By Daniel Tseghay
In 1974, Jean Swanson was a 31-year-old single mother working as a waitress at the Patricia Hotel when Libby Davies and Bruce Eriksen stopped in for a drink. She had seen them on TV, fighting for better housing conditions with the newly-formed Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) so she began talking with them and, eventually, asked for a job. Swanson has since been at the forefront of anti-poverty organizing in Vancouver. And on Tuesday she announced she’ll be running in the city’s by-election set for October 14.
There was a campaign on social media to get her to run before her announcement, with a Draft Jean Swanson for Vancouver City Hall facebook page created, garnering over 1,300 “Likes” in weeks. It wasn’t the first time she resisted efforts to annoint or applaud her. “It’s kind of weird,” Swanson said when she was awarded the Order of Canada last year. “You spend all your life fighting the establishment, and they don’t do what you want them to do. But then they give you an award.”
And now, officially a candidate in Vancouver’s by-election, a city council seat empty with Geoff Meggs of the ruling Vision Vancouver becoming Chief of Staff for the BC NDP, Swanson will have to address problems that are arguably worse than ever.
One recent report noted that income inequality in Metro Vancouver has increased by more than double the national average since 1982. Single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), often the last stop before homelessness, have fallen into incredible disrepair over the years and the City hasn’t stepped up to impose repairs at the cost of slumlords. Swanson has called on the City to do that, saying that “we’d still have the place and it would be in decent shape” by now.
The housing crisis can be blamed on rampant profit-seeking by condo developers. They’ve donated incredible amounts to Vision Vancouver and that partnership has helped shape policies in their favour and at the expense of the construction of truly affordable housing. And yet the mayor still denies a connection between the City and developers. “There’s no connection at all there,” he says, unconvincingly.
But we can see the connection through the results. For one, the new definition of social housing is so stretched no one could possibly call it social housing. Outside the Downtown Eastside, any project that is all rental, is owned and operated by a nonprofit or government agency, and rents at least 30% of the units at a maximum of BC Housing Income Limits (HILs) rates is considered social housing. HILs rates are essentially average market rents in Vancouver: $962 for studios, $1,062 for one bedrooms, $1,300 for two bedrooms, and $1,612 for three bedrooms. As long as 30% of units in any given social housing project are at HILS, or just below average market rents (while the other seventy per cent of units can be rented for much higher), all of the units in the building are counted as social housing. This means we’re getting a grossly inflated number. And some would say this means developers can generate incredible profits while appearing to build “social housing”.
With the dramatic growth in the employment of temporary migrant workers across the country, more people are living without status. The majority of migrant workers have work permits that are tied to a single employer, which means that if the employer is especially exploitative or the conditions are intolerable and they quit and look for another job, they lose their immigration status and are deportable. This applies to farm workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, workers in the various streams of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and workers in the Caregiver Program. There are migrant workers whose permits have expired and haven’t yet left the country, refugees whose claims have been denied, and students who overstay their permits.
While they navigate the immigration system, securing permanent residency or a new work or study permit, they still have to access various social services people with status often take for granted. They might have to visit a hospital, a food bank, a shelter, a library, or even call the police. But many are afraid to do so because if they are asked for identification they fear that their undocumented status will be identified and that they will be detained and deported.
This is why Vancouver needs to become a Sanctuary City like so many other cities, from the United States, the United Kingdom, and even elsewhere in Canada.
Swanson wrote about the three primary causes of the astronomical growth in homelessness in this city: not enough social housing that’s truly affordable for low-income people is being built; welfare rates have stagnated; and SROs are being gentrified.
In the face of all this, the City’s remedies don’t match the immensity of the housing crisis. Last week, the City announced “its intention to enable 72,000 new homes in Vancouver over the next 10 years”, a vague non-commitment. The City also had a target for homelessness yet it failed, spectacularly, to meet it.
“We need an uprising from people to get different politicians, politicians who don’t believe in austerity, who believe in humanity,” said Swanson in an interview. Swanson’s policies, which can be found on the campaign’s website with more to be rolled out as the campaign progresses, offer an alternative blueprint for the future.
Swanson calls for a rent freeze, noting that, in the last year, the median rent for a one-bedroom increased 20% from $1,740 to $2,090 in Vancouver. Even after the minimum wage increase starting September 15th, if you’re working full-time at that rate, $11.35/hour, you’re only earning $1,839 a month – less than the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment. A rent freeze, therefore, is one corrective measure, according to Swanson. According to her platform, as councillor, she would call on the provincial government to set the maximum allowable rent increase at 0% for the next four years within the City of Vancouver. And to make sure landlords don’t find and exploit one loophole or another, she says the City must only grant renovation permits if the landlord can ensure tenants forced to leave their units will be allowed back at the previous rents.
For the most vulnerable people, the 2,138 made homeless by gentrification and ballooning costs, Swanson commits to a short-term project of building modular housing on existing vacant lots. These homes are cheaper to make and, although not at the same standard as most other homes, serve as a stop gap while deeper and more systematic measures are undertaken.
Swanson calls on the City to immediately begin building a unit of modular housing for every homeless resident in Vancouver, inclusive for single people, families, and couples. With modular units costing an estimated $75,000 each, or a total of over $160 million, critics might wonder if it’s feasible. The website, however, notes studies showing that housing a homeless person saves $23,000 a year compared to keeping them on the street. The units, ultimately, could pay for themselves in less than 4 years. And Swanson has a concrete plan to pay for them. The City can raise the revenue through a Mansion Tax on luxury housing, echoing what’s happened in Seattle recently with their City Council passing a “tax on the wealthy” that is expected to generate $140 million in revenue. Swanson also calls on reducing the budget of the Vancouver Police Department, saying that with housing comes even less justification for law enforcement. 2% of the current $270 million per year, or $5.4 million, could be split between funding housing and community initiatives, according to the platform.
Swanson also goes farther than Vision Vancouver, the party currently tipping the balance of power in City Hall, when it comes to ensuring that Vancouver is a sanctuary for people without immigration status.
Last year, the City took a step in the right direction when it passed its Access to City Services Without Fear policy. It ensures that municipal staff at Fire and Rescue services, Community Services including Street and Homeless Outreach, Utilities and Public Works, and Information services such as 3-1-1, will not ask for any information on anyone’s immigration status and, should they find out, will not pass it on to other public institutions (namely the Canadian Border Services Agency).
While this is a good first step, the policy does not apply to the Vancouver Police Department, the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and the Vancouver Public Library. While Council asserts it will “encourage the three civic agencies and their boards to adopt a policy which supports the spirit and objectives of this policy” Swanson advocates for more than just encouragements and targets.
Swanson calls on Vancouver’s police to stop identifying and sharing anyone’s immigration status and advocates for training for all staff so they are fully aware of the policy and that they proactively create an environment that’s inviting to those without status.
Her platform also includes an intention to work toward free transit for all, noting the $5 a month pass that Calgary has for low income people as an inspiration and target.
How the campaign will unfold, and, in the event that Swanson wins a seat, how her term in City Council will meet the needs of Vancouver’s people is an open question. But it’s promising that, for once, Vancouver has offered a truly committed and principled organizer for political office that has been in the making for decades.
“I used to be the editor of a paper called the Long Haul,” Swanson said in an interview, recounting her immense experience. “Some younger folks told me that wasn’t a good name ‘cause it would make people depressed to know they couldn’t have immediate victories. But I think it’s good to understand what we’re up against clearly. That way we can be realistic about what we’re tackling and the likelihood of victory. A long term plan should influence our strategies and tactics too.”
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