2016: Will developer profits keep trumping our right to affordable housing?

After four moves in the last four years, my family begins 2016 confident we’ve finally found a place to call home in Vancouver. It’s been a constant search to find decent sized and relatively affordable rental housing in this city. Settled at last, it’s a relief to know we can at least plan for the new year knowing we won’t be on the move again.

Hundreds of thousands of renters in Vancouver live in a precarious state, often one or two paycheques away from eviction. Even when they’re lucky enough to be able to make their rent, the threat of ‘renoviction’ often looms.

Trump Tower in Vancouver. |Photo by Maciek Lulko

Trump Tower in Vancouver. |Photo by Maciek Lulko

With so much of the household budget consumed by the cost of housing, lives are constrained: there’s less money to buy basic let alone healthy food, and not enough cash for transportation let alone quality child care or programs for the kids. In a province plagued by high rates of child poverty, it’s amazing how rarely we hear anyone in positions of power talk about its main cause: the rent is too damn high.

All levels of government share the blame for this dismal state of affairs, especially the corporate cheerleading BC Liberals, who have, like Ayn Rand’s Atlas, shrugged in the face of this crisis. When asked last year about the spiralling cost of housing in Vancouver, Premier Christy Clark said something inane about not doing anything that might reduce homeowners’ equity. New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was slightly more nuanced when asked about the same thing at a recent Global TV appearance, but basically said nothing of substance except to echo Clark’s worries about owners’ equity.

Meanwhile, even with ominous signs for the global economy in 2016, Vancouver’s real estate bonanza continues. The downtown skyline is being remade with skyscrapers dedicated to the whims of the global elite. At the north end of the Granville Bridge, Vancouver House is under construction, and will begin its ascent skyward this year on its way to opening in 2018. City council recently approved a piece of public art to complement the luxury condo tower – a $1 million chandelier to hang from underneath the bridge.

By 2018 all the tallest buildings in Vancouver will include condo-mansions in the sky. There’s already the Shangri-La and the Wall Centre, and the most ostentatious of all is set to open this year: the Trump Tower on Georgia Street. The bottom half of the skyscraper will be a Trump hotel, while the upper floors will be luxury condos. Built by the Holborn Group, a development company run by Joo Kim Tiah, the son of a Malaysian billionaire, the project is branded with Trump’s name after a multi-million dollar licensing agreement.

Apparently no one in Vancouver batted an eye when Trump first came to town a couple of years ago to announce his project, even though the American billionaire and reality TV star already had a well-known history of spewing misogynist and racist nonsense, including his notorious campaign questioning the birthplace of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Now, however, Trump is running for president, and his crude xenophobia has caught the attention of Vancouverites. After Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, former city planner Brent Toderian initiated a campaign to rebrand the Holborn tower. Vision Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang and Mayor Gregor Robertson joined in, denouncing Trump’s hateful remarks and urging the developer, who as it happens donated to Vision’s 2014 election campaign, to reconsider the name. Tens of thousands signed online petitions asking Holborn to rebrand.

None of this has been enough to convince the Holborn Group to change their mind. They issued a few banal statements, and then put their heads down, wishing that the public outrage will just blow over.

In one sense, I hope the campaign to rebrand the tower doesn’t go away. It’s heartening to see so many Vancouverites reject Trump’s overt racism. In a year when all eyes will be focused on the presidential election down south, it makes sense for Canadians to vote with their feet by divesting and boycotting the corporate interests of the most toxic contender for the White House.

On the other hand, maybe the name should stay. The basic security of having a place to call home is a fundamental human right. In a city where real estate speculation by and for the super-rich trumps the basic right for everyone to decent and affordable housing, the name fits.

While downtown skyscrapers are built ever higher to cater to the hubris of the rich, thousands remain on the streets or dependent on inadequate and insecure temporary shelters. This dismal reality persists year after year, despite Mayor Robertson winning three elections on the promise to end homelessness by 2015.

If Vancouver’s going to be a playground for the world’s super-rich, we might as well have Trump’s name dominating the skyline. The luxury tower, equal parts ostentatious and obnoxious, will stand as a perfect symbol for a city that has sold its soul.