«It’s not that some people shouldn’t be heard. We’re going to hear from homeowners no matter what … But I can see renters’ issues getting lost.»
Tenant advocates are alarmed and confused over a proposed move they say would reduce the voice of Vancouver’s renters at city hall, during a rental-housing crisis.
Vancouver’s Renters Advisory Committee was established in December 2014 under the previous mayor and council “to advocate for renters and renters issues to the City of Vancouver and other levels of government.”
By many accounts the committee was successful over the past four years in elevating the concerns of renters, a group who make up just over half of Vancouver’s population, but have been under-represented in the corridors of power and, advocates say, in civic engagement, much of which has historically been dominated by homeowners.
But a report on Wednesday’s council agenda would effectively end the committee.
The Vancouver Charter allows council to set up advisory bodies as it sees fit. They’re comprised of members of the public selected by council, and operate under terms of reference approved by council.
The city’s advisory bodies under the previous council included the renters’ advisory committee as well as committees for seniors, urban Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and the LGBTQ2+ communities.
Those committees were all discharged last November after the 2018 civic election, which is the standard practice as set out by the charter, allowing each new council to set up its own advisory bodies.
“These advisory committees, they’re basically a reflection of the current council’s values, in terms of who they want to hear from,” said Karen Sawatzky, past chairwoman of the renters’ advisory committee.
The report on Wednesday’s council agenda recommends the continuation of most of the previously existing bodies, including the LGBTQ2+ advisory committee and seniors advisory committee.
But for the renters’ advisory committee, the report proposes it be “restructured to incorporate the city’s current priorities on housing and housing affordability,” and renamed the “Affordable Housing Advisory Committee,” with its membership a mix of renters and homeowners.
To Sawatzky and others this represents a concerning way of minimizing the voice of renters at city hall at a time when “there is still a bias against renters … and they are kind of seen like second-class citizens.”
“What’s the justification for getting rid of the renters’ advisory committee?” Sawatzky asked. “As a renter, I would like to hear from council to tell renters why they don’t think that’s necessary anymore.”
OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle chaired the nominations committee, and worked alongside Green Coun. Michael Wiebe and NPA Coun. Rebecca Bligh to reconstitute the city’s resident advisory committees.
Boyle said Tuesday: “I know the renters committee was very valuable, and were it just up to me, I would want the renters committee to continue.”
But, Boyle said, the proposal before council Wednesday to discontinue the renters committee and move forward with a new body was the result of “cross-partisan compromise,” because some other councillors had wanted to establish a separate “homeowners or property-owners committee.”
Sawatzky isn’t a fan of that idea.
“On what basis could a ‘homeowners advisory committee’ possibly be justified in a city where it’s so expensive to buy a home?” Sawatzky asked. “How could anyone justify creating an official city advisory committee where the membership criteria was having that level of wealth? I find that crazy.”
Boyle declined to answer which councillors supported creating a property-owners committee, but said councillors would probably stake out their positions during Wednesday’s council debate.
Sawatzky’s understanding is that resident advisory committees exist because of a recognition that there are certain populations — like the LGBT community or people with disabilities — “that are very much affected by the decisions that city council makes, but there’s systemic biases against them and we want to be sure we hear their voices, so we create these formal channels.”
“It’s not that some people shouldn’t be heard. We’re going to hear from homeowners no matter what,” Sawatzky said. “But I can see renters’ issues getting lost.”
Boyle has a similar understanding of advisory bodies’ role in elevating under-represented populations’ voices at city hall, she said, “but I’m not sure that that’s a shared understanding of these committees, around this council … I’m not sure there’s a shared understanding they should be particularly focused on residents who are not often heard.”
Mayor Kennedy Stewart said Tuesday he looked forward to the debate around council on the subject Wednesday.
“I’ll fully participate in that debate, but I do think renters should have a strong voice here at the city,” said Stewart, who happens to be the first renter in recent memory — perhaps ever — elected as mayor of Vancouver.
Vancouver’s Renters Advisory Committee has done valuable work in recent years, said Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End who chaired the provincial government’s Rental Housing Task Force last year.
The proposal to end the renters’ committee in favour of a restructured body, “makes no sense,” Chandra Herbert said. “Renters need a strong voice.”
Vancouver’s renters committee made “very valuable” submissions last year to the Rental Housing Task Force, Chandra Herbert said, and the committee “was pretty effective in terms of getting change at both the city level and, I would argue, provincially as well.”
“They did good work, and I hope we don’t see a watering down of renter’s voices,” Chandra Herbert said. “We need more folks looking out for renters, not fewer.”
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