Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Great Article in the Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun, Page B01, 30-Apr-2008

Housing vigils grow across the province

By Neal Hall

The protests started with a group of neighbours taking a stand about losing their 224-unit Little Mountain social housing complex in Vancouver.

By March of this year, the demonstrations had grown to 15 "stands" on street corners.

Now the stands -- silent vigils to raise awareness of the twin problems of dwindling affordable housing and rising homelessness caused by the city's rocketing real estate prices -- have mushroomed into a movement that is spreading across B.C.

On Saturday, 80 "stands for housing" will be held in dozens of towns and cities across the province, including 40 in Metro Vancouver, 18 on Vancouver Island and 24 in the Interior and the northern region.

A stand consists of a one-hour silent demonstration on a street corner by neighbourhood housing activists on Saturdays, beginning at 1 p.m.

The first stand began last October with angry tenants who were being urged to move from the six-hectare social housing complex at Little Mountain, owned by B.C. Housing, because it was going to be sold and replaced with upscale condominiums.

The tenants began standing in protest each Saturday on the corner of Main and 33rd.

There are only 50 families left in the Little Mountain complex, leaving 170 units sitting empty, said Kia Salomons of Community Advocates for Little Mountain.

"That in itself is a scandal, with thousands of people homeless," she said of the vacant units. "Those homes are completely habitable. It's become a symbol of the problem of affordable housing."

The idea expanded last February as other groups of housing activists took the cause of "homes for all" and began donning identical turquoise-blue scarves and standing with banners on Vancouver street corners every Saturday.

"The big issue is, there isn't enough social housing," said Maggie Geiser, who takes part in a stand in her neighbourhood at Arbutus and King Edward with the Citywide Housing Coalition, one of the organizers. "We usually have a half a dozen to a dozen people on each corner."

Participants hand out flyers demanding politicians work together to reintroduce a national housing program to provide about 2,000 units of affordable rental housing in B.C each year to replace losses caused by redevelopment, speculation and gentrification.

They also want to see provincial welfare rates boosted to meet basic needs. A single person now receives a maximum of $375 a month for rent and $235 for everything else, while the average rent for a bachelor apartment is $735, the housing activists say.

The stands are non-partisan. Some are organized by such church groups as the Social Gospel Coordinating Group from St. James Anglican Church, the St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church Housing and Mental Health Action Group and the Unitarian Church Social Justice Committee, as well as a youth group called Random Acts of Kindness, which does a stand at First and Commercial on Saturdays.

The inspiration behind the stands was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, whose children were among the thousands who "disappeared" under that country's military dictatorship in the 1970s and early '80s.

The mothers stood each week in a city square in Buenos Aires as a silent demand for justice. Their white scarves became an international symbol of protest.

Why do local stand participants wear turquoise-blue scarves?

"The fabric was on sale," Ann Truong said, laughing.

"We don't have a formal budget," added the University of B.C. student, who is studying social work and takes part in a stand with members of the Carnegie Community Action Project.

Project members recently surveyed Downtown Eastside residential hotels and concluded that 174 single-occupancy rooms have been closed in the last four months, with another 225 in grave danger of being lost.

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