing it – just as Wall Street tycoons were put in charge of the US bailout in 2008. The Mayor’s Affordability Task Force is dominated by property owners and headed by real estate tycoon and former BC Liberal MLA, Olga Illich. Unsurprisingly, the task force has recommended privatization and deregulation, bolstered by a housing authority also run by real estate interests.

Instead of creating real affordable housing, Vision has decided to police the crisis. Since 2008, City council has inflated the annual police budget by 30%, or an astounding $54 million. The city now spends twice as much of its budget (20%) on policing as does the City of Toronto.

Last year, council tried to increase the fines to low-income people to $10,000 – a ten-fold increase – for sleeping on the street. The measure was halted only by a public outcry and legal action by PIVOT legal society. All this so that police can continue arresting low-income people in the Downtown Eastside for offences that aren’t enforced anywhere else, only to make the area more amenable to condominium investment.

False promises on False Creek

“I can see the concern that rents are going up but I assure you, Bob Rennie has had nothing to do with that…In fact, he supports social housing in the athlete’s village and in other projects.”
–Vancouver City Councilor Geoff Meggs, APTN March 3rd, 2011

In 2008, Gregor Robertson made a campaign promise to end homelessness by 2015. He also raised hopes when he scolded the NPA for cutting back on promises to build 800 units of affordable housing at the Olympic Village.

But those hopes were quickly dashed. After the election, affordable housing at the Olympic Village was privatized into condominiums and market rentals, and Robertson put Bob Rennie in charge of selling the Olympic Village units on the market.

Despite his reputation as a marketing magician, many of the units are still unsold. This could be because Rennie has several other projects he is marketing within walking distance of the Village.

The developer who received a financial bailout from the city – Millenium Development – is now one of the most active gentrifiers in the Hastings Corridor with its Boheme project across from the evicted Waldorf.

Despite the 2015 homelessness promise, homelessness has increased. Cynically, the yearly homeless count is conducted a week before Vancouver’s winter shelters close their doors.

A developer’s rallying call

There’s a reason why developers are willing to pay $25,000 for a chance to talk to Gregor Robertson. Vision Vancouver is in charge of where and how many square feet are developed in a given day. For those who can come up with donation money to Vision Vancouver, the hefty price of lunch with the mayor is more than made up for in rezonings, exclusive contracts, fee-exemptions and super-profits.

Instead of developers controlling city council, we need rent control protecting residents. The commodification of land and monopoly capitalism, rooted in the continued colonial structure, has only expanded the profit-motive that’s spread gentrification, driven up property values, and given landlords the incentive to “renovict.”

Bob Rennie’s $25,000 developer lunch is a preemptive rallying call for the development industry to support the party that has been their champion for the past six years. What they’re preempting is a push-back from renters.

The stakes for those of us who aren’t Vision financiers, they seem to recognize, are so high that people are banding together and forming a viable opposition.

Just as they have their rallying call, we have ours.

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Notes

[1] Developers help bankroll mayor’s faction: Councillors question contributions. Bula, Frances. The Vancouver Sun, 1 Apr 2005.

[2] Vision quest; Energetic and flooded with members, Vision Vancouver led by Gregor Robertson believes it’s poised to take over city hall. But as a “progressive” party backed heavily by developers and casino operators, what does it really stand for?
Howell, Mike. Vancouver Courier [Vancouver, B.C] 24 Sep 2008: 1.

 

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