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Citizen activist groups blossom amidst Vancouver's housing crisis

Justin Fung, a member of HALT - Housing Action for Local Taxpayers, stands for a photograph overlooking homes in Arbutus Ridge in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday July 14, 2016.

Fed up with the status quo, citizen groups are taking action on affordability

Coquitlam resident Christine Boehringer launched the Lonely Homes website recently to record empty houses in her neighbourhood.

Ms. Boehringer is not an analyst or practised housing activist. She's just another concerned citizen who sees houses around her that appear to be empty and neglected. She also sees a contradiction between those empty houses and the affordable housing shortage, and she wants government to take action. So she and four friends mounted the website, which they'll run until March, in order to collect as many reports of empty houses in the Lower Mainland as possible. So far, they've tracked 224 empty houses.

"It really started with a question," says Ms. Boehringer. "I had a question about the number of empty homes. So I started talking about it with a few friends. I thought, 'if I'm thinking about it, what are other people thinking?' It's really just a curiosity. I wanted to dig in deeper."

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The phenomenon of empty houses is hardly a revelation. But citizen groups engaging to combat the affordability crisis is a quickly growing phenomenon.

This new type of activist has emerged in reaction to the region's unprecedented rise in the cost of housing, which, for the first time, is now affecting the middle class. They are often professionals, such as Ms. Boehringer, who is a project manager, and they say they are self-funding and for the most part, non-partisan, with no political ties. Social media is their soapbox. And several have quickly learned how to strategically get their message across.

Eveline Xia, the young environmental studies graduate student who's considered ground zero for the citizen movement, got her message out when she started the #donthave1million hashtag. She surprised herself by becoming the spokesperson for every young person who felt shut out of the housing market.

"I think that Eveline was the tipping point," says Adrian Crook, one of the members of Abundant Housing, which promotes supply as a way to reduce housing costs. His group got started last summer.

They don't always agree. The Twittersphere, for example, can get downright tense with outbursts of conflict. But they do share the same concern: that affordability is a crisis and government is not doing enough to address it.

Justin Fung, one of the founders of Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT), says every group is taking a different angle on the same frustration.

"Community groups are speaking up because they are realizing that governments aren't acting on our behalf. I think that's what links all this together," he says. "How we get there, and what the right solutions are, is where the divide is."

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For example, there is a division between those who believe that the single-family house should go the way of the Dodo bird and those who think preservation of character houses protects history, community and environment. There are those who believe anyone who speaks out against foreign real estate investment is misguided at best, racist at worst. Some believe homeowners, particularly those of boomer age, are the enemy. There are those who believe "supplyists" are really shills for developers, trying to convince everybody that more condos are all the city needs.

As a member of a pro-supply group, Mr. Crook has heard the accusation.

"They are looking for any reason to call you out as a shill or for having ulterior motives," he says.

Developers have offered support to his group's cause, but he says he's turned them down because he knows his group would lose credibility.

"Obviously they are looking for people to support their projects. And they say, 'if you are looking for a meeting space we can help.' I'm like, even that – we don't do that.'"

That doesn't mean his group doesn't get behind projects they believe in, such as the Hollyburn Gardens, West Vancouver's first rental project in 40 years, which was hotly opposed by some local residents.

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Mr. Crook believes the activism of Abundant Housing has helped convince municipal councils to approve projects that were controversial. The group does walking tours around neighbourhoods, and speaks at city hall in support of projects.

"We try to raise awareness of issues that have got us here – mostly the zoning issue – and if we continue with this broad single-family zoning, and these spot rezoning hearings, we are going to constantly run into same battles," says Mr. Crook.

He says the group is interested in the development of purpose-built rentals and co-ops.

"But we also advocate market condos where there isn't too much displacement, where you aren't tossing out low-income residents for higher income residents. We don't broadly support every tower proposed for construction.

"We'd rather see broad rezoning of the city from single-family housing to mid density so we could have rowhouses or three or four storey apartment blocks."

Eveline Xia sits for a photograph near a house being renovated in the community where she lives in East Vancouver, B.C., on Monday May 25, 2015.

While Mr. Fung agrees there is a need for better supply, his group identifies demand by way of foreign buying and speculation as the problematic driver.

However, he also knows that his group has the advantage of diversity in the foreign buying debate.

"We find ourselves different in that more than half of our group is Asian, Chinese Canadians, and we are able to speak more on the topic."

Like the others, Mr. Fung gets his feedback online, as opposed to the old days, when protesters would get yelled at face to face.

"I would say social media is…most of our engagement. Twitter is amazing for finding like-minded people who are incredibly vocal, and a starting point for a lot of the conversation. Reddit has been great for us. We see things on Reddit that show up the next day on TV – that's been an avenue for us. And we have started to grow a network of media contacts. So, pretty regularly now we're getting contacted by radio stations, TV and journalists to speak more and write about us."

HALT has been so successful in mobilizing the masses that they've heard from Toronto residents that are interested in a Toronto-based HALT chapter. Victoria is another possibility for a chapter.

"We do see ourselves as a citizens' voice on this matter and wanting to engage more with government, and hold them accountable," says Mr. Fung. "We are hearing from Toronto now – they see how the foreign money is now pouring into Toronto because it's the uncertainty of foreign money coming into B.C. It's better value in Toronto. So that's been on our radar, in terms of expanding."

Ian Robertson, a senior designer at an architect firm who supports Abundant Housing, agrees that at this point the online discussion is the most powerful. It means that many of their members haven't even met each other.

"It's a number of people who are furthering a discussion, but not necessarily in the same room – which will undoubtedly have to happen."

The tribalism of social media has mobilized people far more than any old-fashioned rally could. Rallies still happen, but they take a lot of work, and some expense. Mr. Robertson thinks time is better spent directly addressing councils, and writing blog posts for sites like Price Tags.

"I've been thinking of it more as choosing the choir that I'm preaching at, rather than broadcasting on the street," he says. "Eveline Xia probably got a lot more press for being online than at the rallies. So, in terms of its effect, it was the online that was most effective."

The problem, however, is that so many disparate groups could lack the cohesion to bring about any kind of consensus. The online citizen protest is uncharted territory.

"Because it's new, and no one really knows what is the lever that is most useful," he says.

"One feels one can tweet the city of Vancouver, but [there's] no ability to know that a message is being heard. There is no longer anything resembling a one-to-one relationship between protester and protestee."

Melody Ma says there's a lot of anger right now, but she hopes the groups get beyond their differences over the next few years. Her group is fighting for the people of Chinatown, who are a microcosm, she says, for any debate about development, density or housing.

Melody Ma’s group is fighting for the people of Chinatown, who are a microcosm, she says, for any debate about development, density or housing.

"With the rise of the resistance groups, it demonstrates that something is broken, and something within the city hall process is not working," says Ms. Ma.

The 26-year-old born and raised Vancouverite works in tech, and sits on the city's Arts and Culture Policy Council. But as a member of the Save Chinatown YVR campaign, she's outspoken about the city's failure to prioritize citizens above all else.

"We're at the point where people are rising up to say, 'hey, we want to have a say on how we craft the narrative of this city. Let's put people first, before stuff. And right now the conversation has only been about stuff.'"

Ms. Ma's group is fighting a rezoning application for 105 Keefer Street in Chinatown. The developer held an open house this week to present a fourth revision of its application for market condos that won't be affordable to the low-income community. They have collected more than 1,800 signatures in protest.

"They have a responsibility to their shareholders as a business, but they should have a responsibility to the neighbourhood – because in a place like Chinatown, they are a guest," she says.

"There are so many standards and passion and power and enthusiasm for the green movement, and greening the city. Let's up that same passion and thoughtfulness to community. And bring it back to the fundamental principles of, who are we building for?"

It's a good question for a city in transition.

As for the citizen protesters, it would seem the natural evolution for any of them is to run for political office. Ms. Xia has since parlayed her housing activist role into a job as constituency assistant to NDP Member of Legislative Assembly, Adrian Dix.

However, most seem to see their power in remaining non-partisan.

"I mean the thought has popped up in my mind," says Mr. Fung. "What would it take to see the change we would want to see? At this point I would say our ability to influence change is political, but non-partisanship allows us to get more of what we need from our governments."

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