#VanElxn: Do developers control city hall?

Published in rabble.ca | October 10, 2011 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly visitors

Photo by David P. Ball

I’m probably the last person I’d have imagined ever writing a local politics blog, despite a decade as an organizer and journo. And with that reassuring disclaimer…

Welcome to the first edition of The Left Coast Post — rabble.ca’s new blog on B.C.’s politics, crises and struggles for social change!

I’m no policy wonk, city hall insider or pompous pundit (but give me time…). I’m extremely cynical about party politics, electoral systems and compromise in the name of slow reform. But as Vancouver gears up for its November 19 elections, there seems a lack of radical analysis of what’s at stake.

And so launches The Left Coast Post‘s eight-part series on the elections. My weekly Monday post will join a few critical voices out there: The Mainlander (which offers radical commentary, accessibly garbed critical theory, and fearless non-partisan critique). Though less radical, the City Caucus blog is also worth checking out, as well as the Georgia Straight‘s coverage.

This week, I sat down with The Mainlander co-founder Tristan Markle — who schooled me in Vancouver’s political history, key city hall players, and what the hell the COPE/Vision/NPA alphabet soup is all about — as much as one could with only a few hours, abundant sushi and a few much-needed bottles of Kokanee to drown my cynicism.

During last month’s Women’s Housing March, intrepid scaffolding-climbing enthusiasts unfurled a banner festooned with this slogan from the wreckage of the Pantages Theatre: “Developers Control City Hall.”

I say wreckage because the heritage building on Hastings’ struggling 100 block is being reborn as a progressively marketed yuppie-condo-homestead, Sequel 138. Seriously, instead of affordable housing they are building yet another gentrifying condominium tower at the heart of Canada’s poorest off-reserve postal code — this one cynically marketed to artists and social worker-types in the Downtown Eastside (DTES):

“Sequel 138 residents will also include employees of DTES non-profits who would like to live where they work,” said Marc Williams, owner and developer of Sequel 138. “This part of Hastings is a dead zone. Apart from drug-dealing, it has seen no activity for 30 years.” “There will be no displacement of anyone.” “No one lives there now. Not one person. Only rats. No one will be displaced.”

How is it that so many upscale condominium developments are getting sped through city hall — particularly when a lack of affordable housing continues to be a crisis in this city, and prices rise with each new development?

As I wrote in Windspeaker newspaper recently, the tragic death of DTES resident Verna Simard on that same 100 block is a painful reminder that safe, affordable housing is a life-or-death need.

And while Vancouver’s two main progressive parties, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) and Vision Vancouver (the mayor’s party), are pushing housing as a frontline election issue, you likely won’t be hearing “life-or-death” rhetoric from some political candidates who want to solve the problem by seemingly begging wealthy developers to throw in for a few rental units for folks who somehow can’t afford to buy a $2-million bungalow, or a $200,000 condo. Pretty please.

That’s basically what Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) does, and it’s one of city hall’s boasted plans to solve the homelessness crisis by making life easier for developers who include rental units. Tax breaks, expedited permits, more parking, et cetera.

Thankfully, DTES residents aren’t waiting for politicians, but are organizing and agitatingfor what they need. They’ve collected thousands of signatures against the project. They’ve dressed up as deceased artists (and post-deceased zombies) for some interesting confrontations. They’ve collected letters of opposition from a local church, from artists and — gasp — even would-be condo buyers saying that few artists and social workers wish — or could afford — to be part of this development.

I’ve become curious about the influence property developers have over city hall. Recently, Tristan Markle called Vancouver’s developer-dominated economy a “realty oligopoly,” suggesting this financial power-centre be the target for the #OccupyVancouver actions coming up October 15.

“The first thing is to identify power: who has it and who doesn’t,” Markle explained over our sushi conversation on Commercial Drive. “You can see who’s giving money. It’s not a conspiracy.”

“That’s where there power is — they get paid by developers; they’re the main financiers of the campaigns.”

To be fair, only Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver party and their right-wing opponents the Non-Partisan Alliance (NPA) accept corporate money. COPE says it doesn’t. But the latter has agreed to run alongside Vision so their donor list becomes somewhat of a non-issue.

So what kind of money are we talking about? $5.5 million estimated to have been donated in the last election. The top donors were unions, developers and corporations.

Check out out the Vancouver Sun’s detailed municipal donation records database, which includes an excellent guided tour with photos of the top ten contributors from the 2008 elections.

Although hundreds of thousands of dollars come from unions, who split their allegiance between the two progressive parties in 2004 when Vision split from COPE (notably, the Canadian Union of Public Employees was the single largest donor, at $700,000), it is developers who donate more as a group to Vancouver campaigns than any other group.

Unlike other provinces such as Ontario, B.C. has no limits on election campaign spending or donations, and a review last year led the province’s Community and Rural Development Minister Bill Bennett to conclude, “As long as the public knows who is donating we think it’s up to the candidates … and the public to decide what’s appropriate” (Vancouver Sun, June 1, 2010). In fact, contrary to Bennett’s claim that city councillors must not participate in decisions affecting their donors, the courts have ruled that there is no such requirement at all.

Regardless, many activists are cynical about the prospects for electoral finance reform, or whether this would actually reduce the power of developers. After all, if they drive the economy, they’ll find ways to drive the government (or make life difficult if their interests are neglected).

Others are cynical about the prospects for this election entirely. In June, over the objections of a group of party activists, the historically left-wing COPE decided to cooperate with Vision during the election, agreeing to run only three candidates.

Some have suggested COPE candidates are muzzled from criticizing their Vision offspring — or that there is even a gag contract — which has turned into a heated four-way debate on Twitter (between City Caucus blog, COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth, Globe columnist Frances Bula, and NPA’s Sean Bickerton) — with one candidate you’ll read about next week calling the rumour “bullshit.” Regardless, the decision to cede dominance to Vision has rubbed many the wrong way.

“COPE is not serious about forming government under its current leadership,” Markle toldThe Left Coast Post. “They are not distinct from Vision.”

“Neither party is able to give what this city needs. They’ve taken a grassroots party and made it a strategy to get Vision elected. Vision’s not a grassroots party, COPE is. But the left’s not going to support Vision, so COPE will draw them out.”

Electoral defeat — or a lack of real options, as radicals like Markle argue — will certainly not deter social movements outside city hall from fighting for action on the crises facing Vancouver.

“The goal is for people to be able to afford to live here and for everyone to have housing,” he said. “We have to put the fire to them.”

Next week, I’ll return to the question of why leftists are often so hesitant to get involved in local politics, continue exploring developers’ grip on city hall — and report back on a face-to-face interview with City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth.

Speaking of the COPE/Vision/NPA alphabet soup, did you know you can jumble the parties’ letters to spell the following pertinent anagrams: “VAN: EPIC POISON” (and, for those particularly disillusioning days, “OI! CAN VEINS POP”).

I said “radical analysis,” but The Left Coast Post cannot promise to always be particularly deep. Let’s just hope that this election, there is neither popping nor poison. I’m looking forward to hearing from you — your comments and critiques are encouraged. Post your comments below, or find me on Twitter at @davidpball.

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