Editorial: Wednesday’s town hall should get everyone’s attention

Vancouverites are mad as hell about housing. Now, we're about to find out if they're willing to take it anymore

March 18, 2016

By Max Fawcett

I’ve often described the attitude we have in Canada towards home ownership as a secular form of religious worship, so it was fitting to be seated in a Greek Orthodox cathedral last night along with 700 or so other Vancouverites in order to attend a town hall on the crisis being created by this city’s skyrocketing home prices. But they weren’t there to hear someone preach about the self-affirming virtues of home ownership, the moral turpitude of renters, or the water-into-wine financial alchemy of leverage. No, they were there to pray—for their futures, and for that of their city.

David Eby, the de-facto preacher for the evening, gave a perfectly capable sermon from the stage, one that touched on the now-familiar issues of shadow flipping, foreign capital, and government indifference. But it was the testimony from the assembled congregation that really marked the evening as more than just a poorly disguised political rally. Some were young couples who felt they couldn’t get a break, and were being forced to raise their children in tiny apartments despite having done everything—attending university, getting a good job, saving for the future—by the book. Others spoke on behalf of the city’s marginalized populations, whose ranks are almost certainly swelling as a result of the rising value of residential real estate and the perverse effect it’s having on the city’s stock of basement suites, older apartments, and other de-facto affordable housing. And without exception, each story was greeted with the kind of applause and support that the politicians who were sitting at stage right have spent their years learning how to create.

Perhaps the most poignant message came from a woman named Jennifer Lloyd. She told the audience about her roots in the city, a place where both her parents and three of her grandparents had built their lives and been buried when they were over. She told the audience about the fact that despite she and her husband both having PhDs, their child had to sleep in the master bathroom for a lack of space. And she told the audience that she was tired of her concerns being written off as economic xenophobia. “I’m not a racist. I just want an equal playing field,” she said. “I want to stay. Please give us that chance.”

Yes, this was a partisan crowd, and there were the usual cries for more government intervention in the real estate market, higher welfare payments, an end to the scourge of global capitalism, and a unicorn for every child (okay, I may have made that last one up) that tend to colour most NDP gatherings. Yes, the evening was peppered with shots at Premier Christy Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson for either their inaction or incorrect actions on this file. But I think they would be foolish to ignore the anger that was in the room last night, or to write it off as an impotent political force. And sure, a former COPE candidate and the publisher of Common Ground, an unabashedly left-wing magazine that is “dedicated to health, wellness, ecology and personal growth,” were among the speakers last night. But so too was Justin Jacobsen, a thirty-something financial analyst who told the crowd that the high cost of housing was driving people like him out of the city and into different markets. So too was Erik Wiik, a pro-density engineer who told the audience that the provincial government’s apparent preference for protecting the equity of existing home owners represented a failure of capitalism itself. And they were not alone—not even close.

With that in mind, I have a few words of free advice to the people providing the paid stuff to Christy Clark and Gregor Robertson: don’t sleep on this issue, and don’t assume that it’s confined to a portion of the electorate that you don’t need to worry about. Look south. Look at the role that anger is playing in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Look at how it’s completely upended politics as usual, and transformed the terms and tone of the conversations they’re having. I’m not suggesting that we’re going to have people cold-cocking each other at political rallies in the near future here—we’re Canadian, after all. But make no mistake: there is a palpable sense of anger in this city among young people (and plenty of not-so-young people) who feel as though it’s not just houses that are being sold on the open market but the city’s future itself—and any place they might have in it. If you’re a Vancouver politician who has even a passing interest in getting elected (or re-elected) to office, this is no longer an issue that you can afford to ignore. And if you do? Well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

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