About 50 housing activists blocked all entrances to city hall Tuesday to force an entire shutdown of the building on a day that included disruptions at two other city buildings and saw city council hold a brief meeting in a community garden.
Members of the Our Homes Can’t Wait Coalition stood and sat in front of all entrance and exit doors to the building at 12th and Cambie from morning into the early afternoon, despite efforts from police and security to encourage the activists to move on.
The coalition, which included a mix of well-known anti-poverty activists, young people and seniors from Chinatown, voluntarily left their posts at about 12:30 p.m., with one of the group’s leaders, Vincent Tao, saying their actions were necessary to bring publicity to the state of the city’s housing problem.
“We won today,” Tao told the Courier. “We took city hall and I think it sends a powerful message both to the city and to the city councillors that we can take power, and we have the power to change the city.”
In song and on placards, Tao and others targeted Mayor Gregor Robertson for not honouring a signed pledge he made Aug. 2, 2016 to have a proposed 231-unit building at 58 West Hastings St. rent at pension and welfare rates of $375 per month.
At a January council meeting, Robertson recommitted to honouring his pledge, saying at the time he was “very confident that we’re going to close this gap.” He reiterated his commitment Tuesday following a brief and rare council meeting in a community garden on the grounds of city hall.
“I spoke with a number of the protesters this morning and said I was still committed to that, and I’m going to do everything I can while I’m the mayor to make sure we get 100 per cent,” said Robertson, noting the rezoning was approved for the site but construction hasn’t started. “We still have work to do to make sure we can get to 100 per cent. We’re not done yet.”
The provincial government announced Jan. 16 that it will fund $30 million of the estimated $90-million cost of the project. The Chinatown Foundation, which is negotiating to be the leaseholder of the building, has set a goal to raise $30 million.
So far, the funding commitments allow for the project to proceed with 50 per cent of the units to be rented at $375 per month and the other half at 30 per cent of a household's income level, but not to exceed $1,272 per month.
Tuesday’s council meeting in the garden lasted less than a minute and included a clerk and several city councillors. It was a formality in order to adjourn a scheduled meeting inside city hall. Council reconvened later in the afternoon, without any of the protesters present.
The first item on the agenda was an update on what the city was doing to fight homelessness, along with preliminary numbers on the homeless count conducted in March. A staff report showed 2,181 people were counted as homeless this year, with 659 on the street and 1,522 in some form of shelter. Last year's total was 2,138.
As Robertson and councillors were leaving the garden, some activists followed chanting “our homes can’t wait” and “Gregor lies, people die.” The activists followed the mayor and councillors down Cambie Street to a city building on Broadway.
Most of council got into the building, but activists blocked the doors to keep councillors Adriane Carr and Hector Bremner outside. Activists then began to target Bremner, who took offence and told two of the activists he was an ally in the fight for more housing.
Activists then walked back up Cambie Street to another city building at 10th and Cambie that serves as a centre for people to obtain permits and licences. The activists circulated throughout the centre, disrupting meetings between customers and staff, with Tao at one point climbing on top of a desk to demand social housing.
Security cleared the building of staff and customers, which prompted activists to leave. At one point, more than 20 police officers were on scene at city hall but no arrests were made.
The protest occurred on May 1, which is known as International Workers’ Day and meant to celebrate labourers and the working class.
with a file from Jessica Kerr