(Author introduction: This Sunday [April 7] at 1:30 p.m. at the Maritime Labour Centre is the annual general meeting for the Coalition of Progressive Electors. There will be elections for six of the 12 positions on the COPE executive—the party's board of directors. I will be running for reelection alongside a team of candidates whose names are listed at the bottom of this article, all of whom are determined to make COPE independent of corporate parties. Furthermore, we are ready to rebuild the organization's capacity so that COPE can deepen its roots in diverse communities, build a bold and serious social-justice platform, and run a mayoral candidate and full slates for council, school, and park board. The following is an analysis of why, at this turning point in Vancouver’s history, the fight for an independent COPE is essential for creating a just city.)
Since its inception in 1968, COPE has waged a long struggle for a socially just Vancouver. But a series of civic corporate regimes have entrenched economic inequality, class stratification, and racial exclusion.
The in-your-face dichotomy between the bourgeois West Side and the proletarian East Side harkens back to the pre-revolutionary cities of 19th century. Nowhere in the capitalist world is there such an obscene disparity between the financial district and its neighbouring inner city: the Downtown Eastside (DTES) is the last local refuge of the most oppressed and colonized.
Students, seniors, working-class, indigenous, and racialized people are being systematically pushed beyond the town’s limits, and the erosion of public transportation all but locks them out.
Neighbourhoods to the west of Main Street—which still contain an unrecognized majority of renters living in three-storey walk-ups and in basements, attics, and laneway suites—are slowly being turned into investor enclaves.
The city is marked by a larger segregation in turn mirrored within each of Vancouver’s neighborhoods. When using the word segregation, I recall Dr. Martin Luther King's maxim, "The underlying purpose of segregation [is] to oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart."
It is time for COPE to renew the struggle for a Right to the City by reconnecting with the progressive masses and codeveloping a comprehensive platform to halt, and roll back, inequality and segregation.
Ending the housing crisis: from corporate control to popular power
Renters have known for years that we suffer an affordability crisis. In fact, COPE emerged in part from the Kitsilano rent strikes of the late 1960s (Bruce Yorke) and from the low-income tenant movement of the Downtown Eastside (Libby Davies, Bruce Erikson, and Jean Swanson). Despite the fact that property owners are backed into a corner by inflated prices, the consensus that there is a crisis has grown to include even the landed and governing classes.
But of the civic political parties, only COPE can put an end to the affordability crisis. Prices are artificially high because the housing market is dominated by a handful of real-estate corporations: the quantity and quality of new housing are carefully controlled by a self-proclaimed "disciplined" real estate industry, sustaining their inflated price points and profit margins.
Today's ruling Vision party is not willing or able to change this arrangement, because its leaders fund each election with approximately $1 million from these very corporations.
For example, Wall Financial Corp. donated $80,901 to the Vision party in the 2011 election alone. Meanwhile, Vision has extended Wall rights to a fair share of the city’s new housing density, such that Wall posted $61 million in profit in its last fiscal year. That's up from $18 million in 2009, when Vision held office for its first full year.
In fact, some of the Vision party’s communications are conducted by one of the same consultants, Lesli Boldt, who also does work for real-estate marketer Bob Rennie. The political party and the real-estate industry are ultimately selling the same product: an upwardly mobile investor lifestyle.
In contrast, COPE has taken the principled stand of rejecting donations from corporations, so it is free to take power away from the private corporations that currently exercise market domination, and put the power back into popular hands.
Vancouver desperately needs a robust housing authority (like that of Toronto, New York, Vienna, or Hong Kong), a public option which will hold corporations honest.
Hong Kong's private housing market is comparably unaffordable, but its worst effects of this are alleviated in part by their 1.2 million units of public housing.
Just as 10 years ago COPE fought to build public support for a cutting-edge harm reduction strategy, now only COPE can spearhead a public policy program of "homes for all", using best practices of housing authorities from around the world.
Vancouver owns a public housing corporation—created by a COPE-led council in the 1980s—but it has scarcely grown since that time, managing only a dozen buildings.
COPE’s 2012 "Affordable Housing Report" argues strongly in favour of a reinvigorated housing authority to be run by a board directly accountable to the communities who most need the program to succeed.
By contrast, the Vision party has appointed a housing task force stacked with development-industry executives and consultants with an interest in sustaining high prices.
Not surprisingly, the task force has suggested that the board of any housing authority also be made up of corporate executives—a scenario worse than nothing at all, because such an institution will likely be used to further privatize and liquidate public assets for private gain. This perceived conflict-of-interest is increasingly normalized.
The model for such a neo-liberal “P3” strategy is Heather Place public housing.
Then there’s the case of Rennie, who marketed more than a quarter of all new condominiums in the city between 2006 and 2010. He was appointed to the board of B.C. Housing. He has also been hired by the city to sell the empty units at the Olympic Village. And these units may compete with projects that his company is marketing around False Creek.
The labour movement will know that the housing crisis is not isolated from the rest of our economy, but is the root of our general affordability crunch. High rents leave little disposable income for supporting the local economy while increasing the price of almost everything: food, necessities, arts and culture.
High rents force people to work overtime and supplement income through unsafe employment in the expanding black markets.
Meanwhile, inner-city and East Side public schools struggle to manage the worst effects of inequality, poverty, and racism.
In the end, high rents and low wages are two sides of the same coin. Only COPE can improve the real economy by reducing rents, and by implementing a living wage policy directly where it has power, and indirectly where it has influence.
This is in contrast with the ruling Vision party, which has rejected the living wage concept.
Racism, which has structured Vancouver history and geography from the start, is as active today as ever. Like classical anti-Semitism, one of its primary functions is to obscure the cause of our economic crisis by attributing to it a "racial" origin.
For example, although a majority of Vancouverites living in poverty are people of colour, and 54 percent of these speak Chinese as a first language, racism hides this fact by asserting the opposite.
The twin myths of the “investor immigrant” and of "foreign (read Chinese) investment" as the cause of high housing prices are designed to scapegoat people of Chinese descent, when in fact the latter are being displaced from Vancouver in the largest numbers.
A socially just city rests upon empowering diverse communities, not blaming them for their own forced displacement.
Finally, COPE can directly fight back against the Harper government’s top-down scapegoating of poor people and migrants, in part by developing a comprehensive Sanctuary City program.
Against the notion of "a Vancouver for everyone", the city's ruling class has united around the project of "a Vancouver for the few".
Whereas previously the wealthy self-segregated on the West Side, now they want to feast on the rest of the city.
The editors of the Vancouver Sun and Province have tried to normalize this by calling the Downtown Eastside a "ghetto"—despite the inappropriate, though perhaps illuminating, history of this word.
Further, the intellectuals have demanded the right to dilute the inner city with the wealthy. They have demanded the right of speculators and developers to buy up affordable housing, evict the low-income residents, and replace the housing with high-end condos and fancy restaurants.
They have, of course, demanded the right of lifestyle consumers to purchase these as commodities, but further they have demanded that government incentivize and even directly subsidize each step of the gentrification process.
The city government has given massive tax holidays that ultimately benefit corporate tenants such as London Drugs to set up shop in the Downtown Eastside, while B.C. Housing has promised a $23-million bailoutof the condo project on the remains of the old Pantages theatre.
To "clean up” the streets, the Vision party has increased the annual police budget by $40 million. It also passed bylaws that appear to be unconstitutional—based on a ruling involving a Victoria bylaw—banning sleeping outside and street vending, for which Vancouverites can be fined $2,000. Fines for other offences now top out at $10,000.
Unsurprisingly,95 percent of some bylaw offences are being handed out in the Downtown Eastside, according to VANDU and Pivot, a discriminatory application of unjust laws for which the city is being rightly sued.
The ideology that the Downtown Eastside is a "ghetto” ripe for invasion and exploitation should be turned on its head. On the contrary, the neighbourhood contains the last substantial stock of low-income housing in the city, and its erosion directly causes homelessness.
But after protecting this housing, abolishing the city's fines for homelessness, and ending police profiling based on race, class, and gender, it's necessary to go much further.
Decades of efforts to purge other neighborhoods of the diverse working class have fortified wealthy and predominantly white reactionary enclaves.
A package of amenities, protections, and incentives is required to empower existing renters, and safeguard the return of working people, indigenous people, migrants, students, and seniors to the rest of the city—those who give this city its very life
I will be running alongside the following candidates for an independent COPE:
• Kim Hearty, inspiring anti-poverty activist without whom the Pidgin pickets would be impossible;
• Stuart Parker, former B.C. Green Party leader, and a current leader of the country’s electoral reform movement, who is committed to creating a fair, equal, and antiracist voting system in Vancouver, and to rooting out institutional corporate corruption;
• Paul Houle, BCGEU rank-and-file activist and shop steward of 20 years, and seven-time COPE executive member (twice as treasurer), who is committed to ensuring that COPE can stand on its own financially;
• Wilson Munoz, a working-class fighter committed to taking the lead from grassroots organizations, and with whom I am excited to work on a comprehensive Sanctuary City program;
• Tim Louis, two-term city councillor, who showed the good judgment of opposing dependence upon corporate parties from the start, and with whom I intend to collaborate on a business plan for a citywide universal bus pass—because climate and social justice intersect nowhere more strongly than in the issue of mass transit;
And, if successful, we will be joining Ifny Lachance and Anita Romaniuk, independence supporters whose two-year terms on the executive carry through to 2014.