Derrick O'Keefe: I'm running for office because Vancouver needs more renters on city council

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      Renters make up a majority of residents in the City of Vancouver, and yet we have never been more than a small minority of city councillors. For much of Vancouver’s history renters weren’t even allowed to vote or run for city hall; it wasn't until the late 1960s that tenants living in Vancouver were finally granted the right to cast a ballot.

      Tenants’ rights movements fought and won our right to vote, but we still have a long way to go to win our right to the city. That means organizing in our buildings and neighbourhoods, but it also means more renters need to run for and win elected office.

      Imagine if we had a city government that, like our city, was made up of a majority of renters. That the idea seems so far-fetched only underlines how far we still have to go.

      That’s why, after about 20 years as a grassroots activist and community organizer, I’m running for Vancouver city council. I’ve been an antiwar activist, a labour and tenant organizer, a writer, and a founder of independent media projects.  Along with so many others in Vancouver, I’ve watched in dismay and horror over the past decade as the establishment parties have received millions of dollars from corporate developers while the city’s housing and affordability crisis has spiralled out of control.

      I’ve decided to run for office this year because I believe Vancouver needs a political revolution. Big money has corroded our democracy and made people lose confidence in our public institutions. You can’t blame people for getting cynical about civic politics when a condo salesman was organizing $25,000 exclusive access fundraisers with the mayor while so many of us were getting priced out of town.

      In these difficult times, the only antidote to cynicism is to get organized and present a hopeful political alternative.

      The public response to last year’s by-election campaign by Jean Swanson convinced me that many in our city agree that we need a fundamental transformation in terms of whose interests are served first and foremost at city hall. Some said Jean was “too radical” to run for office, but her radicalism is precisely the practical politics we need today. The word “radical” just means to go to the root. And Jean and COPE know that to solve the root problem of the housing crisis we have to treat housing as a fundamental human right and not just another commodity. This campaign is going to target the root of the problem, and we’re willing to take on the vested interests that have reaped the benefits of speculation and profiteering in the housing market.

      For too long, Vancouver has been building luxury safety deposit boxes in the sky instead of building the housing people need. All of COPE’s housing policies aim to reverse this disastrous trend, starting with the most urgent needs of people in Vancouver. The Mansion Tax, for example, will make the owners of $5-million properties pay a sliver more in taxes in order to fund modular housing, social housing, and co-ops for those who most need affordable homes.

      The developers and the super-rich have run the show for long enough. With campaign finance reform finally implemented, this municipal election will be the first one fought on a relatively even playing field. This year we have a real chance to start a new era in Vancouver politics.

      Running with the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), alongside experienced activists and principled politicians like Jean Swanson and Anne Roberts, has made jumping into electoral politics feel like a natural transition.

      When I was an organizer with the StopWar Coalition opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the COPE-led council struck a peace and justice committee and passed an official motion declaring the City of Vancouver’s opposition to George W. Bush’s plans for the illegal war. Under the NPA administration that came to power in 2005, the peace and justice committee was discontinued. This year COPE’s platform calls of its reinstatement. Vancouver should be proud of its history of peace and environmental activism—we should promote that to the world, rather than just leaving it to developers to pitch us as a place to park money in empty condos.  

      COPE has always stood up against corporate control of city hall, championing the underdog and amplifying the work of tenants’ rights, labour, and social justice movements. We’re a city full of underdogs now. Professionals, union members, and indeed working people from all but the highest paid sectors can’t afford to live in the city they’ve built and kept running with their sweat and hustle. The housing crisis is a result of our society’s crisis of inequality. It’s the product of a rigged system that benefits the super-rich few at the expense of the vast majority.

      My family and I are among the hundreds of thousands who have to scramble just to continue to live in this city. We’re tired of the anxiety and the precarity, especially since we have two young kids whom we want to provide with stability. We’re tired of seeing so many friends leave town. This winter, we thought seriously about moving to Vancouver Island so we could have more long-term security in housing. But in the end we decided to stay and fight for our right to the city.

      There’s reason for hope, especially with new movements and organizations like the Vancouver Tenants Union that have recently formed to fight collectively for a livable and affordable city. Every society facing a crisis of inequality has its breaking point. In Vancouver, we’ve reached it. If we come together this year, we can defeat the establishment at the election booth and begin to win the city we need.