Sara Sagaii draws strength from the stories of ordinary people.
The Vancouver housing activist recalls one tragic story about a gay refugee for whom she fought.
The person was evicted from a rental apartment. The building was slated to be demolished for a new condo tower in the Metrotown area of Burnaby.
The loss of his home added to the many difficulties he was facing. Within a year of coming to Canada, the man was dead. He took his own life.
“The stories of tenants you work with and advocate for always stay with you,” Sagaii told the Straight in a virtual chat. “It’s what makes someone like me stick around over the years.”
Sagaii is deeply moved by stories of immigrants and refugees, being an immigrant herself.
“I have seen firsthand how immigrants, especially racialized and low-income newcomers, are more likely to accept unfair treatments and not ask for their rights, not just because they don’t know their rights—which many don’t, never having received an education about it—but because, even if they do, they don’t feel confident to rock the boat in a foreign country,” Sagaii said.
The East Vancouver renter arrived in the city from Iran in 2009. She came for graduate studies in computer science and ended up staying.
Sagaii worked in the tech industry but left in 2014 and started teaching at a local college. A year later, she went back to school to pursue her interest in social justice.
“I came to support the initiative of a friend of mine, a fellow Middle Eastern woman, and cofounded a Jacobin magazine reading-group branch in Vancouver,” she said about what else she was doing in 2015.
The group took a lot of interest in a 98-page study by the Coalition of Progressive Electors. The COPE paper was titled “Ending the Housing Crisis: International Best-practices for Creating a Vancouver Housing Authority”.
In it, the party declared that it is “fighting to clean out the profiteering real-estate corporations and their politicians at City Hall who keep housing prices high”.
She and others eventually got involved with COPE, the oldest progressive party in the city. Sagaii also started devoting her energy to the Vancouver Tenants Union.
At VTU, she helped organize and train tenants and advocates, particularly in buildings facing demolitions and renovictions, which is the practice of evicting tenants for, ostensibly, renovations or repairs.
“I want to be the person who gives people the tools they need to fight against injustice,” said Sagaii, who is currently finishing a master’s degree in communication studies at SFU.
She pointed out that city governments in Canada and around the world have a lot of authority over housing, should they choose to wield their power.
Sagaii mentioned Montreal as an example. The city exercises its right of first refusal to purchase vacant lots and existing buildings.
“Unfortunately, the City of Vancouver is very conservative in the sense of being unwilling to try new things,” Sagaii said. “They keep doing the same things and expecting different results.”
One example is the generous host of incentives for developers to build new market rentals, a program that started during Vision Vancouver’s time at city hall.
“Case after case, we see these supposedly affordable market rentals double, triple, quadruple in rent not long after they start, and they are contributing massively to the process of gentrification of neighbourhoods,” Sagaii said.
She wonders why the city refuses to accept that this approach is broken.
“It’s a religious-like ideological faith, and it unfortunately has a strong grip over the politics of the City of Vancouver,” Sagaii said. “It’s right-wing neoliberal faith in the market, and the eventual coming of the trickle-down messiah.”
With the city holding an election next year, Sagaii believes that COPE councillor Jean Swanson will become the next mayor.