Renters in Vancouver may determine who takes over power at City Hall

The past year has seen some of the most dramatic and unlikely political outcomes in provincial history. By the thinnest of margins, and ultimately on the call of B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor, Christy Clark and her B.C. Liberals were finally ousted from the legislature – a stunning end to the party’s 16-year run in power.

With the Green-supported NDP government, despite their razor-thin margin, now seemingly securely in power, attention will turn to political campaigns at other levels of government. In 2018, all eyes will be on municipal elections across British Columbia.

None of these races will be more interesting or unpredictable than the race to replace outgoing Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. After winning re-election twice, the impact of the city’s out-of-control housing crisis finally caught up with Robertson. While the mayor has won support for his positions on important environmental issues and can talk a good game on many social justice causes, he has failed miserably to deliver on his promise to end homelessness. His coziness with some of the city’s biggest real estate developers, and their generous donations to his campaigns, has become unpalatable to those who are struggling to afford to stay in the city with its skyrocketing land values and housing costs. After his party, Vision Vancouver, finished a woeful fifth place in last year’s city council by-election, Robertson announced he would not be seeking re-election.

The Non-Partisan Association, the main party of Vancouver’s ruling class in the 20th century whose raison d’etre – and the reason for its somewhat odd name – has been to keep the left out of power at City Hall, is hoping to regain a majority for the first name since Sam Sullivan’s run as mayor from 2005 to 2008.

Tenant Power. | Photo by Rod Raglin

The NPA, to put it bluntly, is not the kind of change Vancouver needs. The NPA has always been a vehicle for big money interests, and there’s no reason to trust that they’ve changed their spots – despite some younger candidates professing “progressive” politics this time around. Behind the new rhetoric lies the same old interests of corporations and the rich.

Vancouver does need a major shake-up at City Hall, but it needs to come from the other side of the political spectrum. Although the left in Vancouver is splintered into several parties and multiple factions, there’s a strong appetite for transformative change and radical solutions to deal with the affordability emergency. The city is in crisis, and it remains to be seen who will step up offering solutions that meet the urgency of the situation.

One thing that’s certain about the 2018 election is that people who rent in Vancouver will play a major role. Tenants have long been a silent majority in Vancouver. Making up over half the population of the city, our issues have barely registered in media and public debate. In fact, until the latter half of the last century you had to be a property or land owner to run for City Hall. Renters literally had no seat at the table. More recently, renters’ issues have continued to be ignored – and most elected officials are property owners and often landlords as well. Most discussion about the city’s inflated real estate market has focused on speculators at the top, or on middle class professionals who are unable to buy into this market. Only recently has the plight of the majority who don’t own begun to take its rightful place in the debate.

Renters in Vancouver are silent no more. For one thing they’ve decided to speak up and organize collectively. Last spring, the Vancouver Tenants Union was formed and in less than a year the VTU has attracted nearly 1000 members. My partner and I joined the VTU because the issues they were advocating for – tougher rent control, more protections against so-called “renovictions,” and more social and non-market housing – resonated with us.

Renters and renters’ issues were central to the discussion around last year’s by-election and they will be central to this year’s civic election. Wealthy property owners are very class conscious and tend to vote in big numbers. That’s why the NPA has won so many elections in Vancouver’s history.

Now renters are becoming more class conscious. As long as parties and candidates give them something to vote for, they are likely to turn out in big numbers and they could help tip the scales in this year’s elections.