Burnaby’s demovictions are a disgrace

Looking east across Boundary Road, it has been something to watch the buck-passing lately from Burnaby city council. When questioned about the city’s rapidly diminishing rental stock by the Globe and Mail, they claim:

Developers will not come to Burnaby if we try to negotiate rental units!

The federal and provincial governments have not given us enough support!

We have no controls to prevent demolitions!

These cries strike me as either disingenuous, or lacking empathy for people being displaced by rental building demolitions, or so-called “demovictions.”

The fact is cities can incent non-market housing if they choose.

From the beginning it is Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan who has all along refused to build housing. He argues vehemently that it is the role of federal and provincial, not municipal governments, to do so.

Until the recent demoviction protests began, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would be prepared to publicly challenge the mayor on this matter.

So, will anything change in the face of the protests?

Corrigan is a self-identified socialist known in the region for his combative politics, if nothing else. His Burnaby Citizens Association routed any opposition by electing every seat on city council and on school board.

The mayor’s wife, Kathy Corrigan, is an NDP MLA who sits prominently on the front bench of the Official Opposition in Victoria.

Ostensibly defenders of social justice, the Corrigans are Burnaby’s power couple.

Though she announced her retirement from politics next year, the mayor has no obvious successor and gives no indications he will hang up the chain of office anytime soon.

I like to think I know Burnaby as well as my hometown of Vancouver. I grew up in Burnaby as a schoolboy with my baby sister and our single mom as we eked by on her nurse’s salary.

I remember what it was like to live there on limited means.

I would later get my first jobs in Burnaby, working at a Sears warehouse as a shipper, then as a labourer for the Burnaby School Board.

I have fond memories of summers paddling in Deer Lake, bus trips to Burnaby Mountain, swims at Central Park pool and eating soft ice cream at the former Giant Burger drive-in on Edmonds Street.

Burnaby has always been a great place to live and work. Maclean’s magazine even ranked it once as Canada’s best-run city.

It’s the home of two of B.C.’s largest post-secondary institutions, Simon Fraser University and BCIT. Burnaby has booming industrial parks and hosts some of the region’s best recreational facilities.

Unlike Vancouver, where basic maintenance of boulevards, public gardens and street litter is a perpetual challenge, Burnaby’s streets and public spaces are kept immaculate.

Maybe Mayor Corrigan is right to assert that cities should keep out of providing social services and focus on city stuff.

Yet, you can’t look at the rows of gleaming 45-storey towers near Metrotown that are replacing tiny, aging apartment blocks, and not wonder how Burnaby can’t make the math work for some form of subsidized housing.

In a time where municipalities are bargaining air rights, relaxing parking requirements and offering long-term leases of public land to get non-market housing built, Burnaby has stubbornly resisted.

This is despite earning a record $879 million in building permits last year, and banking another $9 million profits from the Grand Villa Casino.

It took an occupation by the aforementioned protesters of one of those soon-to-be-demolished buildings to bring the loss of affordable housing into the limelight.

Though the city has put a toe in the water by issuing requests for proposal for two non-market housing projects this year, it has much more work to do.

Furthermore, the demoviction controversy is spilling beyond Burnaby and into provincial politics. By publicly defending Corrigan, NDP leader John Horgan has greatly weakened his party’s hand on the issue of housing affordability.

Though there are no easy solutions, Burnaby needs to quickly step up its game on housing for its low-income citizens.

Whether that will finally happen on Mayor Corrigan’s watch remains to be seen.

– Column originally published in Vancouver Courier and Burnaby Now newspapers