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‘They’re Angry Because We’re Failing Them’: Cities Share Tensions at Housing Summit

Experts from Toronto, San Francisco, New York say they need help from those up top.

By Christopher Cheung 27 Oct 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on affordable housing for the Housing Fix. 2016-17 funders of the Housing Fix are Vancity Credit Union, Catherine Donnelly Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., in collaboration with Columbia Institute. Funders of special solutions reporting projects neither influence nor endorse the particular content of our reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact solutions editor Chris Wood here.

Declaring “F*ck your experts,” half a dozen activists identifying themselves as members of the Alliance Against Displacement rushed the stage of the City of Vancouver’s showcase international housing summit this morning.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and panelists, however, turned the disruption into something of a teaching moment.

The Vancouver-based activists, shouting slogans like “house the poor,” initially brought security hurrying to the stage, but Robertson and city staff ceded the podium to the group for more than 15 minutes to air its views — some of which were greeted with light applause from the housing organization stakeholders, academics, and others in hall.

In a release accompanying the action, the group claimed to represent “displaced people” among Europe’s refugees, and the residents of the recently removed tent on Hastings Street.

“We have nothing to discuss with the experts assembled here,” the statement asserted, before calling on governments to “abolish private property,” “outlaw all evictions,” and “raise taxes on the rich and corporations to whatever level necessary in order to build 77,000 units of social housing every year across Canada.”

The protestors may have had nothing to discuss with the experts, but Robertson reflected publicly on their sentiments.

“I think many of us can agree and share the frustrations expressed [by the protestors],” he said. “We are looking at ways to ‘tax the rich to house the poor.’”

Robertson invited panelists to reflect on the interruption — to discover that they had encountered similar passions in their own cities: Toronto, San Francisco, and New York.

“People are really waking up,” said Toronto councillor Ana Bailão. “They’re angry because we’re failing them.”

In Greater Toronto, she said, even sprawling urban boundaries haven’t kept real estate prices from soaring. Earlier this year, the Toronto Region Board of Trade gave the city a bad commute rating for its long drives and low proportion of workers who walk, bike, or take transit. Meanwhile, the wait for one of the city’s 58,000 public housing units can be as long as 10 years.

In New York, said Vicki Been, the commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in the Big Apple, the favouritism shown home ownership in tax policies is preventing rental housing construction.

It’s not so different in San Francisco, where voters last June approved an initiative called Proposition C that required developments with 25 or more homes to set a quarter of them aside at affordable rates for low- and middle-income residents.

The initiative had the opposite effect from what it intended however, said Kate Hartley, the deputy director at the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community. Rather than create more affordable housing, she said, the requirement has “frozen” applications for development.

Politicians, Hartley said, had pulled the 25 per cent quota for affordable homes “out of the air.” San Francisco city staff are now researching what lower figure might thaw the freeze on constriction.

The speakers from Toronto, New York, and San Francisco did agree on two things though. First, more supply alone can’t fix housing problems. And second: and cities are overburdened and in dire need of assistance from higher levels of government.

“Thinking local governments can solve this is dangerously wrong,” said New York’s Been.  [Tyee]

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