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Archive for January 22nd, 2008

Hallmark Events & Impacts on Housing

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I went last night to the SFU City Program lecture by Kris Olds

He started his research into this issue during Expo86 in Vancouver, and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He said he found that Vancouver was still the same as it was then in its approach to the 2010 Olympics.

“Fairplay for Housing Rights” is a significant report (free download of large pdf file) by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) supported by the Geneva International Academic Network (GIAN)

COHRE is an NGO founded in 1986 that has followed a large number of mega events. The report is largely funded by Swiss federal money – since the IOC is based in Geneva, the Swiss government is concerned about how its activities reflect on the Swiss. The intention of COHRE is to provide “grounded views and new voices”, so it is not simply a protest movement but rather a way to engage with the promoters of these events and get them to improve their performance. The aim is to “scale up human rights to an international basis”. Dr Olds noted that the record of Olympics at places like Seoul and Atlanta displayed a lack of ethics which was contrary to the spirit of “Olympism”. The approach adopted is “pragmatic but past the status quo”.

Large scale events include things like Worlds Fairs, and even the Miss Universe contest. Any event conceived as a way to put a city on the map. These events offer the chance to “re-imagine the city” and are popular with elites. Typically there is nearly always a debate of “boosters vs critics” – for they become mechanisms for development, a way to consolidate agendas and paths, which tends to set the city on a different course, where catering to the event becomes more important than meeting the basic needs of its citizens. Housing impacts from redevelopment tend to be magnified by these events, with displacement and forced evictions, a rise in housing costs, a reduction in the supply of low cost housing and “cleansing to remove the homeless” (In Atlanta, homelessness was criminalized.) Nearly always there are special measures to deal with minorities and the disadvantaged. For example the removal of Roma (also known as Romanies or gypsies) in Athens or the 720,000 people removed from the Seoul Olympic sites, accompanied by violent repression.

The negative impacts are felt by the poor. But COHRE is concentrating on the clear human rights violations. The right to adequate housing is protected by international law – conventions that the host nations have signed on to. These state that if evictions occur there must be due process. COHRE takes the view that we should not only hold governments accountable but also the ‘organs of society’ which includes the sponsors of events, municipalities and professional bodies that regulate the work done on event sites. All these bodies are required to “respect, protect and fulfill” the obligations to human rights of inhabitants of the impacted areas. While this duty is primarily that of the state it also includes the IOC and VANOC , since they are bound by their stated aims of Olympism as expressed by the Olympic charter and OM Agenda 21. COHRE advocates, monitors and speaks about these issues, moving to a global scale and involving the people promoting events.

The lecture was followed by a panel, and unfortunately the introductions were so hurried that I was unable to transcribe the names and affiliations. The event was organised by the Impact on communities coalition and the panel was therefore representative of that organisation.

Someone from the Pivot Legal Society noted that 800 units of single residential occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms have already been lost and a further 600 are under threat. He noted that there has been an increase in policing, the “Downtown Ambassadors” are essentially private security firms hired to move the homeless out of the area. A community court has been introduced but there are no additional services being provided, even though the aim of the court is to redirect people away from custodial sentences to rehabilitation and so on. CSIS has raided Olympic protesters, and gives them an equivalent status to racist skinheads. There has been a decrease in social housing since the province is not in fact not renting out the units it took over and the lost units from ten buildings and the closure of hotels is due to the idea that they will be renovated sometime, although no plans are available at present.

The next speaker saw that the current failure was part of the international rise of neoliberalism. Decision making, he said, was being shifted away from local communities. “Gentrification” is being portrayed as somehow organic, the inevitable rebuilding of neighbourhoods. This process has reduced ability of existing residents of neighbourhoods (especially tenants) to affect the process.

A young interning architect made a point about the way that the province simply issued contracts to three large firms and contrasted that with the way work on the Millennium Line stations was awarded to a different firm for each. She thought that this was to “consolidate the agenda”. The problem she said was that “innovations are seen as temporary, they don’t get ingrained”. Furthermore when everything is a “P3 back room deal” there is no chance of any public input. She felt that it was significant that there will be no public art on the Canada Line. She saw this as “an erosion of ideas”.

The next speaker said the homeless panhandlers were simply “in the way” – an embarrassment. In fact these public realm issues were the result of failed government policies such as the cancellation of social housing projects. He felt that all the government has done is restart projects cancelled earlier.

The Carnegie Community Action Project is going to organise a “Poverty Olympics” in the downtown eastside

And finally a Geography Professor from UBC said that he has a “4 step model to displace displacement”

By this time I confess that my note taking was tailing off. Petitions were circulated, and email lists compiled, and a film was shown that had been made in Seoul – which I did not stay to watch.

This was quite a departure from the usual SFU lecture format – and the City program seems to be becoming more activist in its orientation. I had chosen this meeting over another at Surrey SFU, and I cannot help wondering if I made the right choice. But at the same time, I do think the Olympics are a distraction – intentionally so – that fits the agenda to press ahead with developments like the widening of the Sea to Sky Highway, the extension to the Convention Centre and the Canada Line, none of which would otherwise stand up to rigorous analysis. ‘We must have it in the bid book,’ they said, ‘if we are to get the games.’ And once they got the games, they had to be built and quickly. But that meant not only do they cost far more than they need to, but the really important bits – what do we need to make our region livable, what should we do first in a long list of needs to move in a more sustainable direction, what do people in the region and the affected areas think – were all glossed over very quickly.

Come to think of it – do Whistler and Vancouver need to be “on the map” – “reinvented” – aren’t we supposed to be “the best place on earth” already? It certainly cannot be about property prices as they are as high as can be now.

Because that is the one “take home” I got from the evening. Housing policy should be about fundamental human rights to habitation. Not property speculation. And Canada has already signed the conventions committing us to that – so why are we mucking about with a two week snow festival?

Written by Stephen Rees

January 22, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Posted in housing, Olympics

Transportation forum planned

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Paul J. Henderson, Chilliwack Times

Monday, January 21, 2008

Supporters of public transportation in the Fraser Valley unhappy with the recent $14 billion provincial government transit plan have organized a forum to be held tomorrow to discuss the matter.

One of the forum organizers suggested the recent funding announcement, while attractive on the surface, does little for residents this side of the Port Mann Bridge.

“There is a glaring absence of anything substantial for the area south of the Fraser,” commented Daniel van der Kroon via e-mail. “In a region where the number of cars is eerily close to the number of people, what is really needed is cost-effective rapid transit (such as on-the-ground rail to Chilliwack) that anticipates growth before it is shaped by the automobile rather than after the region has become entirely car dependent.”

In a recent exchange on a radio talk show, another organizer of the event John Vissers, said Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon essentially dismissed the transit needs of Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

“When I asked [Falcon] on radio why the Fraser Valley, home to over a quarter million people, and growing rapidly, was left out of the new Transportation Plan, he remarked ‘well, 250,000 people is just not enough to spend transit dollars on.'”

In a news release announcing the forum, organizers suggest the recent announcement of funding dollars does little to address expanded transit services in the Fraser Valley, which “are critical components in creating a sustainable region.”

The UCFV environment club is the host of the event entitled “Gateway Debate: A public form on sustainable transportation for the Fraser Valley.”

The meeting will feature a panel of interested parties including John van Dongen, MLA for Abbotsford-Clayburn and Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations, who will discuss the provincial plan. This will be followed by an open microphone question-and-answer session.

Other panelists include: Stephen Rees, transportation economist and regional planner; Nathan Pachal of the Valley Transportation Advisory Committee; Jim Houlahan, vice president of Canadian Auto Workers Union Local 111; and David Fields of the Society Promoting Ecological Conservation.

The forum will be held Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. in room B101 (Lecture Hall) at the Abbotsford UCFV campus, 33844 King Rd.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 22, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Railway

Drivers should pay more road tolls, gas levies and congestion charges: study

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Canadian Press

“People are now recognizing that something has to be done,” said Trent University economics professor Harry Kitchen, who wrote the study commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario.

“There is a general consensus that charging the users makes the most sense.”

I put that link in – because it is the source of the study that I find newsworthy. What they say of course is common sense. What is surprising is who is paying for this to be said. Of course the construction sector wants to build things – and they think there needs to be “massive transportation investment”. But the study also says it is about reducing congestion and making better use of what is already there. And typically, the Ontario government has locked itself into a stance that says, just like BC, no tolls on existing roads, and the gas tax is good enough. Both lacking in elementary economic sense. Once again opinions based on dogma and not rational examination of the alternatives. The NDP also makes the very good point that before the tolls are applied you need real alternatives for those priced off. I suspect that the use of the word “transportation” by the RCCAO means “roads” with a few more buses as a sop to the PC crowd – or a bit of greenwash GO transit service. A somewhat older press release has Dick Soberman warning of the consequences of not getting the “population density forecasts contained in the province’s Places To Grow policy” . Now I have a lot of time for Dick – mainly because he is a very entertaining speaker, someone who can brighten up the dullest transportation conference (and some I have attended have been very dull indeed).

There is also this quote which is also revelaing

The Environmental Assessment process has become “one of the surest means of ensuring that nothing gets done,” says the report. The provincial government should streamline the process to reduce costs and accelerate decision-making.

Which of course has already been done in BC to the delight of the road builders. Our EA is one of the surest means of ensuring that any project no matter how badly designed and damaging to the environment will proceed with impunity.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 22, 2008 at 12:00 pm