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In Vancouver, the rent is still too damn high

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New York Rent strike, 1919

Yesterday, Vancouverites learned that they have yet another reason to celebrate: for the sixth year in a row, Vancouver was named the second most unaffordable city in the world.

It's a stunning accomplishment -- New York, Tokyo, London, San Francisco -- so-called world-class cities left in the dust of our temperate climate, stunning landscapes and insufferable paddle-boarding inhabitants. Surely we can soon look forward to the hooting of personality-devoid Vancouver is Awesome when YVR finally pips Hong Kong to the number one spot.

Everyone knows that housing prices in Vancouver are astronomical -- talking about buying a home in the metro area for most young people is akin to talking about how one prepares meals in outer space. The only way into such a conversation it seems is through this or that running joke -- like crack shack or mansion? or Are you fucking kidding me, Vancouver? But even this abstract and distancing way of talking about real estate only serves to make a $2.1-million Malibu mansion seem sort of reasonable.

It's fitting, then, that rent is finally making its way into our city's civic consciousness. Jackie Wong published the wonderful series "Generation Rent" in the The Tyee at the end of last year. Vision Vancouver councilor Geoff Meggs published an op-ed in the same publication festooning City Hall's attempts to keep rent down in Vancouver, citing the city's rent bank and subsidies offered to massive real estate developers to build a modest number of rental units.

Meggs's defence -- for it was a defence -- must have come as a surprise to anyone who rents in Vancouver. As Sean Antrim, the Executive Director of the left-wing municipal party the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) and editor at The Mainlander, points out, rents in Vancouver have increased on average an astonishing 15 per cent in the last four years.

The meagre rent control protecting tenants -- inflation plus two per cent -- effectively acts as a guaranteed increase to profits. Most renters certainly don't see their salaries adjusted according to the cost of living change each year and the additional two per cent is simply a gift. In contrast, the provincial tenancy regulatory body in Québec, the régie du logement, bases its allowable rent increases to heating costs, not inflation, which usually amounts to less than one percent annually.

But of course in a city like Vancouver where gentrification transforms whole neighbourhoods in a matter of a few years, it's not rent control within tenancies that drive up rents to this degree -- it's rent increases between them where no control exists at all. Renovictions are rampant, special applications for extraordinary increases beyond the limit imposed by provincial controls are not uncommon, and general housing precarity ensures a never-ending game of tenancy musical chairs. In a city where 55 per cent of residents rent, surely it's time to stand up and say: no more.

Last night I attended a community forum organized by COPE where both Wong and Antrim --along with D.J. Larkin, from PIVOT Legal Society, and Gail Harmer, a West End Seniors advocate -- spoke about how to meet the challenge of skyrocketing rents in Vancouver (Councilor Meggs was nowhere to be found).

Antrim pointed out that historically, Vancouver has driven any provincial change in rent regulations -- and that each time, this change originated from the collective action of frustrated citizens. If Vancouver could tap in to our rich activist history of rent strikes, tenant organizing and squats, it could have rippling effects across the province.

Antrim offered a series of concrete solutions to curb renoviction and control prices at the municipal level. First, a simple solution to renoviction: produce legislation that gives the current tenant of a renovated unit the first right of refusal at the same rent.

For his part, Meggs had dismissed this suggestion in another Wong article, claiming it would be unfair to landlords' bottom line: "I don't think anybody, regardless of their perspective on rents, can afford to renovate a home and not pay off that renovation somehow." Vision Vancouver: the "won't someone think of the landlord" party.

Antrim's second suggestion -- one echoed by Harmer -- involves installing a landlord licensing office. Referencing a friend who had to take a test in order to become a bike courier, Antrim quipped that perhaps landlords should be held to the same standard. Apart from increasing landlord familiarity with responsibilities and regulations, it would improve access to truant landlords who have lapsed in their obligations.

Third, City Hall has the power to create rental-only zones. They can also fix the rent to the average rate of a given quarter -- rather than to what a newcomer can theoretically pay (what Vision Councilor Kerry Jang would call "affordable housing"). Currently, Vancouver is drafting new and highly contentious community plans for the neighbourhoods in which the majority of Vancouver's rental stock reside: the West End, Granview-Woodlands, Marpole and the Downtown Eastside. The opportunity to change the way the city treats its majority renting population is ripe.

Other additional solutions exist: increasing access and protecting services to tenants or just building more rental housing -- anywhere -- to increase the dangerously low one per cent vacancy rate. But the idea that the city is powerless in the face of right-wing federal and provincial governments to effect change is quite simply false.

As a political force, rent cuts across socio-economic groups and ethnic communities. It has the potential not only to act as a rallying cry for an organized group of citizens (or in our wildest dreams, a political party) to fix a real economic pressure on young people, seniors, immigrants, and even, increasingly, middle-class families -- but the lived experience of rent organically teaches all the lessons of neolilberal political economy: prescribed inequality, power imbalance, economic exploitation and social stigmatism. Rent, like tuition increases in Quebec which taught a generation of students the injustices of capitalism, is both a concrete issue to fix and a politicizer.

The rent is too damn high, Vancouver. Let's end this racket.

Image: wikimedia commons

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