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B.C. Liberals and Bob Rennie tighten grip on housing construction in Vancouver

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Bob Rennie with the developers of the Olympic Village

This past Friday afternoon it was announced that real estate tycoon Bob Rennie and former public servant Judy Rogers would be appointed as Commissioners of BC Housing.

Some journalists noted that the appointment of Rennie was patronage for his support of Christy Clark in her leadership bid. Since the early rise of John Cummins and the BC Conservatives, Rennie has also been a proponent of a united right-wing. He has contributed heavily to BC Liberal campaigns and often boasts of maintaining close contact with Rich Coleman and other higher ups in the current government.

The appointment of Judy Rogers also appears to be patronage for her mishandling of the Olympic Village project. It was under her oversight that the intended investment in social housing became instead a luxury development. Under her leadership as former city manager, the developer Millennium was selected for the project, and for all practical purposes given free reign to access city finances. While for most Vancouverites this has been a catastrophe, it would be disingenuous to say it wasn’t what the higher ups in the BC Liberal party wanted the whole time.

The appointments are a sign of where the BC Liberals and Bob Rennie would like housing in this province to go. Rogers and Rennie both sit on Streetohome, which is a private funder of social housing. While Vision Vancouver, in its pre-majority incarnation denounced the creation of Streetohome, the initiative now provides them with a convenient shift in responsibility: the private market can be responsible for housing. This shift has been backed up by the neoliberal rhetoric put forward by federal, provincial, and local governments, passing the buck from tier to tier and finally into the hands of Vancouver's most wealthy.

This attitude was reinforced today when Adrianne Carr put forward a motion to subsidize tenants at the Olympic Village who are being double billed for their utilities in suites that are supposed to be affordable. Gregor Robertson responded that the social housing was not the responsibility of the city, and Geoff Meggs said that the residents have to pay their own bills.

In effect, Vision Vancouver confirmed that they won't support social housing, even though the City of Vancouver has funded social housing for decades, and even though other cities own upwards of 50 per cent of public housing, like Toronto. Any solutions to the housing crisis put forward by Vision will rely on the market, which proves every day that it cannot create affordable housing.  

The process of philanthropization is inherent in neo-liberalism and in reality marks the privatization of social housing construction, a direction that has been championed by Bob Rennie for years in his scheme for “social housing condos.”

Having Rennie on the BC Housing board also means that he will have more control over the number of units being put on the market at any given time. Though the development industry in Vancouver operates in an oligopolistic market structure, the condo marketing industry operates closer to a monopoly.

Up until now, Rennie has only had control over the private units he markets, placing them on the market or taking them off to maximize prices to prevent over-supply. With the Olympic Village, Rennie was able to take several hundred units off the market, and keep the prices of his other projects high, such as Wall Centre False Creek within blocks of the Olympic Village.

Now, at least until an NDP government comes in and reverses the appointment, Rennie will be much more able to plan, develop and release the province's social housing so that they are not in competition with his private projects, and once again, keep prices at a level of profit maximization and not impinge on housing affordability.

Finally, the other appointments will spell trouble for other projects that are currently sitting in the pre-development phase, such as Heather Place and Little Mountain. Both of these projects will require thorough government pressure on real estate developers. This is what was lacking in the Olympic Village and already at Little Mountain, where the belated construction of housing for evicted tenants has not even begun as the developer waits for the market to improve and more concessions to be made by governments. To make sure that Holborn does not use the lost social housing as leverage over the public good, the local and provincial governments will need to take strong stances in favour of the public at the bargaining table. However with Rennie, who has often marketed units for Holborn, and Rogers, who has shown herself to be a vessel for the powers that be, the presence of a strong voice for the public good seems highly unlikely.

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