Perhaps one silver lining of this summer’s grand opening of the Trump Vancouver luxury tower will be to refocus the housing affordability discussion that’s currently generating a lot more heat than light. The bloviating con man and presumptive Republican presidential nominee has partnered to build Trump Vancouver with Holborn Group, a development firm and a big financial contributor to Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberals (and also a donor to Robertson’s Vision Vancouver.)
So Trump is a timely reminder that the problem in Vancouver isn’t merely corrupt real estate practices related to wealthy Chinese investors, but rather governments rolling out the red carpet to profiteering developers wherever they may be from. The problem is the hyper-commodification of housing, catering to the greed and whims of the super-rich, rather than the needs of the vast majority.
But Trump, like the xenophobic advocates of Brexit in the UK, should also remind us that reactionary demagogues can thrive when an out-of-touch establishment allows inequality and insecurity to fester. And boy, has our local establishment here in B.C. ever allowed the housing affordability crisis to fester.
As Trump Vancouver – that shining monument to our tasteless and greedy elite – opens its doors on Georgia Street downtown, people across B.C.’s Lower Mainland are struggling like never before to keep a roof over their heads.
This year’s homeless count in Vancouver was the highest in a decade, making a mockery of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s now almost forgotten pledge to eliminate homelessness in the city by 2015. Just this weekend new direct action housing protests took place in Vancouver, Burnaby and Abbotsford. In Victoria, there’s a long-running “tent city” housing squat demanding more affordable and social housing.
Tens of thousands of families live one paycheque away from joining the ranks without housing. A recently released study by Vancity highlighted how renting is no longer even an affordable alternative to buying, noting, “While weekly median wages grew by 6.6% in B.C. between 2011 and 2015, rents increased at a rate closer to double that – up by 11.4% on average in Metro Vancouver.” Or, in other words, the rent is too damn high.
Just in the past month, the B.C. government has been dragged kicking and screaming to do the minimum to investigate the role of speculative foreign capital investment in Vancouver’s out-of-control real estate market. A growing public outcry, increasingly sharp political opposition from the NDP, and some diligent investigative journalism has finally pushed the B.C. Liberals to take some baby steps toward action on this crisis. This, after years of the government and their developer donors avoiding scrutiny on corrupt practices, including money laundering and “shadow flipping,” which are rampant in the frenzied real estate industry.
The strategy of these defenders of the status quo has been two-fold. First and foremost, tell the public, ‘Nothing to see here, please move along.’ Bob Rennie, the city’s ubiquitous “Condo King,” straight-facedly presents the problem as the solution, insisting that all Vancouver needs is to let developers like him build and sell more condos. Earlier this year, Rennie used his annual speech to the Urban Development Institute to literally tell Vancouverites feeling the squeeze to please move along, suggesting people should just move to the suburbs if they can’t afford the city.
Even more insidious, however, is how Rennie and others have used the very real phenomenon of anti-Chinese racism to deflect attention from their industry’s rampant corruption. This type of rhetorical strategy is why the debate over corrupt real estate practices involving foreign capital from Chinese investors, exposed by pesky and persistent journalists and researchers, has become so toxic, full of smears, diversions, and accusations of bad faith.
Anti-Chinese racism is a real and present danger, especially given the history of our province, which included exploitation, segregation, and outright exclusion of Chinese people. Racism should never be ignored or denied. But nor should it be cynically used to divert from a much needed investigation and debate about the real estate industry and the housing affordability crisis.
The problem isn’t foreign capital per se; the real problem is capital. Or, more specifically, the problem is that we have allowed the accumulation of capital to trump all other considerations. The real problem isn’t where the wealthy investors are coming from, but that we have an industry and government serving the interests of the wealthy above all else.
Decent housing is a right, and the commodification of this basic human need is the root of the crisis we’re facing. What we need to focus on are the real problems of inequality, a lack of well-paying jobs, and the rampant commodification of housing. Let that Trump tower on our skyline remind you that we need to fight both racism and real estate corruption. If we don’t tackle both festering problems, and we let the establishment invoke racism to let itself off the hook, we’ll be creating the conditions for Trump-like demagogues in our municipal and provincial politics.