The cost of housing is weighing heavily on the minds of Vancouver’s voters. And with federal, provincial, and civic elections on the horizon, Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller feels “this is the time to actually be pushing” for change.
“We can’t be inactive about what’s taking place,” she says. “Our community is under siege.”
A member of West End Renters at Risk, Fuller speaks about the housing climate from personal experience. “People are so afraid of what it means to be taking on their landlords and fighting for their rights, that they just end up moving,” she says.
The threat of displacement and its accompanying loss of community turned personal in March 2006 for Fuller and her fellow tenants in the Bay Tower on Harwood St, when Hollyburn Properties began informing residents that their rents would be brought up to market levels for the area.
While Fuller and some tenants, initially went along with the increase — which was over the maximum four percent per annum stipulated in the Residential Tenancy Act — others refused. Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, a neighbour of Fuller’s, was one of those who balked.
A deadline was given to sign on. “Like it was a limited time offer,” Weissman told Xtra West back then.
Using a loophole in BC’s Residential Tenancy Act, a number of landlords in Vancouver have evicted their tenants in order to renovate and re-list the units at significantly steeper prices.
“What we’ve been doing with those folks,” says Lorne Mayencourt, federal Conservative party candidate for Vancouver Centre, “is we’ve been asking them to go through the Residential Tenancy Office (RTO) and appeal the eviction.”
“I know from speaking with the ministry,” says Mayencourt, “every single person that has done that has had their eviction overruled by the Residential Tenancy Office.”
Fuller, her partner Julie Stines and a number of other Bay Tower tenants did end up in arbitration at the RTO in Burnaby with mixed results and with some cases going as far as the BC Supreme Court.
Fuller says that as “scary” as it was to attend the Supreme Court in defense of Little Sister’s against Canada Customs book seizures, having her housing taken away from her and being threatened with eviction for renovation was even more frightening.
“People come in [to Little Sister’s] daily, weekly, and talk to me about evictions… almost more than the [Little Sister’s] court case these days,” she adds.
Although landlord-tenant relationships are provincially legislated, many feel that the federal government should play a substantial role in the construction and maintenance of affordable rental units and subsidized housing.
Equally significant and no less emotionally laden in the current corporate climate, is the West End’s own future as a nexus and stomping ground for queer visibility and expression.
Fuller told Xtra West in the midst of her RTO battle with Hollyburn that she could not begin to explain the resonance of the area for the already established queer community and for those who continue to come to the area, essentially, to find themselves.
“People are being pushed out of traditional queer spaces,” says Out in Schools director of youth education Ross Johnstone, who also voices concern about the potential loss to businesses and what a change in voter demographic might have on areas like the Davie Village.
“You get a different genre of people in the community,” he says, who may vote differently than queers, “and that affects who we have in office representing us.”
The “most extreme” result of an affordable housing shortage, reminds Johnstone, is homelessness. “When people are on the streets, they’re susceptible to all kinds of domino effects” — such as addiction and related health risks, which “for all Canadians, becomes an expense,” he adds.
Johnstone feels that a federal commitment to harm reduction and alternative health care necessarily includes an affordable housing strategy.
NDP candidate for Vancouver Centre Michael Byers agrees. The West End is becoming increasingly inaccessible for young queer people who want to move here to escape the social conservatism of other parts of this country, says Byers. “Certainly for teenagers, people who have a suicide rate that’s six or seven times the national average, it becomes a life or death issue,” he warns.
The nonprofits that already work with homeless people “know what to do,” notes Vancouver East incumbent Libby Davies, and “they’re doing it.” But, she adds, they don’t have the resources to keep up with the need for their need.
Davies feels the most important thing that the federal government can do is provide resources that can be driven at the community level.
Vancouver East Liberal candidate Ken Low is a proponent of the self-help route through education and job training.
“We need programs to educate people to help them find jobs, to train them so that they are marketable,” says Vancouver East Liberal Ken Low, “so they can help themselves.”
Low feels that building “a strong economy” is the first step to solving the affordable housing crisis.
Mike Carr, Green party candidate for Vancouver East, says that an ideal federal housing program would provide credit and loan guarantees for non-profit housing organizations and co-ops, both for building new co-ops and housing and for restoring quality energy efficient housing.
His plan would also ensure that building materials, like lumber, were produced in Canada rather than in the United States.
Byers charges that for years federal governments have been “giving big oil companies massive tax cuts” to promote development in Alberta when, instead, a tax break as low as five percent for rental developers “would generate the construction of thousands of affordable housing units.”
Vancouver Centre Green candidate Adriane Carr adds that since the late 1980s federal governments have also favored condominium developers, which she feels is “absolutely wrong.”
“Condo builders should not have any tax breaks,” says Carr, agreeing “it should be the people providing affordable rental housing.”
Not all candidates agree that tax incentives are part of the solution.
“Part of the problem that we have with it,” says Mayencourt, “is that people are assessed by the British Columbia government for taxes on the property but that money doesn’t go to the province, it goes to the city. You’ve got to be careful about taking revenue away from cities.”
Instead, Mayencourt hopes to implement a home ownership savings program for low income families that would work through fund matching by all three levels of government.
Xtra West’s attempts to get the Conservative Party’s Vancouver East candidate Ryan Warawa on the record about the housing issue were declined.
For her part, Vancouver Centre’s incumbent MP, Liberal Hedy Fry, says she would encourage mixed-use development in which market value housing helps subsidize affordable rental units.
“The concept of building a strong and vibrant society is helping people to understand each other by living close to each other,” which includes encouraging diversity along socio-economic, cultural, and age lines, she says.
Those who live on fixed incomes, like many seniors and people living with disabilities, are especially vulnerable to housing market instability.
“A number of our seniors are really concerned that they’re going to be forced back into the closet if they go into care homes — if they can find care homes,” notes provincial NDP hopeful Spencer Herbert.
“The idea of creating a queer friendly or queer only seniors housing complex is one that’s been around for quite some time,” says Mayencourt. “What has to happen is someone needs to form a non-profit society that will have that as its mandate, and then apply for housing dollars to handle the capital part of it, and perhaps even some operating of it,” he says. “It’s not much of a leap.”
Byers hopes that the construction of a new queer community centre will benefit from a “very significant infusion of federal funding” and thinks it would “ideally” include a very substantial amount of high quality affordable housing for queer seniors on its upper floors.
Whatever the solution, Johnstone says, voters want to be sure that their elected officials appreciate the need for affordable housing choices in Vancouver.
“Politicians have to get out of their offices and actually take a walk in these neighbourhoods,” he says. “When that happens, it makes a world of difference. You have to see it for yourself.”
In the run-up to the Oct 14 election, Xtra West takes this opportunity to invite the queer community to come out Oct 8 to make your perspectives on housing and community displacement heard, and to question candidates on where they and their respective parties stand on this issue.
The contentious Bill C-10 will also be a topic for discussion at the town hall.