In Vancouver, young families and seniors on fixed incomes put their groceries on their credit card.  Underemployed recent university graduates, overloaded with debt, are barely making ends meet.  You don’t have to look very far to know that there’s an affordability crisis in Vancouver.  This is one of the public policy challenges of our times.

The increasing social divide in the city is an outcome of inadequate public policies over three decades that have placed developers’ interests before those of citizens.  City policies have accelerated and amplified development paths and exacerbated social impacts on middle and lower income communities while senior levels of government have downloaded costs and hamstrung local governments with limited revenue streams.  The democratic deficit that functions at City Hall is also at the heart of the problem in articulating a workable solution.

Urban economics is not the work of magicians and alchemists. Economics is a shapeable, understandable social science – except when its regulation is left in the hands of the free market as the recent economic collapse has so vividly showcased.

As in other times in history, governments should intervene in the free market for the public good.  There is no other way to ensure affordability in the city – whether it is building affordable housing directly, implementing market incentives or setting policies that keep rents affordable.

They largely used to in contemporary times until the politics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher became fashionable in the Western world.  The ‘third way’ post-politics of the following two decades blurred the lines between left and right and simply accelerated the neo-liberal project.  Political communications has been given a higher value than policy substance over that time frame.  In what was promised as a post-ideological politics, has, in effect, been extremely ideological in practice.

The lessons of the thirty year project are clear.  We now have stagnant incomes with rising living costs in an increasingly unaffordable city.  The unraveling of the social safety net has also led to innumerable social impacts.  The most recent social indicators report at the city shows that the divides are not just between west and east side – they exist within neighbourhoods across the city and are increasing across the board.  30% of children are considered ‘vulnerable’ by the time they reach kindergarten.  Over 35% of children in the inner-city have visible signs of tooth decay by age 5 in the inner-city.

From the late 19th century to the 1970’s, liberal societies around the world were becoming uniformly less unequal according to historian Tony Judt.  In his recent book, Ill Fares the Land, he writes about the social impacts of these trends, “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose…We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.”

Governments which regulate the city have, on the surface, a fairly simple task.  They set taxes, they decide how to spend money and they regulate the policies and procedures of government.  At each of these three potential levers of public policy intervention, the City of Vancouver through successive governments, have perpetuated an affordability crisis in the city as a de facto public policy choice – largely by pulling their punches in failed attemps to address a crisis.  For thirty years, no civic political party has adequately addressed the long term affordability problem in the city and its long term social consequences.

The ability to shape the city has been too narrowly controlled by planners, architects and developers, professions which have established a private language of urban change, often below the radar of public scrutiny and citizen involvement.  In that process, we have hardwired our civic electoral system to promote elite interests and made it normal practice.  The lack of good civic journalism doesn’t help matters either. Urban geographer David Harvey writes, “The right to the city, as it is now constituted, is too narrowly confined, restricted in most cases to a small political and economic elite who are in a position to shape cities more and more after their own desires.”

But there is a significant challenge forthcoming.  International civil society movements and traditional, localized rights-based reform movements for civic change have synthesized their agendas, aided by critical urban theorists to reassert a human rights agenda that advances ideas of civic participation in to areas of land use.  Over the past decade, civil society organizations have battled directly with City Hall to articulate a social agenda and direction for the city.  They have taken over what political parties used to do — talk to people, hold public forums, take input, allow for civic tensions to be played out.  Civil society has filed complaints to the UN, taken red tents to Parliament Hill and challenged discriminatory city bylaws.

The ‘right to the city’ has an intellectual history related to the work of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre.  But beginning in this decade, civil society has incorporated the term to assert local rights in housing, civil rights and decision-making powers over land use and planning. A City Statute was inserted into the Brazilian Constitution in 2001 which recognizes the collective right to the city.  Montreal has established its own Charter of Citizens’ Rights and Freedoms.  The ‘right to the city’ has become a kind of working slogan for those trying to extend democratization of the city from its current backroom reality.

Vancouver continues to compete with Calgary and Toronto for most unaffordable city in Canada.  When median incomes are taken in to account, Vancouver is one of the most unaffordable cities in the world.

In a study released in 2010 by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in its sixth annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, Vancouver was the most unaffordable market out of 272 metropolitan markets in Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada.  For the period of the study, the median sale value was $540,900 and the median household income was $58,200.   

For all of its attributes, the City of Vancouver has not stopped an exodus of low income families from the city to the suburbs.   Inner city schools are suffering from lower enrollment and are now targeted for closing in the coming years.  New immigrants and recent citizens are living in the peripheries of the city with few venues to participate in public life.  Do you hear any of the political parties supporting voting rights for landed immigrants in civic elections?

To even put forth the idea of a speculators tax for those who own more than one dwelling, or for foreign investment ownership is enough to get you branded a Marxist in this city.  Worse yet, it may impact the ability to fundraise for political parties (at least COPE doesn’t take money from developers).  Would it be possible to put forth the idea that the city tax an additional 10% of a property that sells in this designation or charges an extra 10% property tax on an annual basis and that the revenues be earmarked for affordable housing initiatives?

For over 30 years, Vancouver’s public policymaking has not sufficiently utilized the regulatory powers of government to produce the kind of urban mix that is sustainable in the long term.  All three of the main civic political parties have been inadequate in their terms of government to create the kind of wholesale changes that citizens have been clamouring for, for decades.

Vancouver has suffered through a series of missed opportunities. But what else should we expect in a city where there are no campaign spending limits?  We have no ward system in the city largely due to a well funded ‘No’ campaign that doesn’t have to disclose who funded it.  I would venture to guess that former Mayor Sam Sullivan’s campaign against wards was largely funded by developers.  The rules of the game, when it comes to civic politics, are an outrage — they are an obscene distortion of democracy.  There is a full blown legitimation crisis occuring in civic democracy that, at the most basic level, manifests itself in low voter participation rates.

For a system to be fair, it must be seen to be fair.  Partially, the blame also rests with senior levels of government for abdicating their traditional roles in affordable housing and in making cuts such as the Canada Health and Social Transfer in the 90’s which further indebted a generation of post-secondary students and established significant barriers for citizens to access the social safety net.  The provincial government’s cancelling of the Homes BC program which build 1,200 units annually in BC has also had massive impacts.  There are no co-op housing units being built today.  But, also, the city’s attempts at addressing affordability have been limited and excessively tepid in design and scope.

For a great case study to show the city’s failure in this regard, the Athlete’s Village project is a monument to civic incompetence.  By the time the dust settles, at most 5% of the units will be available to people who pay the shelter rate on social assistance – the number will likely be far less than that by the time people move in.  We now have a publicly subsidized, exclusive neighbourhood for the few.  Though there are myriad examples of excellent projects that have promoted the goal of affordability, the general trend line in the city does not look good nor does it deal with the root causes of the problem.

The definition of ‘affordability’ that the city uses is vague and open to daily interpretation and has very little to do with provincial or national definitions.  For those who are still claiming that this meets the social commitments that were promised during the Olympics, seriously have to give their head a shake.

Secondly, the provincial government’s interventions with mega-projects like the BC Place roof further distort development processes, particularly the amenities that could have resulted from the Northeast False Creek development.  The City needs to stand up to the Province when the roof for BC Place is considered a ‘public amenity’ in place of childcare spaces or social housing.  This should have been voted down by all three parties at City Hall.

The government isn’t Santa Claus.  It can’t provide everything for free.  But on basic matters like affordable housing, childcare and democratic reform, it has been doing an inadequate job for thirty years.  It has failed to coalesce around a progressive agenda in an increasingly unequal age.  Worse yet, the civic imagination has diminished due to the duress and disappointments imposed on citizens by the flawed and broken civic system.  Both at the political and bureaucratic level, we have not yet achieved the kind of city that we are capable of building.  Vancouver remains an adolescent city, shaped by the parochialism of its outdated political structures and its ‘backroom reality’ of land use planning.

In the process, a profound rupture has opened up between citizens and the state that is fundamental in nature.

Writes Harvey, “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Politics, when it comes right down to it, is essentially about changing the facts on the ground.  In Vancouver, we need to establish a much more basic and humble starting point if we are to turn the corner.  We need to begin by establishing ‘democracy’ and changing the rules of the game before we can adequately assert our collective ‘right to the city.’  Then we can more forcefully make the argument that unaffordability isn’t inevitable — but it is, in the contemporary political climate, an unfortunate public policy choice with devastating consequences.

Am Johal

Am Johal

Am Johal is an independent Vancouver writer whose work has appeared in Seven Oaks Magazine, ZNet, Georgia Straight, Electronic Intifada, Arena Magazine, Inter Press Service, Worldpress.org, rabble.ca...