“We’re not eggs in an omelette, we are people”: Burnaby finally embraces inclusionary zoning, but it won’t stop demovictions and displacement

On Monday, July 23rd, Burnaby City Council unanimously passed a motion to develop a rental only zoning bylaw. The focus of Burnaby’s new policy is the Metrotown neighbourhood, where Mayor Derek Corrigan’s year-old “Downtown” Metrotown plan has targeted 3,000 units of affordable rental housing for demolition and redevelopment – a phenomenon that activists have tagged demovictions. The same Mayor who, for 8 years, has refused to force developers seeking rezonings to include rental or social housing in their massive condo towers as he organized mass displacement in Metrotown, is now bragging that his new rental housing bylaw will allow “the replacement of current rental units” in new towers.

The community struggle against demovictions – the City Hall organized mass displacement of 6,000 residents of the working-class Metrotown neighbourhood – has created a vacuum in the left field of Burnaby politics which is defining the City’s fall municipal election. But it would be a mistake to see the election as the cause of the vacuum. Three years ago, when the demovictions crisis was intensifying, Burnaby was not known for housing and anti-poverty activism. Mayor Corrigan was still known as a progressive, and activists referred to the city as the “Republic of Burnaby” because it was (and still is) an NDP stronghold at all levels of government.

The Metrotown struggle against displacement by demoviction has changed all that through persistent community organizing which has created a political pole far to the left of Corrigan’s NDP hegemony. The vacuum that Mayor Corrigan and Mayoral candidate Hurley are jostling to appear to fill is between the NDP’s development-at-all-cost City politics and the new uncompromisingly anti-eviction political pole set up in the streets and apartment buildings of Metrotown. Regardless of the electoral outcome, there is no doubt that Burnaby’s electoral landscape has been reset by the non-electoral, anti-demoviction movement.

This is not to say that either of the Mayoral pretenders are proposing measures that would stop market-driven displacement-by-demoviction. City governments do have the power to use inclusionary zoning as a brake, by declaring that they will only consider a rezoning application if it includes social housing that rents at welfare shelter rates, for example. That sort of inclusionary zoning mechanism is a way that a City can depress property prices and disincentivize condo developers from investing in old apartment buildings and demovicting tenants. But the inclusionary zoning policy that Corrigan has proposed is not a brake on the market. Corrigan’s rental zoning model is designed to still attract and award predatory developers. A garnish on demovictions, Corrigan’s rentals will be a tiny proportion of units in a condo tower that will rent at three times the rates of existing rental housing. As to what Hurley’s policy might mean specifically, no one can say because he’s been even more vague than Corrigan.

The answer to stopping demovictions is in the same power that forced the word demovictions into the mouths of Burnaby mayors – it is in the streets and doorways of the apartments facing down the developers and bailiffs.

Significance of Corrigan’s Apparent Shift

The Burnaby Now newspaper – under the control of a new, pro-developer editor – promoted this as a “major shift” in Mayor Corrigan’s redevelopment policies in Metrotown. The Now faithfully reproduced Mayor Corrigan’s election-time narrative that his turn to rental zoning is a result of Councillor Colleen Jordan “finding out” about new Provincial legislation that allows municipal governments to designate areas for the development of purpose-built rental apartments.  The Province’s Rental Tenure Zoning law came into effect on May 31st, two months before Councillor Jordan – who Mayor Corrigan celebrated for her single-minded advocacy for rental zoning – apparently discovered it. Far more likely is that the incumbent Council “found out” that a Mayoral competitor, Mike Hurley, was moving into the significant gap to the left of Mayor Corrigan on the question of demovictions and decided they could no longer afford to hold an obstinate course in their Metrotown bulldozer.

In late June, Mike Hurley, the independent opposition to incumbent Mayor Corrigan, stated that he may implement a moratorium on demovictions if elected. Hurley hedged this promise with qualifiers that it may not be possible to stop demovictions because of city contracts – not an encouraging sign about the durability of this election promise. Nevertheless, Hurley’s weak profession has proven enough to push Corrigan to counter it with his rental-only zoning motion passed by City Council. The election time promises that both Hurley and Corrigan have made demonstrate that community pressure has forced them to centre their political games on demoviction reform.

The demovictions crisis has become the primary issue of the Burnaby 2018 municipal election season. This is a significant political shift that would not have happened without the organizing and resistance of the working class and Indigenous tenants of the Metrotown neighbourhood. Through taking back public space with marches and chants, the disruption of the City’s rhetoric and council meetings, countless collective gatherings, and sharing and analyzing the origins of demovictions, residents of Metrotown have stood up against the system looking to destroy their homes. For all these years, the City of Burnaby has ignored all of the actions and demands of the community anti-demovictions movement. Corrigan has consistently referred callously to working class renters, proclaiming that “If you believe you want transit-oriented density, you have to make the hard decisions. And so it’s like if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” Corrigan sees working class renters as disposable, an easily eliminated obstacle in the way of his goals of luxury development. Corrigan has told Martin Fernandez, a working class renter demovicted from his home in Metrotown, that “people like Mr. Fernandez can’t live on prime real estate.” At a public hearing for a rezoning application in May, Mayor Corrigan responded to complaints from a renter facing demoviction by retorting, “I don’t have to look at you.” Corrigan has ignored every renter who speaks in opposition to rezoning applications at public hearings.

Working class, racialized, Indigenous renters, seniors and young families spend hours at public hearings at City Hall, overcome with distress and anger while Corrigan refuses to engage with the pain he has caused them. The NDP’s omnipotence in Burnaby’s City Council, Provincial Legislature, and Parliamentary seats has meant that the union movement and progressive forces in Burnaby have been lulled into silence against Corrigan’s demoviction policies. There is not even a pro-business or anti-NDP opposition in Burnaby’s civic politics because, as recognized by the Fraser Institute and the Goodman report, Burnaby is the most developer friendly city in BC.

Electoral opposition against Corrigan’s long rule has come from within the trade union movement, from Mike Hurley, a firefighter who came into conflict with the Mayor over a long union dispute. Neither Corrigan nor Hurley started the election with an aim to stop demovictions, but needing to define himself apart from Corrigan, Hurley has stepped into the space opened up by community struggle. But tenants from the neighbourhood who organize with the Stop Demovictions Burnaby campaign are skeptical of Corrigan’s claims and committed to their own self-directed resistance. Donna, who lives on Maywood Avenue explains: “I would like to believe him but I think we need to give Corrigan a run for his money. This promise is not going to mean anything.”

Crumbs to the poor: Election time politician posturing

Mayor Corrigan and Council are framing their proposed rental by-law as a product of their hard work and a change in provincial government, claiming that Burnaby was unable to stop demovictions before this change in legislation. This is a flat-out lie. The City of Burnaby has always had the power to stop demovictions by nature of the power they hold, through their ability to vote “no” to rezoning applications, which Corrigan is fully aware of.

In November 2016, at a public hearing to rezone a 3-storey apartment building for a condo tower, a speaker suggested that council use inclusionary zoning to require developers to include rental and social housing in their rezoned developments. Councilor Colleen Jordan jumped in and said they would not consider using such inclusionary zoning because, “that would cause a developer strike.” Councilor Nick Volkow said that if the City refused a rezoning then the developers would build 3-storey condos at existing zoning, which the City could not stop.

But the development industry is not interested in re-developing 3-storey rental buildings into luxury 3-storey condominiums. Burnaby’s sweeping year-old plan to increase allowable height and density in Metrotown reflects the interests of the development industry. Condo development corporations will continue to lobby for the right to build more profitable high-rises, which Council has always had the full power to refuse, regardless of provincial legislation.

The Province’s new rental district zoning laws do not change Burnaby’s power to condition or block condo rezoning applications, and it is not true that these new tools have inspired Corrigan’s turn to using inclusionary zoning to replace rental units demolished for condo towers. It is only when Corrigan and council’s position of power came under threat, because of demovictions being forced as an election topic by community organizing, that they had to shift their strategy to continue to profit, while appearing to look like they are not.

“Non market” does not mean affordable to Metrotown renters

Although the City of Burnaby is attempting to use rental-only zoning, this does not mean that the replacement housing will be affordable for demovicted tenants. Allan, a Metrotown resident, does not feel that these promises are enough, because “one to one – 177 units versus 33 [storeys] is not one to one. Corrigan says he ‘hopes’ there will be some non-market housing included. Sure, and I can hope to win the lottery tomorrow. Hoping is good but he needs to have a plan.”

Average market rents in the Metrotown neighbourhood are $962/month, roughly $500 less than the citywide average, because the older 3-storey apartments that still make up the majority of rentals in Metrotown have lower rents than newer buildings. Without guaranteeing that replacement rental units will be non-market and subsidized, rental units added to condo towers will be just as unaffordable to existing tenants as the condo units themselves and raise rents in Metrotown to or above the Burnaby average-.

There is one recent example of the sort of inclusionary zoning that Mayor Corrigan might have in mind for Metrotown. In the Spring, Corrigan’s council approved a condo-tower rezoning that is replacing 3 apartment buildings with a condo tower on Sussex Avenue in Metrotown and a second, shorter tower of entirely non-market units. Corrigan celebrated this development as a solution to the displacement and housing crisis in much the same way as he has boosted his new rezoning policy.

The non-market tower will include 124 non-market apartment units. These apartments do not have a tax dollar subsidy, so the rents in them will be be based upon an internal subsidy model, which has half of the units being rented at average market rents (currently $1500/month for a one bedroom) which subsidize the other half at about $900/month for a one bedroom. The subsidized units will need to be at BC Housing Income limits – which mandate that to qualify for a one bedroom, you can only spend one third of your income on rent. To even begin the application for these few units, single tenants will need to make roughly $32,400 per year – an income out of reach for the majority of current Metrotown tenants, where the average after-tax median income in 2015 was $29,000.

The subsidized and estimated market rents in Corrigan’s model non-market housing tower are both significantly higher than the rents in the old, low-end of market apartment buildings that were demolished, and where 43% of tenants already paid more than 30% of their incomes to rent and tended to live in cramped conditions with roommates in order to make rent at all.  If the Sussex Avenue non-market housing is a best-case example of the sort of housing Corrigan’s model of inclusionary zoning will produce, then it is not a replacement of existing affordable rental housing at all.

Business as usual: Corrigan continues to align himself with corporate developers

Implementing Corrigan’s model of inclusionary zoning in Burnaby will do nothing to make Metrotown less attractive to the development industry or to lessen the power of these massive corporations over tenant’s lives and destinies. To sweeten the deal of adding rental housing to condo towers without provoking a “developer strike,” other Cities have subsidized the cost of including rental housing by offering developers extra heights and density so that including rental units won’t cut into condo profits. Vancouver, for example, has also counted the inclusion of rental or social housing as a community amenity contribution instead of developers paying into a City housing fund or contributing land for a park. Given Corrigan’s approach to zoning rental housing into developments as an addition rather than an impediment to the market, it is likely his council will take such subsidizing approaches.

Corrigan’s inclusionary zoning is not being used to discourage investment and luxury condominium development, but instead is being used to stabilize the political and therefore investment climate. Since Corrigan’s policies will not cause developers to suffer a loss of profits, Metrotown will remain prime for potential investment. Overall the private real estate market will suffer no harms from this policy change. The neighbourhood will still be a sea of luxury high-rise condominiums, with high-priced rental and a token number of non-market rental units included.

Metrotown is a working class neighbourhood

According to the 2011 census, which best describes the condition of Metrotown before aggressive gentrification began, 91% of the Maywood neighbourhood was renters. Although Council is promising to maintain the number of rental units in the neighbourhood with a “one-to-one” replacement policy where any apartment unit demolished is replaced with a unit in a condo tower, they will not limit the number of condo units in their developments, which will result in the ratio of owners to renters shifting dramatically. The working class character of the neighborhood remains under attack. Already, long-term residents of the neighbourhood say they are experiencing changes that are making them feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the community, such as heightened racism. Rather than a simple one-to-one replacement policy, Burnaby must use what city planners call a “rate of change” mechanism to protect the working class and majority-tenant character of their home neighbourhood.

Corrigan promises that every apartment torn down will be replaced by a new rental unit and that demovicted tenants will get the first opportunity to move back into these new units, but even if displaced tenants can afford the new apartments, Corrigan has not presented a plan for what will happen to these tenants while these new buildings are being built. Will demovicted tenants be moved into temporary housing, or will they be scattered and then expected to find their way back years later after construction is complete? Will demovicted tenants be prioritized for replacement units or will they will have to compete with potential tenants from other areas in order to move back in?

“We’re not eggs in an omelette, we are people:” Refusing displacement by Corrigan’s inclusionary zoning condo development

Linda, a Metrotown resident active in the Stop Demovictions Burnaby campaign, sees the power in grassroots resistance. She said, “Now Corrigan is going to be held accountable and I am hopeful. We needed this change because it means we are having an impact. We can’t give up hope. Not everything is easy but we need to keep fighting the fight because it is worth it. We are not eggs in an omelette you know. We are people. We are families with kids and we need to live somewhere – that is essential.”

Current residents refuse to be thrown out of their community, even temporarily. Instead they must be guaranteed security and a home in their neighborhood. They are fighting for a guarantee that Metrotown remains over 90% rentals, accessible at the rents residents are currently paying. They are fighting to direct the future of their community. Until then, Stop Demovictions Burnaby and residents of Metrotown who join together to fight evictions will continue to build power outside of the capitalist and colonial system to fight for our communities. In the last three years, the movement against demovictions has reset the political terrain in Burnaby and made tenant’s issues an election issue. The next step for that movement will be to step up, confront, and overthrow the property laws that make demovictions and development corporation profits possible.

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