East Vancouver scholar Matt Hern highlights bigger issues underlying gentrification

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      Vancouver has a history of coming up with new ways for addressing thorny public-policy challenges.

      Last year, harm-reduction advocates opened pop-up supervised-injection facilities to prevent fentanyl-related overdose deaths. As Travis Lupick has reported today on Straight.com, this approach is now being copied in other parts of Canada.

      Over the past 50 years, Vancouverites have also been at the forefront in North America in distributing free needles to addicts, advancing LGBT equality, protecting whales, curtailing smoking, and encouraging downtown living.

      That's not all. Vancouverites have led the way in preserving farmland, treating HIV/AIDS, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, increasing the percentage of commuter cyclists, promoting understanding about the role of cannabis extracts in health, and retaining public access to the waterfront.

      It's an impressive record.

      So why have we done such a lousy job in maintaining affordable home prices for the masses?

      An incendiary book by East Van scholar, SFU senior lecturer, and community activist Matt Hern offers some surprising answers.

      It's worth highlighting this weekend as the Coalition of Progressive Electors and OneCity are possibly poised to nominate progressive candidates in an upcoming council by-election.

      There's already a crowded field on the left with the Greens pinning their hopes on housing activist Pete Fry and others backing antipoverty crusader Jean Swanson.

      In What a City Is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement, Hern points to the private ownership and investment in land itself—as a commodity—as the root of the problem. And until this is addressed, he makes a good case that gentrification and displacement will continue largely unabated.

      "It matters not at all where these investors are coming from; overseas, overland, within country, out of country, the next suburb over, wherever," Hern writes in his book, which was released last year. "The problem is profiteering from and speculation on land.

      "The answer is not taxes on foreign house buyers," he adds. "We do not need firewalls against immigrant investors. We need firewalls against rich people, wherever they come from, and specifically in this case, rich people turning land into market opportunities."

      Here in Vancouver, billionaire Chip Wilson sold a chunk of his lululemon shares and went on a real-estate buying spree in several Vancouver neighbourhoods. It's just one of a multitude of examples of wealthy people seeing land as the ultimate hedge against currency fluctuations, rampant inflation, and economic chaos.

      Chip Wilson (with wife Shannon) is one of many rich investors who are looking to increase their wealth in the Vancouver real estate market.
      Charlie Smith

      What a City Is For offers a radical rethinking about how this issue should be tackled. But before getting to solutions, Hern begins by chronicling how the African American community was displaced from the Portland neighbourhood of Albina.

      The author reports that in 1990, nearly 75 percent of the residents were black. Just 20 years later, that had fallen to less than 25 percent. Affluent whites flooded into the area, pushing existing residents to the outer suburbs.

      "That the cold dispersal of the city's Black community has taken place in such an ostensibly liberal milieu makes it a particularly useful tableau for understanding capitalist urbanism—here, there, and everywhere," Hern writes.

      Well-intentioned efforts to improve the neighbourhood accelerated gentrification. It's a lesson Vancouverites know all too well in areas like Kitsilano, Hastings-Sunrise, and Gastown.

      "Almost anything can become a selling point: bikes, transit, tattoos, diversity, racialized difference, radical political movements, run-down housing stocks, angry artists, poor people, violent histories," Hern notes in his book. "Almost anything can be recycled as edgy marketing."

      There's an intriguing section on 19th-century American economist, Henry George, who proposed that taxes on land replace all other taxes. It was because he believed that unequal ownership of land directly led to unequal distribution of wealth. And not taxing other areas would free up economic activity that could benefit people from all sectors.

      The advantage of taxing land, unlike levies on other assets, is that it can't be moved to another country. There's no possibility of capital flight.

      George proposed that the profits of land-asset increases be taxed to shift these profits back into the public sphere.

      Hern is clearly a fan of land-value taxes, as is the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. But Hern points out in his book that there's a "lack of political will to confront the property ownership model".

      Matt Hern's book was published by the MIT Press.

      It's worth noting that those who would suffer the most with far higher land taxes would be the people who entered the housing market most recently and are carrying whopping mortgages. They form a powerful voting bloc, which inhibits political action in this area.

      "A portfolio of conditions needs to be in place for an effective introduction of an LVT, but the dominant requirement is desire," Hern writes. "The ownership model of property has such a firmly hegemonic hold on the contemporary imagination, especially in the Euro-American West, that denting it, let alone assaulting it, is tantamount to heresy."

      Hern then adds: "But there's nothing like getting priced off your own street; nothing like getting evicted; nothing like seeing your kids, cousins, parents, friends moved along; nothing like housing anxiety; nothing like seeing the local grocer close after thirty-eight years; nothing like yet another low-income house getting town down; nothing like whole neighbourhoods functionally disappearing; nothing like ongoing endemic displacements; nothing like ongoing colonial domination of Indigenous lands to help shift attitudes."

      And that's fuelling movements for land-value taxes in other areas. At some point, we're likely to see this emerge more forcefully in Vancouver as the landless left embraces more radical approaches to address the high cost of housing.

      That's because so far, taxing foreign owners clearly hasn't put a major dent in home prices and apartment rents.

      The Olympic Village is one of many Vancouver neighbourhoods built on public land that is now out of reach for most city residents.
      Stephen Hui

      In the meantime, Hern makes a persuasive case that city governments should be making far greater efforts to accumulate land that can be used for the public good, including affordable housing. This can be accomplished by creating community land trusts that offer residents security of tenure.

      One of the most dramatic moves has taken place in Paris, one of many globally appealing cities trying to tackle gentrification.

      There, the city has announced a plan to exercise "right of first refusal" when apartments are put in the market at 257 addresses in the central city. These locations include more than 8,000 apartments, often in lower- and middle-income neighbourhoods, according to What a City Is For.

      "This means that if any one of these buildings comes up for sale, the city has first crack at it—at market rates (determined by an arbitrator if the owner deems the offer unfair)—and the place can only go on the market if the city declines to purchase," Hern writes. 

      In a recent article on the Tyee website, Swanson proposed imposing taxes on the one percent to provide affordable housing for everyone else. It's a simple message that clearly resonates with her supporters.

      But for a deeper and more nuanced view of the situation, Hern's book provides much more fodder for thought.

      SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement posted this discussion about displacement, which coincided witht he launch of Matt Hern's book.

      "When land or people—urban or otherwise—are viewed as property, as a thing for another's use, the possibility of a relationship is foreclosed," Hern concludes near the end. "Ownership is the language of possession and dispossession. The desubjectivization of land is intimately bound up with the desubjectivization of people, each ennobling and giving permission to the other; the domination of land is integral to the domination of people, and vice versa."

      Hern emphasizes that this is just as true in East Vancouver on Coast Salish Territories as it is the Albina neighbourhood of Portland.

      What a City Is For reconfigures the debate and challenges old assumptions on how to address one of the most vexing public-policy issues in Vancouver.

      In some respects, Hern's out-of-the-box ideas are in the same spirit as those of the early Vancouver Greenpeacers and farmland advocates of the 1970s, and the Vancouver harm-reduction activists of the 1990s. At first, they were deemed too radical but over time, gradually became part of the conventional wisdom.

      So far, Hern's book hasn't received a great deal of attention in the local media apart from a thoughtful piece by Charles Campbell. But I suspect that as the housing debate intensifies in the coming years, we'll be hearing a lot more from those whom Hern has influenced. Stay tuned.