'We're thinking big': Interview with Vancouver city council candidate Jean Swanson

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Jean Swanson. Photo: Tamara Herman/flickr

In the midst of housing, affordability and opioid crises, the City of Vancouver is approaching a byelection on October 14. Hoping to be elected into that city council seat is Jean Swanson, who has been a part of the Vancouver activist community for more than 40 years. Swanson has worked in the labour movement, helped organize peace marches and fought for low-income housing, especially on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. rabble.ca spoke with Swanson about her plans if she's elected in October. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What led you to run in the upcoming byelection?

A bunch of folks were on my case very persistently and they set up a "Draft Jean for City Council" Facebook page, and got a bunch of "likes" on it. There were folks who really wanted to open up city hall to people working for social and environmental justice and they thought I could do it, because I guess I've been around so long. I have a lot of experience with the city and I have a record of working for social justice.

How was the response?

It's been pretty positive. Our first canvassers' meeting had 50 people and we had a rally [two weeks ago] with over 200 so the response has been really good.

Now you've been an activist in Vancouver for decades. How has activism changed in the city over those years?

Well for the last 40 years we've been hit by austerity at every level of government. Austerity started at the beginning of my activist career, so governments have been reducing taxes on the rich, and cutting services and programs for everyone else, for all those years. We haven't had many victories.

Even now, trying to get city council to do something basic like enforce the standards of maintenance in slum hotels using its own bylaw: the council won't do it. So it's obvious that we need some change at the physical level in order to get what we need.

I ran for mayor in 1988 and the issue then was: is this city going to become too rich for ordinary people? And now, of course, it has become too expensive for ordinary people and so in a sense it's just gotten worse. That's why we're focusing on things like getting a rent freeze -- actually ending homelessness for real, not just talking about it and blaming other levels of government for not doing it.

How have the issues in the city changed over the years that you've been a part of the activist community?

Forty years ago, we didn't have much homelessness. That was because welfare rates were high enough to pay rent and eat, and governments were building units of social housing and you could always get a room in a single room occupancy (SRO) which was kind of the last resort before homelessness. But now welfare rates are really too low to pay rent and eat unless you're in social housing, governments are hardly building any social housing and the social housing they do build is for people who can spend $1,700-1,800 a month on rent and the SROs are being gentrified

Because of all those factors, the housing situation is really, really atrocious. It's always been bad in Vancouver but now, I don't know. I know a couple who have a baby so they wanted to move from a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom place. As soon as they gave their notice the landlord upped the rent for the next tenants by $300-$400 and that's been happening all over the city. The rent now for a one-bedroom apartment is about $2,000. So the city has become really unaffordable.

What issues do you feel are being neglected by the present city council? What would you focus on if you were elected?

A rent freeze is one of the biggest issues. We want a rent freeze on all apartment rents for at least four years and after that it could be reassessed to see if it's still needed. We want the city to use all the tools that it has to keep rents low. That would include using housing agreements with developers and allowing people who are "renovicted" to come back to their apartment at the same rent after renovations are done. The city has the power to do this; they haven't been using it because they wanted to consult with developers first. We've got a petition for a rent freeze and people are grabbing it out of our hands saying, "thank you so much for doing this." So I think it's a big issue.

The other issue is ending homelessness. Homelessness has never been so bad in Vancouver that I can remember. We had 2,138 counted homeless people last March and there's more, of course, because it's an undercount. We want to end it by getting modular housing for every homeless person. The city can find money for other things for richer people, so surely it can find money for ending homelessness. If we actually got everybody housed it would pay for itself in four years because all the studies are showing that it's way cheaper to house homeless people.

Another thing is taxing the rich. We really need to open up the city so it has the power of progressive taxation on property and on business. We need to think of creative ways to do this -- like by creating one high tax and then giving people with smaller pieces of property a rebate or decrease so that the total they pay would be less if they owned a less-valuable piece of property but more if they were like the Lululemon guy with a $75-million home.

Cutting the police budget is really important and using some of the money for services. Also, civilian oversight of the police is really important and trying to get them to stop harassing people who use drugs.

Saving Chinatown from condo developers is huge.

Expanding sanctuary cities so the police don't report people to border security. We have a sanctuary city here but it doesn't include that.

The opioid crisis is really huge. We need to push as hard as we can for safe and clean drugs, treatment on demand and to get an Aboriginal healing and wellness centre which council has been talking about for years.

And voting. If you're a non-resident property owner you can vote twice. Once here and once where you live. We don't think this is fair and we also want to bring back the door-to-door enumeration that we used to have in the '80s so that all tenants get on the voters list and we don't have thousands that are left off. The whole voting system is skewed against tenants; we want to stop that and we want to make it so permanent residents can vote.

We'd like to work towards free transit, starting with a system like they have in Alberta where low-income people can get a pass for $5 a month.

So we're thinking big. Some ideas don't seem possible until you leap and then the idea of what's possible expands. This campaign is a leap to expand the idea of what's possible at the city-level of government and we want to open up city hall so folks can really work for justice.

How will your experiences as an activist inform your time on city council if you're elected? What experiences would you bring with you?

Well I've been on the city's planning commission for three terms, I've been on the economic advisory commission, I've been part of two local area planning processes, I've been up to city council to speak countless times so I know a lot of city hall staff by their first names. I know all the councillors, so I pretty much know how it works. I'm good at analyzing a city hall report and figuring out what it really says even if it's 100 pages long and trying to crunch out the nuts and bolts of it in a plain language way.

I would want to be the kind of person who encourages people to use me like Harry Rankin did in the old days. Harry Rankin was a COPE city councillor when Libby Davies, Bruce Eriksen and I were working at the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association. We always said that Harry was on the inside and we were on the outside. So he's kind of my model. Anything we wanted, we'd ask Harry and he'd make a motion. Then he'd make a motion to hear speakers and we'd organize the speakers to come up and they would speak eloquently from diverse perspectives. Then sometimes the council would get swayed and they would do the things we wanted like open up the Carnegie Community Centre or pass the Standards of Maintenance bylaw.

Was there anything else you wanted to add?

The thing that's blowing me away about this campaign is all the people who are getting involved. So far to me, it's the best part. Especially the young people. I had to look up a video about what a "dank meme" is because they're making dank memes about Jean Swanson. It's pretty funny. And there's so much art happening, like beautiful banners and beautiful buttons. One woman is making "Jean Swanson for council" wallets out of used file folders. There's all kinds of people involved, people with experience organizing canvassing, people with experience in communications, people with experience in social media and they're all just coming together and it's blowing me away how wonderful they are.

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She completed her undergraduate degree at Queen's University and studied journalism at Langara College. Alyse's work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, Pilcrow Magazine and Vancouver Observer. She was rabble's 2015-16 news intern.

Photo: Tamara Herman/flickr

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