Politics are happening in the streets not in city hall: Lessons from Burnaby’s anti-demovictions election

The following is based on Cecile Revaux’s talk at Alliance Against Displacement’s panel on BC’s municipal elections, “About that White Progressive Sweep”, and is part of The Volcano’s primer on Metro Vancouver’s 2018 civic elections.

I’m going to talk about what has been happening in the Burnaby neighbourhood of Metrotown over the past five years. As some of you might know, after 16 years as a mayor, Derek Corrigan lost the municipal elections on October 20th.

Not only did he lose them against a candidate that had never run for office—independent candidate and retired firefighter Mike Hurley—but people massively rejected him: he was defeated by 6,000 votes, with a bigger voting turnout than the preceding election. This came as a complete surprise for someone used to winning by 20,000 votes for the last decade of municipal elections. So, what happened?

I argue that the street-based social movement against demovictions was the force that created a space to the left of Corrigan for an opponent to fill with their election promise. Mike Hurley was the politician who seized this opportunity with a watered down version of our demands. In this context, Corrigan’s loss is an interesting case study in the power of social movements to create political alternatives. It was Metrotown tenants’ refusal to cater to City Hall that changed the electoral landscape of Burnaby. During this talk, I’m going to present to you the role of Stop Demovictions Burnaby in the fight back against the mass evictions in Metrotown and elaborate on the impact this movement had on City Hall and electoral politics.

Stop Demovictions Burnaby and the Metrotown Displacement Plan

A rally organized by Stop Demovictions Burnaby marches through Metrotown in protest of mass evictions.

To begin, I can start by sharing what has been happening in Metrotown.

If in Metro Vancouver we mostly hear about the renovictions that threaten renters, people living in the Metrotown neighbourhood of Burnaby massively face demovictions—another iteration of the same crisis where the people who own the land organize the displacement of renters to replace purpose-built rental apartments with condominium towers. In the last five years it has been demovictions that have been sprawling in the Metrotown area: 763 units have been demolished so far and 689 more are in the process of rezoning. Approximately 3,000 units of low-end of market apartment homes are in the zone that the City of Burnaby has designated for replacement by condos. While most other cities in Metro Vancouver were adding rentals to their housing stock, Burnaby lost 712 rentals units in the last seven years.

This process reached its peak with the passing of the Metrotown Downtown Plan (MDP) last year. Before the plan, buildings could only be three storeys high. If developers wanted to build giant towers of luxury housing, they had to make a costly application to City Hall to rezone the lot in order to make it possible to build high rises.

In 2017, Burnaby City Council, run by Derek Corrigan and a council of BCA members (Burnaby Citizen Association—aligned with the BC NDP) approved the MDP, defining blanket guidelines to rezone the entire Metrotown neighbourhood to expedite the demoviction of every single low-rise apartment of the Metrotown area. The MDP affects around 3,000 units of low-income and fairly affordable housing, which means that around 7,000 people have been or are facing uncertainty about how long they will be able to stay in their homes.

The city planners authors of this plan do not say where people will go once their homes are torn apart. The consequences of the plan were immediately disastrous for the community:

The passage of the Metrotown plan tripled the land value of the neighbourhood’s buildings in one night, adding another incentive for developers to focus on Metrotown. With the land value going up, the property taxes increased, pressuring smaller landlords to sell to corporate developers, both because they could not afford to keep their property and for the massive cheques offered by the big development companies. In this game, everybody wins except the thousands of people who built their lives in these homes. The plan also allows developers to displace these inconvenient people more easily by de facto rezoning the entire neighbourhood. Along with the increase of land value, this drove up rents, making even the old units of housing unaffordable.

Stand up, fight back!

Now imagine if this had happened under a right wing government. Unions and progressive groups would have formed a coalition with the NDP against the Metrotown demovictions, calling out the disastrous process where thousands of people lost their homes for the profit of developers. They would have led marches and wrote op-eds about how right wing parties are a threat to people and justice and the need to fight back.

But they didn’t. Because Corrigan and his Burnaby Citizens Association (BCA) are the NDP. They are the ones that led this plan. If they did anything, it was limited to arguing inside their own Party. Mike Hurley emerged as an alternative to Corrigan, but from the same circles—which is why the BCA still has the majority on council but Hurley is mayor. Hurley represents a shift in the tone and pace of development that leaves the existing structure of power and the fundamentals of the Metrotown Plan unchanged. This dynamic explains both the limits imposed on change by an NDP electoral politics and why Metrotown renters were on their own to build a movement without any institutional support.

Amidst the silence of so-called progressives, the people living in Metrotown tried every possible outlet to politicize their frustrations and anxieties about the destruction of their homes. They rallied at each public hearing presenting a building about to be demovicted, both inside the council chamber and outside, sharing their stories and demanding City Hall not approve rezoning projects that would throw them into a housing market with almost no vacancies and rents often $500 higher—if not more—than their current apartments.

All of this was in vain. Every time, despite the number of heart-wrecking stories shared, Council stayed silent in front of the renters—sometimes even mocking them—until the Mayor and Council voted unanimously in favour of the projects. These interactions made people quickly realize what a masquerade City Hall is, and the necessity to organize outside of it.

The cause of evictions lies in capitalist and colonial systems of power: as long as they exist, no one is safe from displacement

So what does this have to do with electoral politics? Our experience campaigning with Stop Demovictions Burnaby led us to realize that as long as systems of power rely on the commodification of our housing to make profit, then evictions, displacement, and the daily reality of families losing their homes will continue.

City Halls, whether Burnaby or Vancouver, are not mandated to stop evictions, they are mandated to administer real estate and other markets that are premised on land theft and ownership. The City of Burnaby is built on the land of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Squamish, Qayqayt, and Kwikwetlem nations and City Hall supports the interests of property owners who extralegally claim these lands. Most of the City’s revenue comes from property taxes based on these claims. Councillors are also mostly land and home owners. They will never initiate changes against their own interests. This is why renters need to fight evictions collectively and organize to stay in their own homes—because the City refuses to intervene in the market. It is only through the rise of a social movement, like the one led by Metrotown renters, that the City has backed up a bit, announcing a moratorium on demovictions with the election of Mike Hurley.

This moratorium is a good example of the relations between the fight Stop Demovictions led in the streets and the possibilities within City Hall. Like the inclusionary zoning proposed by Corrigan, it will be too limited and narrow to adequately address the crisis. We will just get gentrification at a slower pace.

Mike Hurley appropriated our work to build his campaign. He used our words, like “demoviction” and “moratorium,” and our images (his campaign used an image we published of a banner we made calling Corrigan out for demovictions, without crediting us) while watering down our message in order to get elected. Hurley used part of our political message but left out our emphasis on the ongoing war on the poor.

Organizing outside of electoral politics is the source of our power

Activists and Burnaby residents at a “paint in” of a building slated for demoviction

Some say that having political allies in City Hall might slightly alleviate the weight of life for some under capitalism, but it is important to realize it was only through the rise of a social movement that the City retreated from its ‘Downtown Metrotown at all costs’ policy, and Corrigan lost his job. Winning a thin moratorium on demovictions is not a victory we can rest on. The demoviction monster lost his place in the Mayor’s chair but the Council is still filled with the same BCA councillors who supported Corrigan in his displacement frenzy. Thousands of people are still facing displacement.

We cannot limit ourselves to the narrow options City Hall has to offer. The demands of Stop Demovictions Burnaby have always been created by what the people in our movement and the neighbourhood needed. At a press conference in October, two days before the elections, we called upon the next mayor to use the gigantic surplus Burnaby holds in their community development fund ($1.265 billion—coming directly from the developers) to finance the construction of non-market, tenant-controlled, permanent housing for the people displaced from Metrotown and beyond. The surplus could be used to disrupt the cycle of astronomical rents and near-zero vacancy rates that has pushed thousands of people out of their homes, many into homelessness. Our demands focused especially on urban Indigenous people. More than 30% of the homeless in BC are Indigenous people while they only make up 7% of the population. We said Burnaby’s surplus is an opportunity to end Indigenous homelessness, and create badly-needed Indigenous cultural and mothers’ centres in this city.

Corrigan’s defeat should be celebrated by people involved in the fight for housing justice, because it is thanks to people relentlessly organizing for the last four years that his position was challenged. Our actions and reflections in this campaign stimulated our political imagination to fight for a different system: one where the land is not a commodity to sell, but is shared and respected by the communities living on it.

Would we have succeeded in pushing our narratives by limiting ourselves to the narrowness of council chambers? I don’t think so. It is through the marches, occupations, squats, door-knocking, monthly town halls, and analysis that we built a movement strong enough to combat the feeling of inevitable eviction and defeat that plagued renters. Organizing outside of electoral politics is what gave Stop Demovictions Burnaby its strength. A new mayor have been elected but our homes are still on the chopping block. We know the next mayor will be embedded in the same system that relies on commodifying the land and our relations for the profit of a few. When we celebrate Corrigan’s defeat, we are celebrating the power of the people: that this electoral outcome is the result of people allowing themselves to imagine and push for another world. It is in the streets where that new world will emerge—the politicians can only chase us.

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