Possibilities emerging beyond a “Real Estate State”

Academics and housing activists meet in Vancouver for a discussion of the limits and potentials of urban planning around for-profit real estate

On Tuesday May 21st, The Mainlander and Vancouver Tenants Union co-hosted a panel featuring Samuel Stein, author of the recently published Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. The panel focused on the role of municipal government (particularly urban planning) and real estate finance in housing struggles, and took the form of a conversation between Sam Stein and local housing activists Sydney Ball, Nat Lowe, and Nate Crompton.

Sam started off by arguing that the potential of urban planning can be is limited by capitalist economies. Capitalist economies, he explained, demand free markets, but necessarily rely on some degree of centralized planning, coordination, and infrastructure. Urban planning comes in as a tool that not only ensures the profitability of land for real estate capital, but also helps maintain the consent of communities included in the public by appearing somewhat democratic. Stein argues that this means activists should get involved in community-based planning not to bureaucratically manage class conflict, but to accentuate it.

The panelists then began to speak to their various organizing struggles. One theme that stood out to me that each of them spoke to was barriers to pushing forth a radical message. Syndey Ball, who is on the steering committee of the Vancouver Tenant’s Union (VTU), spoke to how a “new class of activists”—YIMBYs who advocate for condo and market rental developments and NIMBYs who fight against non-market housing—are obscuring the VTU’s message of a “right to housing” and therefore limiting the possibilities of the local housing struggle.

Nat Lowe, who organizes with renters in Chinatown, spoke about the corrosive impact of “cultural revitalization”, a term that sounds nice but serves as a “planning tool of racial capitalism.” His example of this problem was that the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation has been a champion of the cultural revitalization of Chinatown, and after the city was embarrassed by the repeated defeats of a Beedie application to develop condos at 105 Keefer, the city formed a “Chinatown Transformation Team”, composed largely of the same planners who spent years gentrifying Chinatown. The Chinatown Transformation Team, argued Lowe, is a strategy to manage resistance by repackaging gentrification as the revitalization of Chinese culture.

The panelists also addressed the foreign investment narrative, which has been escalating and expanding to include not only real estate and foreign buyers, but more recently, money laundering, organized crime, and the opioid crisis as well. Nate Crompton, a housing activist and historian, argued that responding to the foreign investment-money laundering narrative is a central question for activists, who have a responsibility to understand how local forces are central to speculation. He blamed the NDP for raising a new generation of people who cling to this narrative in order to understand the housing crisis, and suggested that the recently-announced public inquiry into money laundering is revitalizing the dying war on drugs.

I was glad that each panelist addressed the money laundering narrative, as Sam’s framework of the “real estate state” is easily appropriated for racist, imperial ends. The description of a book talk hosted the same night at SFU, for example, describes Sam’s work as showing that “this explosive transformation of urban life and politics has been driven not only by the tastes of wealthy newcomers, but by the state-led process of urban planning” [emphasis added]. A review published by Elvin Wyly in the Space and Society journal also uses the book to amplify the foreign investment narrative, arguing that we should read the book in the context of Chinese foreigners buying property in Vancouver, as well as Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s detention, which he suggests is “a glimpse of the new real estate state.” Aside from mentioning that she owns two mansions, it’s unclear to me how Meng Wanzhou has anything to do with the “real estate state.” Huawei, the US-China trade war, and Canada’s role in it seems to me to be about inter-imperial competition and western anxieties about China.

The panel foreshadowed some of the work that remains to be done for the radical left in a way that left me feeling optimistic. The questions we need to answer are big, and they require developing concrete analyses not just of capitalism, but colonialism and imperialism as well. The panel raised a number of theoretical and strategic issues: how do we best combat the nationalism and racism that the sinophobic money laundering narrative stokes? What is the relationship between property forms (public or private) and settler-colonialism? What is the bigger goal that we are ultimately inspired by and fighting for? The work of answering these questions now will only make our movements stronger and clearer, and my sense was that people who attended the panel seemed hungry for radical ideas and actions, reinforcing Nat’s speculation that a revolutionary situation is on the horizon.

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