Vancouver 2010 Olympics Social Sustainability Legacy under Fire

On a quiet Sunday morning in the middle of April 2008, representatives from three civil society organizations, plus a UBC student and his professor, held a press conference to launch a UN human rights complaint against the Government of Canada.

The Impact on Communities Coalition, the Pivot Legal Society and the Carnegie Community Action Project, with the help of Professor Michael Byers and student Mike Powar, are arguing that the specific articles of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights have been violated by Canada and its obligations to provide the human right to adequate housing.

In essence, neo-liberal policy-making, without effective public policy intervention, directly violates human rights—in this case, the right to adequate housing.

Early on during the Olympic bidding process, games organizers and government partners made promises that evictions would not occur in the inner-city neighbourhoods. Concerns were raised as early as August of 2001 that evictions similar to Expo 86 would occur when a thousand people were evicted during the World’s Fair.

A plebiscite on the Olympics passed with 64% support in 2003 largely due to assurances that Vancouver would host the first socially sustainable Olympic Games.

A vaguely worded Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement was signed but did not include specific numbers despite the protestations of community groups at the time.

After the Bid Corporation morphed into VANOC after Vancouver won the bid in 2003, no civil society representatives were appointed to its Board. After several years of piecemeal attempts at consultation, VANOC’s own housing table recommended building 3,200 units of social housing and closing tenancy loopholes which were allowing long-term low-income tenants in Single Resident Occupancy hotel housing to be evicted easily.

As the rapid pace of gentrification resulted in dilapidated property quadrupling and quintupling in value in a few short years, it placed low-income inner city residents at risk. City Hall and the provincial government turned down requests to place a moratorium on SRO conversions.

Since the Olympic bid process began, over 1,000 units of affordable SRO housing units have either been converted to other uses or shut down permanently. This imperfect housing stock often times represents the housing of last resort for low-income people. Furthermore, the increase in property values has now led owners to move to double-bunking in some 10 foot by 10 foot rooms, often infested with bedbugs. Though this is not illegal, it raises serious public health concerns in a neighbourhood with third world health indicators.

In an October 2007 visit by UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari stated, “You have in government a legacy of misguided policy decisions which have led to this massive crisis in housing and homelessness. We didn’t hear this in other places—the decrepit nature of SROs, the conditions of the buildings that people are living in, the very poor health. As has been the case throughout our visit, I was repeatedly struck by the contrasts in such a beautiful city. Because there has been so much investment, it is striking that a few blocks from million dollar condominiums there is such immense poverty.”

In a January 2008 visit to Vancouver by Dr Kris Olds, a member of the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions Advisory Committee on hallmark events, said, “These events magnify existing development paths, they are implicated, but they are not the only factor. They are a key acceleratory mechanism to spurring on change, particularly since the 1970s. There is clear evidence that they have played a role in generating evictions from place to place. Is it the only force? No, but an event of this magnitude does play a role, it is implicated, absolutely.”

Despite forwarding the recommendations from COHRE’s June 2007 report on hallmark events, no level of government has taken initiative or leadership in a way that is changing the facts on the ground. Despite the province’s purchase of 17 SRO hotels, their inability to close tenancy eviction loopholes leave open the reality of economic displacement in the housing of last resort. It is this housing stock that is the essence of the human rights complaint.

The idea that the poorest, most elderly and most vulnerable people are being thrown out into the street as a result of property speculation, aided by the hype of the pre-Olympic environment, is an embarrassing footnote to the first “socially sustainable Olympic Games.”

The Toronto-based Wellesley Institute released a report card in early February which raised the issue of growing housing inaffordability—a leading cause of evictions and homelessness. Renting costs outpaced renter incomes in six of the 10 provinces. There are estimated to be between 200,000 to 300,000 homeless people in Canada.

Nations such as Canada that sign on to optional treaty protocols such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights often invoke the term “progressive realisation” to justify the time lag between domestic policies meeting international standards. Scott Leckie of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has written that progressive realisation is used as “an escape clause from the obligations generated under the Covenant.”

Canada, along with other G-8 countries, has openly worked within the international system to deny a complaint mechanism on optional human rights protocols related to economic, social and cultural rights.

The Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contend that, “As in the case of civil and political rights, States enjoy a margin of discretion in selecting the means for implementing their respective obligations … the burden is on the state to demonstrate that it is making measurable progress toward the full realization of rights in question. The State cannot use the ‘progressive realisation’ provisions in Article 2 of the Covenant as a pretext for non-compliance.”

Canadian law professor Craig Scott has written, “Canadian governments have long invoked averages and medians as adequate accounts of the state of human rights enjoyment in Canada, thereby showing how little understanding (or sincere attempt to understand) there is of the very nature of human rights. … That Canadians on average are not homeless, on average have adequate nutrition, on average go to adequate schools, or on average raise their children in a dignified way says nothing at all about whose human rights are being respected and whose are being violated.”

The federal government has been cutting housing policies since the early nineties. In 1993, the government cancelled funding for new co-ops and non-profit housing and capped its expenditures at two billion dollars annually, according to the Wellesley Institute.

As IOC head Jacques Rogge rolled in to Vancouver a few months earlier in 2008, he effusively praised VANOC for its socially sustainable legacy. Despite little or no opportunity for civil society organizations to be at the table, despite the obvious gentrification and displacement being exacerbated by the Olympic project, the head of the IOC had the audacity to praise’ VANOC.

Public relations and marketing have trumped reality in pre-Olympic Vancouver.

VANOC turned down requests for a $1 homelessness levy to be charged on Olympic tickets and merchandising that would be matched by the provincial and federal governments. VANOC and government partners turned down their own housing table’s recommendations of building 3,200 units. They have pointed fingers at one another as people get evicted from the inner-city virtually every month. It takes a lot of people working in unison to produce the sheer inertia of this unprecedented incompetence.

Added to that, an uncritical pre-Olympic media environment has distorted Vancouver’s public sphere in a way that has delegitimized critical discussion of the issues and forced many mainstream civil society organizations from publicly expressing their criticism for fear of losing their funding.

Rather than invite civil society organizations to the table, VANOC has shown an arrogant, fortress-like approach to community engagement.

There are 200,000-300,000 people expected to come to Vancouver in 2010 where there are only 27,000 hotel rooms. Even with homestays and cruise ships, that will still leave thousands of spaces still unaccounted for and will place pressure on the existing rental market. Without government intervention, a few thousand people will likely be evicted.

There is not one person at VANOC or any level of government that has addressed this question in a public way. Even calls for temporary legislation to protect tenants have been spurned.

The UN complaint is a strong and damning indictment of Vancouver’s pre-Olympic housing environment and the use of the term “social sustainability” as a marketing and public relations term by VANOC.

Am Johal is a Vancouver based writer and social activist. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Am, or visit Am's website.