Too much of our housing discussion in Vancouver takes for granted the core assumptions of the real estate development industry and the big corporate landlords: that investment in housing, whether new or existing, can only take place if it leads to acceptably high profit margins.
Too much of our housing discussion amounts to two camps talking past each other, strawmanning and refusing to acknowledge valid counter-arguments. We need to politicize the issue of real estate and housing, and take it out of the realm of technocratic debate.
The work of author Sam Stein and his book Capital City provide a useful theoretical framework, with his concept of “the real estate state.” This is the idea that the state, and especially local government, is now disproportionately influenced by the interests of real estate industries. Developers and landowners, in this concept, represent interest groups whose power needs to be mobilized against in order for any semblance of housing justice to be won.
Looked at this way, much of our current discussion in Vancouver, obsessed over providing carrots and incentives to vested real estate interests, is upside down. We need to flip the script and centre the conversation on the real housing needs of people, rather than on the needs of profit-seeking industries.
Last weekend, I had a chance to participate in the Right to the City roundtable hosted by the New York City office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. We learned about the statewide tenant protections that have been won by movements in New York, and about the Green New Deal for Housing, a massive federal investment proposed for public, nonmarket housing put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and other elected democratic socialist lawmakers.
We also learned about the housing movement in Berlin, where there is a popular grassroots campaign pushing for expropriation of the 10 or so biggest landlords in that German city. The campaign to Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co (named after the city’s biggest landlord which owns over 100,000 units) has strong popular support, and activists are pushing for a referendum on the issue. These activists from Berlin explicitly state that their goal is disincentivize investment in these large market rental corporations, in part because it reduces the valuation on any eventual expropriation.
In part as a response to the popularity of this more radical call for expropriation, the state government of Berlin—a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Left—pushed through a five-year Rent Freeze. Not only has Berlin frozen rents, something many here said was impossible or unrealistic when we campaigned on it in Vancouver, but they have rent caps based on maximum rent per square metre. This prevents landlords from getting around rent control by simply offering smaller and smaller units. Tenants whose current rents are above the rent caps can even apply and win a rent reduction.
Berlin has won real rent control because it's had the political courage and clarity to aim high with its demands, targeting for elimination huge corporations that currently profit off of housing precarity. If we actually believe that housing is a human right then the struggle to win that right is inevitably going to involve class struggle against the interests of corporations and the super-rich.
For too long in Vancouver we have lived under the tyranny of low expectations, and accepted the whole framework around housing of asking for scraps from vested interests who by definition do not have the goals of housing affordability for all at heart.
The recent and long overdue expropriation of the Balmoral and the Regent is a reminder that we do have the tools we need to win housing justice. The power of expropriation is spelled out clearly and unambiguously in the Vancouver Charter. So let’s make City Hall use it, and let’s demand other levels of government step up and help us deliver a Green New Deal for Housing for Vancouver.
Land, of course, can also be brought back into the public sphere by means other than expropriation. This weekend, there’s an important rally taking place to mark the ten-year anniversary of the destruction of public housing at Little Mountain. The vast majority of the huge chunk of land that the BC Liberals privatized, sold in a scandalous giveaway to Trump’s Vancouver developer partner, is still sitting empty a decade later.
On November 30 (Saturday) at 11 a.m. community activists who fought to save the original social housing at Little Mountain will be holding a rally at this empty lot demanding that the government buy back the land and build the social and nonmarket housing we need. I hope to see you there.
For more information about Saturday’s rally check out this site.