A Tale of Two Cities: Within and Apart

If you walk east from Waterfront train station in Vancouver’s CBD, you very quickly end up in an area called Gastown. Continuing along the main street, past the gimmicky old-timey steam clock for tourists, you will notice all the beautiful old building facades, harking back to when the area was the old, original downtown.

People throng about, well-dressed and smiling, settling in trendy restaurants with tables spilling out onto the footpath or gliding into bougie, chic department stores whose minimalist design aesthetic is bathed in soft, golden light designed to accentuate the prestige of the merchandise. For comparison, think of it as a more historical version of Fortitude Valley’s James Street.

But walk two hundred metres further east, and you step into an entirely different world. Lonely figures lie up against the buildings, facing the walls to try and grab some snatches of rest. The roads widen into three-lane highways where flashy cars and polished SUVs speed by on their way to somewhere else.

Walk just a little bit further and the lonely figures become weary, tattered groups, either in lines waiting at some community service center or sitting together for support. This area is known as Downtown Eastside (DTES), and it is one of the poorest postal codes in Canada.

These two different cities exist within the same four hundred metre radius, and yet could not be further apart in terms of economic inequality and human dignity. This dichotomy epitomises what Vancouver has become as a city - a place focused more on the accumulation of capital (i.e. profits for the rich) than on the opportunity for its residents to live good lives.

For the last ten years, Vancouver has been ruled by a centrist party called Vision Vancouver. It has resulted in a severe housing affordability crisis, where according to the government, $1903 per month for a one-bedroom apartment is “affordable”. As it stands, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $2100 a month and the calculated living wage needed to keep the average family’s head above water in Vancouver is $20.91 per hour, compared to a minimum wage of $12.65 per hour.

This story is endemic to many other cities around the world, and in some cases there has been a decent pushback from the left. Indeed, in another city, in sub-tropical Australia, the first ever Greens councillor was elected on a platform of radical municipality, driven by a campaign centered on the need to take back control of the city.

This success snowballed into an energetic array of different movements, campaigns and experiments that are seeking  to re-learn and discover new ways of rolling back and overthrowing capitalism’s stranglehold on people’s lives. This city was Brisbane (Meanjin), and a similar process has just kicked off in Vancouver.

This dichotomy epitomises what Vancouver has become as a city - a place focused more on the accumulation of capital than on the opportunity for its residents to live good lives.

In 2017, an existing Vancouver city councillor’s resignation initiated a by-election. An opportunity presented itself, and a loose collection of activists and progressives came together to create a People’s Platform called “The City We Need”.

They united behind Jean Swanson, an independent candidate for the vacant council seat. Jean is an Order of Canada recipient for her decades of anti-poverty work in the DTES.

The key policy proposals were a four-year rent freeze and a mansion tax to end homelessness. The rent freeze was aimed at bringing a halt to years of relentless rent increases that were driving many long-term residents and even full-time workers out of the city, and contributing to Vancouver’s second place position for the largest working-poor population in Canada.

The mansion tax was a form of progressive property tax brackets, with an aim to “tax the value of homes over $5 million at an extra 1% and the value over $10 million at 2%”. This would lead to $170 million per year in additional revenue for the city, enough to build modular housing for each and every single one of the city’s 2100+ homeless people, eradicating homelessness within a year.

Jean managed to get 2nd place with 10,263 votes, and while missing out on a seat, she was still able to push new ideas into the public debate. In addition, the movement was able to mobilise so much popular support that coming into 2018, with a full council election in October, there was a huge amount of enthusiasm and momentum from the grassroots for another tilt at the council seats.

The campaign ended up combining forces with COPE (the Coalition of Progressive Electors). Historically, COPE is one of Vancouver’s oldest political parties, formed in 1968 by a diverse coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, community organizers and the Communist Party of Canada.

While at times quite radical in its political fight for Vancouver’s residents, the party also suffered a rollercoaster of highs and lows in power. The secession of a couple of moderate factions between 2000-2011 and party infighting had left COPE weak and out of power.

However, with the influx of enthusiastic supporters of “Team Jean” and an adoption of the popular City We Need platform, in 2018 COPE suddenly looked like it was in with a chance. I joined the campaign earlier this year, when the main strategy was kicking off with a canvass drive. This involved chatting with people on the street and in public places to engage early with potential voters and supporters. Interest rose quickly and a creative campaign launch drew attention from an electorate that was tired of the same old politics.

I joined doorknocks in old rental apartment blocks to chat with residents, most working class, who had historically and currently suffered the most under Vancouver’s housing crisis. I heard stories of rising rents forcing people out of homes even though they were working two jobs, of inadequate living conditions and of long-term renters being evicted in “renovictions”.

It was clear that people wanted change, and on October 20th, Jean Swanson was elected to council with 48,865 votes. Already, plans are underway to capitalize on Jean’s new influence on the inside and build power outside of council. These include building the power of the Vancouver Tenants Union to challenge policy makers, as well as using Jean’s new platform to bring new ideas into the mainstream and push the Overton window to the left, broadening the horizon of possibilities.

Like in Brisbane post-2016, it will be interesting to see what new radical municipalism will evolve in Vancouver post-2018. Will the movement transition into direct conflict with capital and recognize the electoral process is only one tool among many or will it devolve into using electoralism as the primary process for change? Time will tell. As always, winning was just the first step. Now it’s the time to fight.

Calum is an activist with experience in the Right to The City and climate change movement. He is a former Greens staffer and active Greens member. He is temporarily living in Vancouver, Canada, to take a break from Brisbane’s heat.

Image: Tom, a resident of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Via Wikimedia Commons