Derrick O’Keefe and Michal Rozworski: Time for the City of Vancouver to declare a housing emergency

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      By Derrick O’Keefe and Michal Rozworski 

      Vancouver is facing a housing and affordability emergency. And it’s high time our city’s decision-making bodies started acting like it. 

      More than a decade since former Mayor Gregor Robertson swept to office on a promise to end homelessness, this year’s count of people who are homeless reported a record high number. And despite a slight cooling of the previously out-of-control housing and land markets as a result of demand-side measures from the provincial government, rents remain stratospheric and the vacancy rate remains minuscule. The market will not fix itself.

      Last weekend, about 200 local residents, labour and tenant activists spent the day at the Maritime Labour Centre participating in a People’s Summit on the Housing Emergency, discussing alternatives to the untenable status quo, in which big real estate developers and big land owners reap windfall profits while the rest of us get squeezed out. 

      With a new citywide planning process kicking off this fall, and a federal election scheduled for late October, it’s the perfect time for city hall to signal support for urgent action on housing in Vancouver. A formal motion from mayor and council declaring a housing emergency would have immediate and long-term benefits.

      In the short term, it will help sharpen our focus on the human and public health cost of the housing crisis. One-quarter of Vancouver renters pay over 50 percent of their income on rent and utilities. We have some of the highest child-poverty rates in the country. City residents regularly face everything from displacement to mental-health issues to homelessness stemming from the housing crisis.

      When middle-class homes or recreational cabins are threatened by wildfires, the government rightfully steps up and declares states of emergency to help protect human life and health and to provide shelter, water, and food to those who have lost everything. We know that homelessness drastically reduces life expectancy, yet as a society we don’t treat people sleeping in tents in our parks or on our streets with the same level of urgency. 

      A housing emergency declaration would also dramatize the situation our city faces in time for the federal election. So far, the housing crisis in Vancouver, Toronto, and other major cities has barely registered in pre-campaign announcements and media coverage. The ruling Liberals’ housing plan pays lip service to housing as a human right, but too much of what is promised is back-end loaded and/or destined to fund public-private partnerships with big developers like Westbank.

      The federal NDP has promised 500,000 units over 10 years, but even that falls short of the bold measures we need. Metro Vancouver alone needs 10,000 units of housing per year or more, the more nonmarket, the better. 

      In September after the summer break, city council should vote to declare a housing and affordability emergency in the City of Vancouver. In addition to its power as symbolism and a statement of values, such a declaration could help energize the housing-justice movement and contribute to shaking out concrete funding commitments from higher levels of government. 

      As the Vancouver citywide plan begins years of public consultation, a housing-emergency declaration would also serve to mitigate against efforts by the city’s more exclusive neighbourhoods to use the new planning process as a pretext to delay or reject urgently needed housing, especially if it is social and supportive. If housing is truly a human right, nobody should be able to veto its provision to those most in need. 

      Vancouver wouldn’t be the first North American city to take such a drastic step. In 2015, Los Angeles declared a housing emergency. And just a few months ago, a coalition of antipoverty and housing advocacy groups launched a campaign urging Toronto city council to declare a homelessness state of emergency. One of the campaign’s goals is to have the provincial government step up and allocate emergency funds to the city to provide shelter and housing. 

      There may be other legal and funding mechanisms that could be triggered, if we can summon the political will to try. In B.C., for example, the provincial Emergency Powers Act allows for extraordinary measures in case of local emergencies, including the power to “acquire or use land or personal property considered necessary to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster”. 

      We have the tools to start reversing course right now: rental-only zoning powers, public housing developers at the city (VAHA) and provincial (BC Housing) level, public land, powers of property taxation, and more. Developers have essentially admitted that today’s market cannot build affordable housing for the majority, so it’s time to build it ourselves, reshaping the market away from one that supplies investment opportunities to one that creates homes.

      The city recently passed a motion to declare a climate emergency declaration. It’s past time we do the same for housing. Both crises are a result of prioritizing profits and greed over collective well-being. 

      It’s now been a generation since the federal government under both the Conservatives and Liberals stopped seriously funding nonmarket housing. This year’s federal election is the perfect opportunity to demand action to turn this around and to finally start building nonmarket units on the scale required. City council can give this process a big kick-start by declaring a housing emergency.