In last year’s byelection for Vancouver city council, independent candidate Jean Swanson conducted a political experiment. Instead of rallying the people who are most likely to vote in a civic election (older and wealthier homeowners) she went after the people least likely to cast a ballot (younger and lower-income renters). Swanson, a long-time anti-poverty activist, called for a four-year rent freeze, a “mansion tax” on properties worth over $5 million, 2,138 units of social housing units and an Indigenous Healing and Wellness Centre in the Downtown Eastside.
“We don’t have a really good democracy,” Swanson explained when I asked what motivated her to run in the byelection. We had met for a stroll in late April at New Brighton Park, and as we walked along the shoreline of Burrard Inlet, she described her electoral strategy. “Because governments have worked so well in the interests of richer people,” she said, “poorer people and others who are excluded don’t feel like there’s any point in participating. So if you get somebody that’s going to run... who actually speaks to those people, maybe you can increase the turnout of people who are vulnerable and maybe you can get some changes.” She smiled: “It’s worth a try.”
Swanson’s experiment wasn’t successful. She lost the byelection to Non-Partisan Association candidate Hector Bremner, who ran on a promise to streamline city zoning, cut taxes and build more middle-class homes. But it wasn’t a complete failure. She finished in second place, about 3,000 or so votes behind him. And in early June, Swanson announced she’ll be taking another run at city council this October.
The byelection results revealed a city divided by age and income. Bremner easily won wealthy neighbourhoods such as Shaughnessy, which are dominated by older homeowners. “Where Bremner did most poorly is also where runner-up Swanson did best,” observed Brendan Dawe of the group Abundant Housing Vancouver, “the traditionally left leaning neighbourhoods of Vancouver East, home to the country’s most impoverished postal code.” They are also where larger populations of renters, millennials and Indigenous people live.
But the most striking piece of data about the 2017 byelection was how few people actually took part. During arguably the worst housing crisis in Canadian history, and with candidates such as Swanson and Bremner offering radically different ways to address it, only 11 per cent of voters showed up. Swanson called it “pretty dismal” in an op-ed for the Georgia Straight. She put much of the blame on the city: for not mailing out polling cards, for poorly located polling stations, for insufficient efforts overall to register voters. “Whatever it takes, we must do better,” Swanson wrote.
Yet Swanson and others I spoke with for this series told me what happened in the byelection is also symbolic of a bigger problem in our democracy. We are now living through an era of unprecedented and growing inequality. Two Canadian billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest 30 per cent of the country. Worldwide, just eight men control wealth equal to half of humankind. Because lower-income people vastly outnumber the rich, you would think that strong democracies like Canada or the U.S. would elect politicians who act aggressively to close the gap between rich and poor.
But as we saw in Vancouver’s byelection, the people most harmed by our economic system aren’t gaining the political power necessary to transform it. “It really doesn’t happen that way, unfortunately,” David Stasavage, a politics professor at New York University who has written extensively on the relationship between democracy and inequality, told me. “The evidence doesn’t really support it.” In Vancouver, people who’ve been screwed over by skyrocketing housing prices outnumber the people benefiting from those prices. So why doesn’t our political system reflect that?
Inequality a fact of life?
For years business people and politicians have attempted to turn Vancouver into a “world class” city. And by at least one measure they’ve been successful. Vancouver now ranks third in the world for least affordable city, according to the U.S. research firm Demographia. A report it released earlier this year found that “Vancouver has experienced the greatest housing affordability deterioration among major markets.”
“We’re desperate,” the father of four children struggling to find affordable housing wrote in a series for the Georgia Straight. Two young parents who were evicted shortly after their child was in a car accident wrote “we’ll never get our old living situation back.” A longtime Kitsilano renter threatened by eviction after his sink broke told Global News “it seems to me it’s more about money than me here.” More people than ever are living in vans. The number of homeless people is up 30 per cent since 2014 — and 40 per cent are Indigenous. “They are the original inhabitants of this land and they’re the ones that are pushed aside,” Diana Day, a member of the Oneida First Nations who’s running with the Coalition of Progressive Electors for school board in the 2018 election, told me.
People are sick of the status quo. Yet only a minority of Vancouver inhabitants are expressing their anger at the ballot box. Turnout in the 2014 civic election was 44 per cent, and only 34 per cent in the previous election. Several years ago, University of Victoria student Paul Hendren — who is now election outreach lead with the City of Vancouver — decided to research for his master thesis why turnout here is so low and what can be done about it. “When more people vote you get more diversity of people voting, which leads to more representative elected officials,” he told me.
Yet Hendren found that certain groups of people vote much less frequently than others. In the 2014 election, only 31 per cent of people age 25 to 34 voted. “Youth are not connecting politics to their daily lives as much as other people,” he argued. Neither, it appears, are low-income people. “Strathcona, Downtown and Oakridge, the three neighbourhoods with the highest proportions of people in the bottom 10 per cent of Canada-wide family incomes, had the lowest rates of voter turnout in the city,” he wrote. And voting rates are also low for Vancouver’s 12,000 Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and other First Nations people. Hendren identified “a correlation between areas with high proportions of Indigenous persons and lower turnout.”
On the surface this doesn’t make much sense. The groups who vote least are also among the most exposed to Vancouver’s housing crisis. Why would people harmed by the status quo not do everything in their power to change it? An extensive 2012 study on non-voters in Vancouver done by Norman Gludovátz may provide some answers. “Many non-voters are disengaged in their communities, distrust politics, do not understand the role of municipal government, and are mistrustful that voting will make a difference or that the government will represent them,” it concluded.
When people feel precarious in their homes and communities they may lose their faith in politics. They stop believing change is possible. “People think inequality is a fact of life,” Swanson said, “and they don’t understand we didn’t always have it.”
In the early 2000s, an economic historian at Dartmouth College named William Fischel came up with an influential theory explaining how politics work at the local level. He argued in his book The Homevoter Hypothesis that “the dominant political faction in all but the largest local governments” are homeowners. Buying a home is the biggest investment most people will make in their lives. Participating in local politics is one of way of protecting the value of that investment. Thus, his hypothesis goes, homeowners support policies that maximize their property values and oppose policies that decrease them. Since people who own homes vote during elections in higher numbers than renters, local political leaders tend to prioritize their wishes.
Several years ago, two academics set out to see if the framework can be applied to Canada. Michael McGregor and Zachary Spicer tested key ideas related to Fischel’s hypothesis. For turnout rates they looked at 2008’s General Social Survey of 20,000 Canadians done by Stats Canada. “While both renters and owners are less likely to vote municipally than federally or provincially,” they found, “the difference between the turnout rates of renters and owners is greatest at the municipal level.” And this, they wrote, “could potentially leave renters with little influence at the local level.”
They also researched attitudes towards social housing by delving into a 1978-1979 Urban Concerns Survey of 11,000 people conducted by York University (explaining that this data, while dated, “is the most recent of its kind.”) It suggested 52 per cent of homeowners view social housing as negative, compared to 32 per cent of renters. Though most city “residents have a tendency to view the construction of new social housing unfavourably,” they argued, “homeowners are particularly unsupportive.”
Spicer explained it to me like this: “If a city decides to put a garbage dump across from your house you just lost a significant amount of value that you can’t recover because your asset isn’t as desirable." To many city residents, but especially to homeowners, he went on, there is a perception that social housing also lowers property values. (Though in reality the data suggests otherwise).
Evidence for the homevoter hypothesis exists in Vancouver. Hendren’s paper on voter turnout in the city, which we discussed above, found that neighbourhoods with higher proportions of renters, such as Mount Pleasant and Downtown, have fewer registered voters than neighbourhoods dominated by homeowners. This led Hendren to observe that “homeownership is positively correlated with voting.” High-turnout neighbourhoods with many homeowners, such as Shaughnessy or West Point Grey, tend to skew older and wealthier than the Vancouver average.
They also tend to be fervently opposed to policies that favour public investments over private profits. On May 1, 300 or so people gathered in Point Grey to protest taxes introduced by the provincial NDP government on homes that are worth over $3 million — part of which will fund schools. “It is simply class warfare,” said speaker David Tha. “Shame on you and your socialist pals,” said speaker Kim Spencer. “This sicko tax is a life sentence — a life sentence! — on all of us,” argued another speaker. Robert Angus wrote on the Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners’ Association site that the new taxes, along with the 2016 foreign buyers tax, “are founded on envy and racism. They have nothing to do with building a better society, any more than the race laws in Nazi Germany were designed to bring about a better society.”
Small voter shifts will matter
On a warm May afternoon a few days after the Point Grey protest, Jean Swanson held a press conference outside Vancouver City Hall. Swanson wanted to make sure the policies she had campaigned on in the byelection — including a rent freeze and mansion tax — remained in the public’s mind. TV journalists set up on the sidelines. Several dozen people gathered in the shade. A volunteer used a leaflet to shield his face from the sun. “The [wealth] gap is growing and it’s our job to close it because the people who maintain the status quo aren’t going to give up shit,” Audrey Siegl, a member of the Musqueam First Nation and a former COPE candidate, explained.
Swanson said the only way to close the wealth gap is by building political power for those on the losing end. “We need to be on the side of people who are suffering with enormous rents,” Swanson said, “not on the side of the property owners who make more money from property appreciation than from working. This means organizing with tenants, with everyone who knows this is unjust.” Swanson continued, “We’ll never win the city we need if we don’t ask for it, work together for it, fight for it.”
That battle, as we have seen, faces formidable obstacles. For it to succeed, people like Swanson need to convince renters, millennials, Indigenous people and others who have been screwed by the housing crisis to give up their cynicism about politics and turn out on election day in October with enough numbers and intensity to cancel out the influence of wealthier homeowners. Bob Penner, a prominent pollster who has worked with outgoing Vision Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, as well as dozens of election campaigns in Canada and the U.S., told me he doesn’t think it’s likely.
“I wouldn’t say there is a big left turn happening in Vancouver,” he said. “There’s lots of things those challenging for power in the election [from the left and right] will have to take into account, but it’s not going to be a simple matter to do so and gain any traction — certainly not as simple as some of them seem to think it will be.”
Still, the balance of municipal power in October will likely be decided by small shifts in turnout. So many candidates and political parties are competing in the upcoming civic election that “people could win with a very small percentage,” Simon Fraser University political science professor David Moscrop told The Star Vancouver.
I asked Sara Sagaii, a housing activist and co-ordinator on Swanson’s city council campaign, what this means for progressive candidates in the October civic election, especially considering that wealthy homeowners are unlikely to support them. “We know that we’re up against that,” she told me. “We’re not trying to collaborate, we’re not trying to appease them. The goal is to just get enough people to come out [on election day] because we are a majority, that’s what we know. The rich, even if all of them vote, they’re still going to be a minority.... So it becomes a game of numbers.”