The wealthiest areas of Vancouver are invariably the least interesting. Walking around Yaletown, for instance, is an utterly sterile experience. The neighbourhood is dominated by bland, angular, functional structures; glass and steel residential high-rises built cheaply and sold at an obscene, ever-inflating market rate. 

A sizeable chunk of these properties is empty - more than one in ten, according to some estimates. And their emptiness resonates across the city. You can actually feel it on the streets. A horrifying vacuum of blank commercial space. 

Not all major urban centres are like this. For the past decade, at the least on the occasions that I’ve visited, Barcelona has been a riot of politics and colour. Red, yellow, and blue esteladas - the flag of the Catalan separatist movement - hang from the windows of every apartment block. Protests frequently bring the traffic to a grinding halt. In contrast to the morbid silence that haunts Yaletown, Barcelona looks and sounds vigorously alive. 

In Barcelona, years of Spanish economic stagnation, combined with a huge annual influx of tourists, have pushed-up rent costs and reduced the stock of reasonably-priced homes.

It may not be immediately apparent, but Vancouver and Barcelona suffer from the same problem, albeit in slightly different ways. 

In Vancouver, rapidly appreciating land values and a chronic lack of affordable housing have either cleared the city of middle and low income families, or forced them into cramped and unsuitable living conditions. 

In Barcelona, years of Spanish economic stagnation, combined with a huge annual influx of tourists, have pushed-up rent costs and reduced the stock of reasonably-priced homes. 

In both cases, city resources - resources that should be, and need to be, owned and controlled democratically - are made to work in the interests of the ultra-rich and at the expense of us, the ordinary residents. 

The global scale of this trend provides our municipal leaders with an excuse for inaction.

We are encouraged to believe that this crisis is local, and that rising prices are a function of minute cultural changes - the new artisanal coffee shop or craft brewery or organic grocery store that opened-up just down the road - gradually reshaping our communities. 

But that is bullshit: the crisis is fundamentally macroeconomic

We are living in the midst of an historic investment glut. The international economy is generating more capital than investors are able to use productively and, as a result, the global one per cent are pouring their financial assets into urban real estate, which in turn is making life significantly more expensive for everyone else. 

In the age of elite superabundance, what you pay in rent every month echoes a series of distant shifts on the New York stock exchange - and your landlord is just as clueless about the whole abstract process as you are. 

The global scale of this trend provides our municipal leaders with an excuse for inaction. Take Gregor Robertson, the nominally progressive mayor of Vancouver. 

the contrast with Barcelona is stark and instructive

Last month, Robertson unveiled a new blueprint to improve affordability in the metro area. It included proposals, such as relaxed residential parking requirements and fee waivers for cheaper rental units, aimed at “incentivising” property developers to expand their rental stock. 

Robertson has run Vancouver for nearly ten years. In that time, annual rent increases have reached record levels, vacancy rates have continued to shrink, and homelessness has gone up

Robertson’s middle-of-the-road policies reflect his liberal philanthropic worldview. Formerly of the centre-left NDP, the bulk of his political career has been bankrolled by an American venture capitalist, Joel Solomon, who champions a discredited form of corporate environmentalism and peddles meaningless feel-good slogans (“People, Planet and Profit” is one favourite) with a terrifying degree of conviction. 

The fact that Robertson himself has made hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and selling property on Vancouver’s terminally overheated housing market further stretches his credibility as an advocate for this city’s underserved and increasingly desperate tenant class. 

Again, the contrast with Barcelona is stark and instructive. 

The mayor of Barcelona is a woman called Ada Colau. Before being elected in 2015, Colau was a housing activist. She rose to prominence campaigning against the wave of evictions that swept Spain after the economic collapse in 2008 - and was repeatedly arrested for her efforts. 

there is nothing in Robertson’s tone, rhetoric, or governing style that suggests he shares Colau’s profound sense of urgency.

Now in her second year of office, Colau remains unapologetically radical. As mayor, she has suspended tourism hospitality licenses, supported illegal occupations of vacant apartments, fined banks that refuse to open-up those apartments to destitute families, and set-out plans for increased property taxes. 

Colau still lives in a modest flat in a densely populated Barcelona neighbourhood. She tried cutting her mayoral salary from €140,000 to just under €30,000, which is close to the average Spanish wage, but her political opponents on the city council wouldn’t let her. 

It’s difficult to imagine Robertson, who is paid $165,000 per year, making a similar gesture, and harder still to picture him calling, in effect, for the public appropriation of Vancouver’s 25,000 empty and under-occupied properties. The pressures of social inequality and exclusion are at least as acute in Vancouver as they are in Barcelona, but there is nothing in Robertson’s tone, rhetoric, or governing style that suggests he shares Colau’s profound sense of urgency.

For Robertson, housing debt, eviction, and mounting rents seem like issues that can be incrementally managed and negotiated away, with the appropriate input from corporate partners and civic stakeholders. It’s tempting to conclude that the city he lives in isn’t really the one we live in, but a separate, much more comfortable and accommodating place, where no-one ever struggles to pay their bills on time.

Ada Colau doesn’t suffer from this problem, because she has stayed conscientiously rooted in the Barcelona that most Barcelonans experience, in material terms, for better and for worse, on a daily basis. That makes her a dramatically different kind of mayor than Robertson, even if it doesn’t guarantee a more lasting or effective solution to the housing crisis, and even if a solution to the housing crisis might, in reality, lie well beyond the limited reach of municipal control. 

Meanwhile, I am still trapped, wandering around the absolute hell that is Yaletown, and hoping that somewhere, at some point, some vague flickering sign of life will break that awful, endless, empty silence.