OP-ED: Fighting For the Right to the City

By Am Johal

Young families and seniors on fixed incomes put groceries on their credit card. Recent university graduates, saddled with student loans, can barely make ends meet. The affordability crisis is one of the great public policy challenges of our times.

The increasing social divide in the city is the logical outcome of inadequate public policies over the last three decades that have placed the interests of big developers before those of citizens. City policies have amplified development paths and exacerbated the economic impact on middle and lower income families. Meanwhile, senior levels of government have downloaded costs and hamstrung local governments with limited revenue streams. The democratic deficit at city hall is also part of the problem.

In an era of stagnant incomes and rising housing costs, the result is an even less affordable city. The city’s most recent social indicators report shows the divides are not just between east and west side - they exist within neighbourhoods across the city and are increasing across the board. 30 per cent of children are now considered 'vulnerable' by the time they reach kindergarten. Over 35 per cent of children in the inner-city have visible signs of tooth decay by age five.

Civic governments, on the surface, have a fairly simple task. They set taxes, they spend money and they regulate development and land-use. With each of these three potential levers, the City of Vancouver has dithered over many decades and failed to respond to the affordability crisis. For thirty years, no civic political party has adequately addressed the growing affordability problem in the city and its long-term social consequences.

Governments should not be afraid to intervene in the 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 help to keep rents affordable.

The ability to shape the city has been too narrowly controlled by planners, architects and developers. These professions have established a private language of urban change, often below the radar of public scrutiny and citizen involvement. The lack of good civic journalism doesn't help matters either.

But there is a significant challenge forthcoming. Civil society and traditional, local reform movements have coordinated their agendas, aided by academics and urbanists. The result is a human rights agenda that promotes civic participation in land-use decisions. In the process these groups have taken over the role that political parties used to play – they talk to people, hold public forums, take input, and allow for civic tensions to be played out. Civil society groups have filed complaints to the UN, taken red tents to Parliament Hill and challenged discriminatory city by-laws.

The ‘right to the city’ has an intellectual history rooted in the work of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre.  During the last decade, civil society groups around the world have begun to use this term to assert rights in areas such as housing, civil rights and land-use planning. A city statute was inserted into the Brazilian Constitution in 2001. This document recognized 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 rallying cry for those trying to promote transparency and democratization in civic government.

Vancouver is seeing an exodus of young families from the city to the suburbs. Many city schools are suffering from low enrollment and are now targeted for closure in the next few years. New immigrants and recent citizens are living on the periphery of the city with few venues to participate in public life. For example, do you hear any of our political parties supporting voting rights for landed immigrants in civic elections?

To even suggest the idea of a speculator’s tax for non-resident property owners is enough to get you branded as a Marxist in this town. Would it be possible to put forward the idea that the city impose an extra tax on these properties, and that the money be earmarked for construction of affordable housing?      

For over thirty years, Vancouver’s policymaking has not sufficiently utilized the city’s regulatory powers to produce the kind of urban mix that is socially sustainable in the long term. The city hall bureaucracy and all three civic political parties have been inadequate in their response.

As a case study, the Olympic Village project is a monument to civic incompetence. By the time the dust settles, at most five per cent of the units will be available to people who pay the shelter rate on social assistance, although this number will likely dwindle even further. We now have a publicly subsidized, exclusive neighbourhood for the few.  

Although there are many successful models of affordable housing, the overall trend line in the city does not look good nor does it address the root causes of the problem. Even the city’s definition of ‘affordability’ is vague, open to daily interpretation and has very little to do with provincial or national definitions.

Secondly, mega-projects like the roof for BC Place stadium 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 provincial government when the roof for BC Place is considered a ‘public amenity’ in place of child care spaces or non-market housing.

Our leaders have failed to conceive a progressive agenda in an increasingly unequal age. Worse yet, the civic imagination has diminished due to the limitations of a broken political 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, stunted by outdated political structures and the 'backroom reality' of land-use planning.

Politics is all 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 changing the rules of the game and establishing a civic democracy before we can adequately assert our collective ‘right to the city.’

Am Johal is Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition, and is an organizer with the Vancouver Right to the City Coalition, a new group set to launch in September.

OP-ED articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Think City. To make a submission to the OP-ED section of the Think City Minute, please email editor@thinkcity.ca for details.

flight to the burbs

Richmoned is undergoing a Social Planning Strategy and Official Community Plan posted online at letsTALKrichmond.ca For Single Family Residential areas secondary suites are now legal and many can be found online on Craig's list.Now the City is proposing to also allow coach houses, granny flats and duplexes on these lots too, depending on the size. If there is public support this will greatly increase the supply and affordability of housing in Richmond. Future planning will consider creating mixed use pedestrian oriented communities outside the City Centre around neighborhood shopping centres, which currently are overwhelmingly car oriented.

Am Johal's Op-Ed

Yes, I agree, especially about priorities. Why not say, "No, we can't afford expensive sports facilities with convertible roofs, not before all our people are properly housed, fed and educated."?

Yes, indeed, bravo! All

Yes, indeed, bravo! All those hopes I had that Mayor Gregor would make some big changes seem to have been dashed. I rreally like the idea of having a "right to the city."

OP-ED: Fighting For the Right to the City

Bravo to Am Johal for this insightful discussion of the lack of affordable housing in Greater Vancouver. This is one of many problems that have been caused by giving in to the greed of the developers, and putting profit ahead of people. You don't have to be a "Marxist" (although there's nothing wrong with that) to demand that City Council show some leadership and deal with the problem; Adam Smith himself held that governments should provide those services which the market refuses to do because there is not enough money to be made. The citizens of Vancouver will have to show leadership on this issue if we want Council to do anything substantial.

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