Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

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

8 Responses

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  1. Stephen,

    I have great respect for Kris Olds, so I am not sure what the problem was with his lecture. We have corresponded (Kris and I) quite a few times and I find him very engaged in research, and very articulate. Do you know if he’s giving another lecture any time soon? I thought SFU City usually brings them for two lectures (one in Surrey and one at SFU Harbour Centre).


    January 22, 2008 at 5:52 pm

  2. I think the two centre thing is exceptional. Kris Olds complained throughout that he was jet lagged – but I have made the trip here from Wisconsin more than once without that effect. Now London is quite a different issue. He kept saying “its 4am” so perhaps that was where he was before Vancouver.

    Most people seemed to accept the analysis that these events are part of a larger agenda – but most seemed more interested in direct action than the engagement that Kris was talking about. He gets to the table with the proponents and tries to get them to do the right thing. Most of the ICC people seem to want to protest rather than work with the proponents – but maybe like us on the highway side of things they feel that engagement in the process does not bring about any real change.

    Stephen Rees

    January 22, 2008 at 6:35 pm

  3. I feel social housing has let many people down but thats because they have unrealistic demands. Social Housing was designed to help the less well off not the middle classess.

    Social Housing Ghetto

    January 23, 2008 at 4:17 am

  4. SHG – as your article makes clear, much of what you say is based on experience in Europe. Jane Jacobs was one of the strongest critics here of the US style “projects” which was mainly about the inadequacies of the single purpose, high rise buildings with no useful amenities. No more developments like those are being built and many have been demolished. In any event, there is now no social housing being built in Canada. In BC, as both federal and provinclal governments have no housing programmes, and that has been the case for some years. The cure for homelessness must include – indeed start with – housing. Public housing provision can be used as a demonstration project for urban development. The housing around south False Creek near Granville Island is a good example, but one that no-one has followed.

    Stephen Rees

    January 23, 2008 at 9:33 am

  5. Hi Stephen – very nice summary of the talk…thanks for this. I’m going to try and get the video I showed after the panel placed on YouTube – upon reflection I should have incorporated it into the talk given how well it humanizes the development process. I think you raise some excellent points, and in the end the message we are really trying to get across is that housing is a human right, and we need to look beyond local politics and narrow event planning challenges so as to ensure that the event is not used to generate negative impacts, especially for the urban poor. I also think we need to *engage* with the IOC as they set the conditions of the bid process, and subsequent development process. It might feel good to protest, and protests are needed in many cases, but action on other levels is also needed.

    I’d be happy to send on the slides if you wish.


    Kris (currently based in Paris)


    January 29, 2008 at 4:41 pm

  6. Well that is very generous of you! I hope that you enjoyed your (return) visit here – and I do empathize about jet lag. Whenever I come back from UK I take a few days to get sorted out, and would certainly not accept a speaking engagement during that time!

    The competition that evening was Howard Kunstler who was “sold out” in Vancouver the following Thursday and I have yet to see a report of that meeting!

    Stephen Rees

    January 29, 2008 at 5:04 pm

  7. Kris Olds has supplied me with pdf files of his slides. Please email me if you would like a copy (see the about page for how to do that.)

    Stephen Rees

    January 30, 2008 at 10:51 am

  8. Dang. I wish I had knew about this talk. I would have loved to have been there, and absorb in the discussion.

    Thanks for making this info available on your blog.


    March 26, 2008 at 12:36 pm

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