But the recent experiences of past host cities suggest that using the Olympics to buttress growth has mostly negligible benefits for host cities and their residents. The tepid outcomes are a forewarning to Vancouver: In a city with a housing problem, the financial and socioeconomic legacies from the Olympics could further burden Vancouver’s woes once the spotlight fades.
Ideally, the Olympics bolster a city’s reputation and its quality of life. But that hasn’t translated into much for Vancouver’s less fortunate thus far. Despite the picturesque and cosmopolitan reputation as one of the most livable cities, it’s also home to the poorest neighborhood in Canada. Media reports have focused on the stark juxtaposition of the drug-laden Downtown Eastside neighborhood just blocks away from where athletes compete.
The lack of affordable housing in the area despite large investments leading up the games were one of the complaints staged by about 1,500 protesters who rallied last week near the site of the opening ceremony. Since the city bid for the Olympics in 2002, homelessness has increased 373 percent.
Some activists and organizations are claiming the Olympics have only exacerbated the problem. A 2007 report by the Pivot Legal Society, a local nonprofit advocacy group, said the 2010 games increased homelessness while decreasing the number of affordable housing units through gentrification and evictions.
The report found housing speculation caused increases in property values as developers purchased properties in Downtown Eastside. Developers then renovated the properties and increased rents, thereby displacing residents; in other cases, landlords simply evicted tenants in preparation for a sale.
Cities who play host have faced criticism in the past for cleaning up their blighted areas. Beijing offers the most recent example; before the 2008 games, the Chinese government forced out nearly 1.25 million people.
Still, “beautification” efforts have not helped to solve the housing problems. A December report released by the University of British Columbia saw that the overall impact of playing host in the lead up to the Games saw only modest benefits. The report, the second of four studies commissioned by the Olympics, was cautious about whether the rise in homeless was due to displacement from the games. Nevertheless, the city has yet to fulfill the needs of the most vulnerable.
“To summarize, there has been an increase in the number of affordable housing and social housing units in Vancouver between 2001 and 2006,” the report said. “Despite this increase, additional data suggest that this increase has not yet met the need for such housing. In 2006, 3,577 households in the city of Vancouver were on waiting lists for social housing.”
Even if the money goes elsewhere, the data from previous Olympic cities show that the economic benefits from hosting the games are marginal. Since 1980, five of eight Winter Olympics have faced deficits.
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, notes host cities have been unprofitable or faced a deficit.
While the summer games in Atlanta, Sydney and Barcelona broke even, Barcelona incurred a public debt of $6.1 billion; Atlanta saw little change in retail and hotel revenue. And Sydney and Athens still pay maintenance costs for underutilized stadiums and facilities.
Local organizers generally underestimate the expenses for running the event. Vancouver organizers predicted $2 billion, but recent estimates hover around $5.7 billion. Athens and Beijing ran over cost. Montreal’s 1979 Olympics left the city with a $2.7 billion debt they just paid off in 2005.
It’s alarming that despite these trends, the Olympic committee continues the same cookie cutter approach year after year. Once the spotlight fades, all that’s left are fading facilities, and residents stuck with a disapppointing afterglow.