Monday Mar 18

Northern Light: Stopping Demovictions in British Columbia

It's always good to have a clear reminder about why you organize. Recent success for ACORN’s “Stop Demovictions” campaign in Burnaby, British Columbia served up a great reminder of this. With the recent and stunning victory of Firefighters (IAFF) Vice President Mike Hurley over incumbent mayor Derek Corrigan, the campaign to save a massive apartment neighborhood in Vancouver’s closest suburb got a huge shot in the arm.

Low-to-moderate income people are not properly represented in political institutions. Any new- to -the -movement activist gets that. What is more misunderstood is that the progressive, or left, political parties also do not properly represent poor people either.

The clearest example I’ve witnessed of this is the Burnaby Civic Association (BCA) and their disastrous policy of mass evictions and redevelopment, or “ demovictions.”

The BCA is a municipal party with deep ties to the provincial New Democratic Party (BC-NDP) - you need to be a member of the BC-NDP to be a member of the BCA. The BCA has had a remarkable run at power, sweeping all council seats in the last several elections. Themayor, Derek Corrigan, routinely won elections with up to 68 percent of the vote; was deemed untouchable; in control of the City and certainly this municipal political party. Backed by labor unions and middle-class homeowners the BCA provided so-called good government. Canada’s progressive elite saw it as a model to follow. Poor people were forced to know better.

Derek Corrigan seems to have had an active disdain towards poor people, which led to his disastrous housing policies, and finally to his spectacular loss. Once, when there was a push for Burnaby to get a homeless shelter built, Corrigan made the bizarre statement that homeless people are the type of people who would steal your gold teeth right out of your mouth. Corrigan went out of his way to not represent poor people.

At the same time, the condo boom in Metro Vancouver was something that Corrigan and the BCA did not want to miss out on. Developers had aspirations to raze the massive and relatively affordable apartment neighborhood south of the Metrotown Mall, replacing it with higher density condos, and Corrigan decided to champion this.

Soon after his re-election in 2014 Corrigan began work to up-zone the entire neighborhood, paving the way for mass redevelopment. This allowed developers, who were now buying up the modest three-story walkup apartments that dominate the area, to get rubber-stamp approval to demolish the apartments and build condos into the sky.

Corrigan’s plan did not even include half-baked rental replacement rules to help tenants. It was on the tenants alone to find a new place at a cost they could afford—an impossible task.

ACORN and allied organizations fought the up-zoning and new Metrotown Downtown Plan. One of the activist groups’ organizers squatted at a building slated for demolition and got great publicity. ACORN members packed council meetings, committee meetings, and rezoning hearings for years.

Several buildings were torn down over the last council term with over 700 tenants being displaced. Countless media events and actions took place with no effect on saving the apartments nor on policy changes at Burnaby City Hall. It was having an effect on Corrigan’s popularity though, unbeknownst to him.

Throughout this process the only prominent NDP figure that stood up to say anything against any of this was longtime ACORN friend, David Eby, who is now the Attorney General for the province. No one else did. Not Burnaby federal Member of Parliament Peter Julian, or former ACORN organizer and former BCA councillor (and current member of the provincial legislature) Katrina Chen. Not Corrigan’s old friend, and now BC Premier, John Horgan. And no, not the newly elected Mayor of Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart, who long represented Burnaby South federally. They all may have raised concerns in private with Corrigan, but not one of them thought it was worth any political risk over. Telling.

As the 2018 election approached, ACORN began approaching long time BCA allies asking them to support a call for a moratorium on “demovictions”. With the public backlash against Corrigan growing with every eviction, it was thought that Corrigan could be forced to stop rezoning and demolitions for at least the period of time leading up to the election. More importantly, it allowed ACORN to get longtime BCA-supportive unions to sign on to the call for a moratorium, splitting the BCA historic base right before an election.

The first union to sign on was ACORN’s long-time ally the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU). A small but vocal, teachers’ assistants’ union at Simon Fraser University followed them. Finally, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 23, which represents Burnaby’s municipal workers, voted to support the ACORN’s moratorium call.

Cracks in the BCA’s base had formed, momentum had swung over to tenants and Corrigan was forced to halt rezoning hearings till after the elections. Mind you, the celebration was muted by the reality that Corrigan was still the favorite to win the election.

Separate from ACORN’s campaign, but one can presume aligned with the fact that Corrigan was out of touch and arrogant, was the crucial falling-out he had with the local firefighters’ union. Nothing is certain here, but it does not appear to be a coincidence that right after Corrigan decided to play some hardball in contract negotiations, the firefighters’ Sixth District Vice President, Mike Hurley decided to run against Corrigan.

Hurley was new to ACORN issues, but leaders in Burnaby convinced Hurley that championing the Stop Demoviction campaign was the right this to do, and also his best pathway to victory.

Soon after, ACORN’s political action committee formally endorsed a set of Stop Demoviction candidates: Hurley for Mayor, Green Party candidates (led by Joe Keithley – aka Joey Shithead of the punk band DOA) and some lesser-known independent candidates.

A week before the election, ACORN released a report called “Tenant Displacement Specialists”. The report explored how developers hire so-called Tenant Relocation Specialists whose service is to get tenants to move out of the buildings in advance of the rezoning applications. Essentially developers were hiring outreach workers to trick tenants to move out of their rent-controlled apartments, clearing out opposition to rezoning applications that are in the works. In some buildings ACORN revealed that over 50 percent of the units sit vacant despite never getting approval for rezoning.

The press attention garnered by the report was good. ACORN’s Murray Martin - who did much of the work leading and planning the campaign - skillfully got the Global BC TV crew to interview him in front of a building that was in the process of being demolished. The visuals fitted the story, and it showed the stench of Corrigan’s housing policies less than a week before election day. Election night came and Hurley won by a staggering 12 percent.

ACORN even got a win on council with Joe Keithley managing to take one council seat from BCA. Both declared in their victory speeches that stopping demovictions was a top priority.

Observers outside of Burnaby who were not paying much attention to the election were stunned. Political columnists wrote in their post mortem the day after that the demovictions, and the campaign to stop them, were the main reasons for Corrigan’s loss.

A day after his inauguration, newly-elected Mayor Hurley invited ACORN to his new and empty office for an early morning meeting. There he again pledged his commitment to ACORN’s cause and offered Murray Martin a key seat on his new Housing Taskforce Committee.

Amazingly, against all odds, ACORN now has a shot at saving a working-class neighborhood. This proves that real work sometimes does lead to real results and that if we leave it to others to represent our interests we are almost always going to lose.

John Anderson is the Field Director for ACORN. Since 2004 John has helped to develop the ACORN Canada operations in Toronto, Ontario, and British Columbia. He is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg.

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