Derrick O'Keefe: No more overlooking renters’ issues in Vancouver—we need a Rent Freeze now

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      Enough is enough. It’s time to treat the housing crisis in Vancouver as an emergency. The Straight  reported on the fact that the City of Vancouver now defines a new three-bedroom unit renting at $3,702 per month as “affordable housing”. We’ve reached a level of absurdity in Vancouver where Orwellian political spin has given way to straight-up trolling.

      The recent provincial budget from the B.C. NDP took some important steps in the right direction on housing, but included precious little relief for renters. The promised $400 renters’ rebate never materialized and there was no announcement about reducing the annual allowable rent increase. The rebate idea was lousy policy anyway (effectively a subsidy to landlords), and wouldn’t even have covered annual rent hikes for most tenants in Vancouver.

      What we need, as an interim measure at least, is a Rent Freeze. This would be simple to implement. All the provincial government would have to do is not allow rent hikes at all for next year—or for the next four years, until the likely end of the NDP’s first term in office. That would cost the government nothing, and put money in the pockets of renters, who would have a little more peace of mind, a little less anxiety, and a little more to spend on groceries or at small businesses in their own neighborhoods.

      In last year’s Vancouver by-election, Jean Swanson campaigned for a Rent Freeze. I was active on the campaign, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue resonate with so many people so quickly. People were ripping clipboards out of canvassers hands to sign up to support the demand. Many offered the feedback that a freeze was just a start; what is really needed is a rollback of rents. Some of the other municipal parties campaigned against the Rent Freeze, but their technocratic or reactionary arguments don’t stand up against the common sense that tenants in Vancouver need relief—and they need it now. A temporary freezing of rents would allow time for other necessary elements of a comprehensive affordable housing plan to be implemented.

      How did things ever get this bad? Cynical and complacent, local politicians redefined “affordable housing,” draining the term of meaning and using it as a pretext to offer more tax breaks to their developer friends. Another reason the situation was allowed to deteriorate so much is that too much of the discussion around real estate in Vancouver has focused in recent years on the issue of property ownership. Renters, who make up over half the population of our city, have until recently been left almost entirely out of the discussion. Very few elected politicians are renters, and many members of the political class are also landlords with multiple real estate holdings. So it is that we’ve arrived at this absurd situation where $3,700/month is deemed “affordable.”

      Things are finally starting to change. You can only decouple local incomes from local housing costs for so long before the pitchforks come out. Less than a year ago, I was one of a few dozens organizers and renters from across our city who came together to launch the Vancouver Tenants Union. At the time, I was not looking for another organizing project to join. My partner and I have a couple jobs each, and two young kids to look after, and my activist plate was full. But the tenants union was an idea whose time had come, and so it was a natural fit to get involved.

      As soon as we launched the VTU late last April, the responses came flooding in and our small team of legal advocates has been busy with constant requests for support. For a completely grassroots operation with no seed funding, our challenge has been to expand our capacity as a union to meet the overwhelming needs of tenants—and to provide tenants themselves with the tools they need to fight back alongside their neighbours. This month my partner and I will be part of launching the Fairview local of the VTU, part of the union’s push to establish strong presences in all parts of the city where tenants are concentrated.

      The VTU is a response to the concrete needs of hundreds of thousands of renters in Vancouver who need to organize to assert our collective power. Across the city, whether in basement suites or purpose-built rental buildings, rents have skyrocketed this past decade while incomes have remained stagnant. Heavily funded by real estate developers, both the B.C. Liberals provincially and Vision Vancouver municipally fiddled while the city’s affordability burned to the ground. Countless people were forced out of their homes, or out onto the streets while gleaming new condo tours sat empty—financial investments in the sky for wealthy or super-rich speculators.

      Enough is enough.

      As a minimum first step, tenants need a Rent Freeze and real rent control based on the unit not the tenant. The new provincial measures aiming to protect against “renovictions” and “demovictions” won’t protect tenants enough as long as landlords have financial incentives to push people out and jack up the rent. Finally we need a massive build-out of public and social housing—truly affordable housing. The housing crisis represents a massive market failure, and we can’t rely on market solutions to fix the problem. The public sector needs to get back into housing in a big way.

      It’s an election year and the pitchforks are out. In 2018 renters' issues will be front and centre in Vancouver, and it’s time to evict the politicians and parties responsible for the mess we’re in.