Jean Swanson rouses supporters with calls for rent freeze and an end to prejudice against addicts

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      Independent Vancouver council candidate Jean Swanson insists that there's tremendous public interest in her call for a rent freeze.

      At a raucous Saturday (October 8) campaign rally in the Britannia secondary school auditorium, the antipoverty activist freely acknowledged that the landlords' association doesn't like her for proposing no rent increases for four years.

      But Swanson said she won't stop pushing for this because rents are "skyrocketing", exceeding $2,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver.

      "The first thing we did when we started this campaign for city council was to go around and get people to sign the rent-freeze petition," Swanson told the crowd of 125 people. "We have thousands of signatures on our petition and people are basically snatching it out of our hands to sign it.

      "Then while they are signing, they tell us about their own rent horror stories," she continued. "A lot of people actually say we need a rent reduction. The people that we meet on the streets are totally different than the pundits and the political opponents. People know that the city is unaffordable."

      Swanson then claimed that city hall doesn't care about the working class.

      "People know housing should be a human right," Swanson emphasized. "They know we need a political revolution now." 

      Vancouver voters go to the polls on Saturday (October 14) to elect a councillor to fill the seat vacated earlier this year by Geoff Meggs. A recent online survey on indicated that Swanson had a large lead over her opponents.

      Meanwhile, the provincial Residential Tenancy Act limits rent increases on an annual basis. But it sets no threshold on how much a landlord can charge once a suite is empty.

      Swanson said that if the province doesn't exercise its powers in a number of areas, including housing, then it should turn this authority over to the city.

      At many times, Swanson's speech was punctuated by loud applause, perhaps most notably when she discussed the opioid crisis.

      She pointed out that public-health officials went into overdrive in 2003 during a severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, which killed 44 Canadians.

      "It was in the news every day," she recalled. "Everyone was freaking out about every little respiratory symptom."

      Yet the candidate noted that 400 "precious human beings" are expected to die of "completely preventable" drug overdoses this year in Vancouver.

      "This is not in the news every day," Swanson stated. "And the thing is, doctors didn't know how to stop all the deaths from SARS but we do know how to stop the deaths from the opioid crisis.

      "It doesn't take doctors," she added. "It takes Trudeau. He has to make the drugs safe and clean and free and regulated."

      Then Swanson maintained that "prejudice" is what's stopping the prime minister from taking action, suggesting this could be from a "fear of prejudiced voters who still blame and condemn and judge the people who use drugs".

      "If I get on council, I am going to try to tackle that prejudice, that blame, until we stop the deaths," Swanson declared. "This prejudice and blame is a huge part of justifying inequality and we need to be proactive in tackling it at every level."

      It was reminiscent of the 1990s when Swanson led a campaign against "poor bashing", which stigmatized welfare recipients.

      She also spoke about her proposed mansion tax. It would impose an additional one percent property tax levy on homes valued between $5 million and $10 million.

      A two percent additional tax would be collected on homes worth more than $10 million.

      "One billionaire owns a $75-million house and we have over 2,000 people sleeping on the streets," Swanson said. "It is so, so wrong by any moral standard."

      She claimed that the mansion tax—which also requires provincial approval—would pay for modular housing in its first year for every homeless person in Vancouver.

      "In the second year, we can start building new co-op and social housing for other people in the city who need housing."

      Video: Jean Swanson explains how her mansion tax would work.

      Then she moved onto a unique plank in her campaign: adding substance to reconciliation by making public land available to Indigenous people for housing.

      Other policies she highlighted included promoting free transit in the downtown core or copying Calgary and creating a $5 monthly bus pass for low-income people.

      "We could get rid of the transit police to help pay for that," she quipped to sustained applause. "And with free transit, a lot of people would stop driving and polluting."

      In addition, Swanson called for "more civilian control over the police to stop harassment and criminalization of people because they're poor".

      "We could cut the police budget and have millions left for services that would reduce the need for them [law-enforcement officers]," she pledged. "This is what we need in our city.

      "I am so tired of hearing politicians talk about only what's possible within existing rules," Swanson added. "Those rules are what got us into this mess where the rich live longer and the poor and the addicted die young. I want to fight for what we need."

      She also said if she's elected to council, she will push to apply Vancouver's sanctuary-city policy to the police, library board, and park board.

      According to her, limitations on the policy mean that thousands of temporary foreign workers are still at risk of being deported if they lose their jobs or quit, even if they haven't done anything wrong.

      That's because if they use certain public services, she said, authorities can pass this information to the Canadian Border Services Agency.

      "They haven't hurt anyone," Swanson said. "They need the same police, library, and park services that everybody has and they should be able to have them without fear of being detained and deported. If I get elected, I'm going to work so the police can't report people to border security."

      Housing activist Wendy Pedersen poked fun at the juice company that Mayor Gregor Robertson cofounded.
      Charlie Smith

      Swanson said that her campaign has been inspired by Seattle city councillor Kshama Sawant, who also spoke at the rally.

      Sawant, an outspoken socialist, delivered a fiery endorsement of Swanson. The Seattle politician noted that both of them have pledged not to take corporate or developer money in their campaigns.

      They've each also promised not to collect their full council salaries, opting instead to accept what the average worker earns and using the balance to promote social movements.

      Sawant's achievements include leading a successful fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage and imposing a wealth tax on the city's richest residents.

      In her speech, Sawant said that U.S. millennials and other young people are moving to the left because they're "really disgusted with corporate politics and looking for a real shift".

      "It is telling about the consciousness in America that right now, the most popular politician in America is Bernie Sanders—a self-proclaimed socialist, a democratic socialist, who in his campaign last year called for a political revolution against the billionaire class, for Wall Street to be taxed so that education is affordable, [and] for single-payer health care," she said.

      Donald Trump, on the other hand, is opposed by a majority of Americans, according to Sawant.

      She claimed that this is not the age of Trump—it's the age of social movements.

      "What stands out about what's happening in America is how little mandate Trump's antiworker, xenophobic, misogynist, anti-immigrant agenda has in the minds of most people," Sawant said. "You only have to look at his approval rating to know that most people don't support what he stands for."