By Ben Ger, Rebecca Kantwerg, and Steph Langford
In 1946, Canadian Legion members who were unable to secure housing for themselves after returning from war occupied the vacant Hotel Vancouver.
While municipal, provincial, and federal governments debated financing schemes and leasing requirements for the vacant property, this group of organized veterans acted in solidarity to take control of their home and lives.
Jill Wade’s case study about the event, A Palace for the Public, described the atmosphere in the hotel as a “holiday spirit”. Residents referred to the hotel as “a palace for the public”. Committees of tenants were struck to organize food, billeting, recreation, and hygiene.
So strong was their solidarity that intergovernment discussions halted as attention turned to serious bargaining between the government-owned hotel that now found itself a landlord to tenant occupiers.
It was a success. Within a day, 100 people were given rooms, and by the fourth day, 1,400 people had been registered. Massive banners draped from the walls announcing "Action at Last" and "Veterans! Rooms for You. Come and Get Them."
This story shows what gains can be made by the renting class when they act collectively, stand their ground, and force property owners to the table. In the case of the veterans, not only were they able to solve their acute housing crisis, but their struggle led to the conversion of the hotel into an affordable hostel until 1948 and the creation of 600 units of permanent rental housing at Renfrew Heights.
Today, “foreign investors” are often scapegoated as the cause of B.C.’s housing crisis. But the crisis’s origins lie in the province's historic addiction to property development, real estate kickbacks, and government inaction.
Indeed, property investment played a critical role in colonization, as it continues to do today. The opening pages of Jesse Donaldson's 2019 book, Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate, sums it up nicely: “before Vancouver was a city, it was—first and foremost—a real estate investment.”
In the context of a province founded in and driven by land investment and profit, renters cannot trust government or private developers to solve the housing crisis for them. Like the veterans who occupied the Hotel Vancouver, renters must build power through collective action to implement community-led solutions if they are to seize the rights they deserve.
In B.C., tenants have a long history of forming unions to fight for the right to housing. Throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, tenant unions were much more common across the province than today.
The Vancouver Tenants Organization Committee (one of the many inspirations for today’s Vancouver Tenants Union [VTU]) was a power player, but so were the many other affiliates of the federated B.C. Tenants Organization, led by Vancouver city councillor Bruce Yorke. The result was a tenants movement strong enough to win the best rent control laws in B.C. history, which have since been stripped from us.
Renters continue to organize today. The Vancouver Tenants Union, Victoria Tenants Action Group (VTAG), New West Tenants Union (NWTU), and Eviction Defence B.C. are all examples of unions busy helping renters fight for better living conditions.
Organizing has begun elsewhere, too, like in Nelson, Mission, and in the Fraser Valley, where tenants recently attended a workshop put on by Rent Strike Bargain (RSB). But more unions must be established outside of these cities and regions.
Like the tenants of the past, today’s organized renters are realizing the power they have when they act collectively. Recently, when tenants in a building at the corner of Broadway and Carolina Street in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood all received eviction notices, the solidarity they built with one another allowed them to slow down the process.
But it was through their connection with the VTU that they were able to fight back. Organizers like Sydney Ball, Asha Kaur, Jade Ho, Lillian Deeb, Vince Tao, and many more brought renters across the neighbourhood together into picket lines to protest the eviction. This collective action unified the community and strengthened the local chapter, making it even more prepared to take on future fights.
As tenants continue to realise that no one else is going to fix our broken housing system for them, the movement will only grow. As famed labour organizer Jane McAlevey would say, there are no shortcuts; we have to come together and fight.
Yes, government measures like vacancy control, the right of first refusal at the same rent, massive investments in social housing, protection for collective-bargaining rights, and the right to strike will be crucial. But more than anything, renters themselves must be the bedrock of decision-making when it comes to their housing, not developers, landlords, or politicians.
The way to achieve that is through tenant unions. Tenant unions present an alternative to the current housing system; one that is based on principles of democracy, self determination, and collective action.
Unions at work have brought us a long way. Now it is time for a union at home.