Let The People Speak

September 17, 2021

Back in the bad old days, when the thoroughly anti-democratic Vision party ruled Vancouver, they forced through a motion that required public hearings which could not be completed in a single session to be held during the working day, rather than in the evenings. The motion was introduced partly because daytime meetings are more convenient for both City staff and Councilors. But the primary motive was to reduce the ability of Vancouver electors to have their say on matters of importance to them because most electors work during the day and cannot take time off to speak.

It has to be remembered that Vision had been so bad at public consultation that late-stage public hearings were often the only chance you and I had to voice our opinions – and voice them we did, to the chagrin of Vision and their staff — and even then we were almost inevitably ignored.

Once Vision were unceremoniously booted from office in the 2018 civic election it became possible to revisit this by-law and, in October 2020, a very slim majority (6-5) of the new Council voted to restore evening hearings for reconvened public hearings. Strike one for the people!

However, like Dracula, the monster was only sleeping and has now woken to attack us once again.

Next Tuesday, 21 September, City Council will debate a procedure by-law change establishing a schedule of meetings for 2022. A close examination of the memo reveals that reconvened public hearings (listed as “Public Hearing Reserved”) will generally begin at 3:00pm and some will start as early as 9:30am. If approved, we will be back in the same situation we were with Vision, in which, for example, developers and their supporters can come and speak to Council about a proposal because it is part of their work day, while Jane Doe and Joe Blow who have employment and childcare commitments at that time will miss out.

Who is bringing forward this by-law change? It appears to be the City Clerk’s office; leaned on, no doubt, by the City Manager. And why are we re-visiting a decision made less than one year ago?

And what will the Greens do this time? In the vote last October all three Greens voted against the democratic option, and I asked at that time:

“what were the Vancouver Greens thinking? I know that recently they have been happily leaning on the Vision-esque Americanized City staff for many of their thoughts and actions, but I could not believe they would be so publicly scornful of the public’s right to be part of the debate. It shows their fundamentally un-progressive position on so many issues outside of, perhaps, the environment.”

As CityHallWatch has written about next Tuesday’s vote:

“The changes to allow for reconvened Public Hearings to start as early as 9:30 am will only be debated by Council (there will be no public speakers allowed), so the only way for concerned citizens to take action on this matter is to directly contact members of Council (by phone, e-mail, social media, or other means). A simple message that these changes are not welcome could make a difference in the Council vote on the topic.”

I encourage everyone to write and complain about this proposed change.

Vancouver’s Auditor-General — Finally!

August 9, 2021

This morning, City of Vancouver issued a press release announcing that Mike Macdonell has been appointed as Vancouver’s first ever Auditor-General. The appointment comes after a two-year effort, led with enormous persistence by Councillor Colleen Hardwick, which we followed here, here, and here.

Macdonell, an accountant and fraud specialist, will take up his new position next month. In an interview with the Province, he said:

“I think any large local government has the opportunity to benefit from another set of eyes, an impartial view on how particular aspects of the city’s administration are working. … I wouldn’t really have wanted to take this position on unless I felt it had the opportunity to add value … The cornerstone of any auditor’s independence is their ability to report, impartially and in an unfettered manner, what they find. And that’s exactly what I will do, so every audit will have a public report at the end of it,” he said.

Councillor Hardwick notes that “The appointment of Mike McDonnell as the Inaugural Auditor General is a significant milestone for the City of Vancouver. For the first time, the City will have independent assurance of the stewardship of public funds.”

It was, as someone else noted today, like pulling hen’s teeth to get this appointment in place. Now, we look forward to the results we expect.

Housing Unaffordability — Blame City Hall

July 20, 2021

One doesn’t have to agree with everything Councillor Colleen Hardwick says — nor even agree with her motives — to recognize that she has spent the last couple of years trying to get Vancouver City Council’s governance improved for the benefit of Vancouverites generally.

Eventually, we will get an Auditor-General in place (based entirely on her efforts) and, providing Vision Vancouver doesn’t rear its ugly head and bury everything again, I believe we will eventually get the true housing facts and figures that she has been demanding for over a year.

On the occasion of the City’s last Council meeting before the summer break, she has issued a statement that bears reading:

“City Hall’s addiction to the revenues generated by rezoning continues to inflate land values, it takes too long to get permits and applications approved, and City charges and fees can add $200 per square foot or more to building costs,” said Hardwick as Council’s Finance Standing Committee reviews the current Vancouver Plan planning process this week. “It’s also been more than a year since I asked city staff in council to provide updated housing data so we could actually make housing decisions based on real numbers and facts, and still, we have no data. Meanwhile the city has charged forward with development and planning policies based on aspirations rather than evidence.”

Hardwick says the city continues to make decisions that are making housing unaffordable, particularly when it comes to the constant rezoning that results in rising land values that push housing costs through the roof.

“The volume of rezoning under Vision Vancouver inflated the value of land and the air above it, and today’s council continues to take that same approach, to the detriment of people looking to buy a new home in their own city,” said Hardwick. “Frankly, the existing zoning in Vancouver is more than able to handle the real population growth expected in the future. But City Hall is addicted to the revenues that come with rezoning, and those extra costs are passed on to the homebuyer and pricing this city out of the reach of Vancouverites. If you’re buying a 1,000 sq ft condo you can expect that about $200,000 of the actual cost is directly related to City Hall. Meanwhile, everyone at City Hall says they are committed to affordable housing.”

Hardwick said that when you take the pricing inflation caused by rezoning and add in the growing number of city fees and charges around developments, plus the fact that permits and approvals can take four, five and six years, it’s easy to see why Vancouverites are finding it harder and harder to live in their own city.

“Politicians and staff at City Hall say they are all for affordable housing, but then they do anything and everything in their power to make it less affordable,” added Hardwick. “It reinforces my strong belief that City Hall views Vancouverites as ATM machines and there is no real interest at 12th and Cambie when it comes to making our city more affordable for Vancouverites.”

“If we really want affordable housing we need to focus on three things: sticking with existing zoning for a time, rather than more rezoning that continues to push up the price of land; reigning in and rationalizing the cost of development permits, building permits and community amenity charges, all of which add more and more costs to the final price of a home; and we definitely need to reduce the time it takes to approve projects, because, after all, time is money.”

I would also note that your property taxes are having to bear the burden of hundreds more highly-paid City staff that have been added to various departmental empires over the last decade, homelessness and opioid issues have ballooned over the same period with little hope of resolution under this regime, and both the mayor and senior City staff are actively working to reduce the ability of you — the voter — to affect City policy and development.

We have just over a year to the next election when we can dump the anti-people free spenders that are currently ruining our City. Please give it some thought.

GWAC and TMH: A Report

June 8, 2021

I attended the GWAC ZOOM meeting last night which featured a long discussion about Temporary Modular Housing (TMH) in general and the new building at 1580 Vernon in particular.

The meeting began with an overview of TMH in Vancouver by Steve Bohus. It was a very useful review and was applauded by Lisa Jimenez, a CoV planner.

The meeting was then turned over to Julie Roberts and Robbie Moza of Community Buildings Group (CBG) who are in charge of operating the new building which is scheduled to open in July. CBG operates a number of low-barrier homeless shelters in Vancouver, along with two TMH projects, one in Marpole which has operated very successfully for three years, and another at Naomi House which opened earlier this year.

The new TMH at 1580 Vernon will include 98 housing units, along with a community kitchen, common areas, and office space. Each of the housing units is roughly 250 sq.ft. and includes a private bathroom and a small kitchen area. Ms. Roberts played a short but enlightening video of the TMH at Naomi House which illustrated the kind of housing units that will be available.

CHG is currently working with BC Housing to select the first tenants who will be offered space at Vernon. There is an attempt to prioritize local homeless.

CHG also creates what they call a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) from the local residential community. The CAC is designed to help integrate the TMH within the local neighbourhood. In the case of 1580 Vernon, there are no residences within three blocks of the building and so the CAC will probably be peopled by the businesses that are close by.

CHG noted that there were significant community concerns before the Marpole before the TMH was opened. However, after three years of operation, there now seems to be good acceptance of the building and its residents.

I found the presentation and the discussion to be extremely valuable. I have been a strong supporter of this development, and the proposal for 1st and Clark, and I hope that this presentation helped soothed some of the concerns people may have.

It was good to see CoV Planning and BC Housing staff, along with Councillor Jean Swanson and two BIA executives, join in with the GWAC meeting.

Another Future For The Drive?

May 27, 2021

After an evening of speakers last night, and an afternoon of debate and amendments this afternoon, Vancouver City Council passed the BIA-sponsored motion entitled “Prioritizing Commercial Drive as a Pedestrian-First High Street.”

Rather than me try to summarize, the original Motion can be found at Motion – Prioritizing Commercial Drive as a Pedestrian-First High Street – May 18, 2021 (vancouver.ca) The final Motion approved was slightly different (the exact wording probably won’t be available to me for a few days) but the essentials are the same.

This is a plan that — through the midwifery of Councilors Fry and DeGenova — comes fully formed from the Commercial Drive Business Society (the BIA) without any consultation with groups such as GWAC, Britannia, or any others except the Italian Cultural Centre, and it must be viewed in that context: It is designed to meet the BIA Board’s view of what businesses want, and to meet certain of their specific goals.

That being said, in my opinion it has some really good things in it; policies I support and have encouraged for years — a pedestrians-first agenda, slow streets, sidewalk widening and improvements, a better matching of the southern half of the Drive with the northern half.

It also includes some things — such as “maintaining and improving” parking on the Drive — that give me serious pause.

More generally, I have some concerns that the further gentrification of the Drive — and let us make no mistake, that is what this will be — could have significant and negative effects on the poor, troubled, and often homeless folks who live and spend their time in and around the Drive. Councilor Swanson voted against major parts of this Motion for the same reason.

But the Motion passed, so what does it actually mean? Very little in my opinion. There is no budget at Planning or Engineering for any work on the plan to move ahead: that was made very clear during the Council debate. An amendment to the Motion seeks funding in a future capital plan, but that can only be considered as wishful thinking at this point. I assume that lack of funding will also prohibit the kind of extensive consultations that are suggested by the Motion. So, we stay the way we are.

And that, believe it or not, meets one of the BIA’s most important goals — to defeat or substantially delay any plan to put a segregated bike lane anywhere on the Drive (as suggested, for example, in the Climate Emergency Action Plan approved recently by Council). Some might say that was the major goal of the exercise from the beginning. As was to be expected, Councilor Boyle made a number of amendments to get a bike lane included, but each was voted down, to the relief of the Motion’s sponsors. I have no dog in that particular fight.

I am hoping that the BIA will take this opportunity of a public debate to widen their engagement with groups and individuals in the neighbourhood. They fight hard to protect the parking that they believe encourages visitors from other neighbourhoods to come to the Drive. They need to fight just as hard to include the residents of Grandview in their plans. It is we, after all, who, day in and day out, provide most of the revenue to their businesses and make the Drive the lively and wonderful place it is.

Council Finally Boyles Over

May 26, 2021

As regular readers will know, I have been deeply disappointed by most of the current bunch of Vancouver City councillors. They have approved pro-development stuff that even Vision would have been leery of supporting, and they have done nothing to improve community engagement. In fact, quite the opposite.

However, this week, they were faced with a Motion sponsored by OneCity’s Christine Boyle — to allow 12 storey buildings with 70% of all units at market rents almost anywhere in the City without any public consultation — that was so egregiously anti-democratic and anti-community that all but a few of them finally had to call a halt.

After about 100 speakers came and almost unanimously hated this misbegotten Motion, a large majority of the Councillors recognized the way the wind was blowing and crushed the Motion 7-3. Only Boyle herself, the Mayor (who only came into the meeting to vote, having avoided listening to the chorus of opposition), and Jean Swanson (who failed to see the bait-and-switch that was being proposed) gave it support.

I listened to virtually all the speakers and I did not hear one person complain about building more social housing. But I did hear scores complain about the anti-democratic spirit behind the Motion and the fact that under the City’s definition, 100% of the units built under the scheme — even those with market rentals and above — would be called social housing.

It is interesting to note that Green Councillor Michael Wiebe recused himself from the discussion under conflict-of-interest guidelines because he had received a legal opinion that, as a direct result of the increased land values that would be caused by this Motion, his condo building would significantly increase in value.

It is good that the Motion was struck down, but Boyle could not leave it there. Today, on Twitter, she claimed that Council had voted “against more co-op and non-profit homes.” This a big lie equal in fakeness to almost anything Donald Trump might have said. Council voted down a Motion that was badly drafted, that would not have achieved what she claimed, that would have further destroyed trust in Council’s willingness to listen to the people, and would have wreaked further destruction on Vancouver’s affordability.

I congratulate the majority of City Council for seeing through Boyle’s vacuous proposal. Now, hopefully, we can move on to more serious consideration of how to deal with the lack of affordable housing in this City.

School Liaison Workers

May 4, 2021

A week or so ago, the Vancouver School Board voted to end the participation of uniformed police officers in “school liaison” programs. It was a decision with which I thoroughly agree.

There was, as you might imagine, a Twitter storm about the decision, with many people complaining that these officers did the vital work of mentoring our children, often acting as coaches. It was, some said, a “disgusting” decision.

But none of these complainers asked themselves the question: why should police officers take up this role? What value do they have that, say, accountants or lawyers or nurses or plumbers or doctors don’t have in the role of mentors and coaches?

People may not like this, but the fact is that for many people, including our children, regardless of the other good work they may do, the police have become representatives of the negative armed and oppressive authorities in our society. Every week, our media is filled with stories of police officers killing unarmed civilians, or using massive state power to put down legitimate protest. In such a world, police liaison officers are nothing more than public relations practitioners.

I ask again: why cannot lawyers or doctors or electricians or shop managers or housewives be mentors without the negative connotations connected to police work?

Bravo to the VSB for this decision.

The Crack Cocaine of City Finance

March 9, 2021

I originally wrote this piece in early 2014. I think it is worth bringing it back into focus:

Community Amenity Contributions — CACs — are a debilitating and socially-destructive drug that the City of Vancouver has fallen addicted to over the last twenty years.  They are, to be frank, the crack cocaine of city finance and they need to be flushed right out of our system.

Perhaps many of you have never heard of CACs; they are not, after all, everyday talk in the coffee shops and diners.  CACs are a bribe developers pay the city to allow them to breach the previously agreed zoning for a particular lot.  If you want to exceed the height limits, floor space ratio (FSR), use profile, or some other aspect of what the local community has determined is best for their neighbourhood, you can negotiate a fee — the CAC — with City Planning that will get you off the regulatory hook.  City Planning then puts that money toward specific new public amenities (supposedly in that neighbourhood, but apparently not always) [these days CAC payments are just another way to cover up the gaps in the City’s budget — and that’s why Vision 2.0 keeps approving them].

That sounds like an interesting idea — if a developer wants to break the rules, that’s OK, so long as he buys us a shiny new library or a small park or a community meeting room in exchange.  But it is actually a terrible idea, especially as now the City essentially says that the availability of new community amenities are completely dependent on getting CACs from developers.  In other words, we can have nice things but only so long as we give away profitable density to developers; who, in turn, may or may not contribute some of their excess profits to particular municipal parties.  Moreover, the current system encourages spot rezoning (often against the terms of Vancouver Charter section 565A), especially when the developer is dealing with today’s majority on City Council that never votes against development applications.

It is vital that we de-couple the civic amenities that residents need from the indiscriminate and rapid densification of our beautiful city that six [now thirteen] years of Vision Vancouver [and Vision 2.0] management has brought us.  The NPA and COPE were also in power during the period while this addiction took hold.

It didn’t used to be this way.  In the good old days — just a couple of decades ago — we voted on plebiscites every other year to determine which amenities we were willing to pay for by issuing City bonds.  It was mostly efficient. It was defiantly democratic.  The people got to decide what they thought was worth paying for, and the developers were not involved at all.  We need to go back to that system or something very much like it.

In return for lessening their costs, by eliminating CACs, I would tie this change into a change to the Development Cost Levy by-law to ensure a developer pays the entire cost of city infrastructure required for new development.

These changes, to CACs and DCLs, frees developers from paying CACs, obliges developments to pay for their own infrastructure, and allows the electors of Vancouver to more directly control the flow of amenities required to make us the most livable city in the world.

CoV Planning and Orwellian Doublespeak

February 12, 2021

Further to my earlier post regarding the development of 1766 Frances, I want to point out a method by which the Planning Department in Vancouver uses doublespeak to push through developments that cannot be approved in any other way.

The Planning Department’s Recommendation for 1766 Frances claims that it “meets the intent of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan with respect to the delivery of social housing” and therefore should be approved. However, this claim was immediately challenged and the head of Planning, Gil Kelley, felt the need to issue a memo dated 5th February (but which was not made public until yesterday) clarifying that the project should be approved under the terms of section 7.1.3. of the Plan.

During the questioning of staff by Councilors, Planning was specifically asked whether this project would have been approved had it been anything other than social housing. The answer was a firm “No.” It was, they said, approved because of 7.1.3.

After the staff presentations and the applicant’s presentation and a dozen or more public speakers had concluded, the Councilors made their closing remarks before voting. Almost without exception, they praised the development and — having drunk deeply of the Planning Department’s Kool-Aid — said they were going to approve the project because it met the Grandview Woodland Community Plan guidelines.

So let us look at the infamous section 7.1.3. of the Grandview Community Plan. The relevant bullet point states:

“7.1.3: Consider modest increases in height and density for the delivery of non-market housing to assist with project viability” ( p.131)

The key word here is “modest”.

The change in zoning that was approved last night increased the allowable height from 10.7m to 29.28m — an increase of 273% — and increased the allowable density from 1.4 FSR to 4.06 FSR — an increase of 290%.

Perhaps that is an unfair comparison as the rezoning had to be taken from the pre-Plan starting point. Under the Plan, the allowable number of storeys is 6; the approval is for 9 — an increase of 50%. As for density, the Plan allows for 2.4 FSR and so the increase agreed to last night was 70%.

Only in George Orwell’s dystopian world of doublespeak could increases of 273% and 290% or even 50% and 70% be considered “modest”.

It is as if the Planning Department in Vancouver is speaking a language known only to themselves and their developer friends; a language designed to confuse the rest of us and to thwart the terms and conditions of the social contract known as the Community Plan. It is a sad business that Vancouver City Council allows themselves to be dragged by the nose by their staff.

The NPA Cabaret Continues

February 6, 2021

The story so far: here and here.

Instead of facing up to the fact that the current NPA Board is skewing far to the right — or, indeed, choosing to celebrate that fact — they have decided on the Donald Trump course of action: sue everyone and hope that keeps their critics quiet.

On Thursday, seven of the NPA Directors sued Mayor Kennedy Stewart for issuing “a highly defamatory” press release attacking the NPA and engaging in “hate speech for political gain”. The City of Vancouver was included in the suit, claiming that the communications staff “conspired” with the Mayor in his defamatory remarks.

The elected NPA Caucus, long at odds with the party’s Board, issued a statement noting that they had not been consulted before the lawsuit was filed.

The Caucus’s demand that an AGM be held has also gone unanswered to this point. A long-time NPA supporter and previous Board member wrote to me the other day doubting that the Board could organize a proper AGM: “They couldn’t work their way out of a paper bag,” they wrote.

Word on the street is that Ken Sim — who barely failed to be elected as NPA’s mayoral candidate in 2018 — is thinking of starting a new party. Given the resources that one suspects will be behind his next run for office, I would assume that he could have engineered a takeover of the NPA if he and his backers thought there was any value left in the brand. Apparently they don’t, so why should anyone else?

Low drama on the civic scene – great fun for those of us on the outside looking in.

Will The NPA Survive?

January 31, 2021

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a piece about the 2022 civic election that touched on the troubles within the Non-Partisan Association (NPA). Since then, their problems have exploded into the public’s consciousness with a fury I am sure they never expected.

On January 21st, the Tyee published an article entitled “Worries Rise that NPA Board Could Run Extremist Candidates in 2022,” which expanded on some of the issues I had raised and featured details about Angelo Isidorou, a recently empaneled NPA Director. Isidorou was photographed at a 2017 protest wearing a MAGA hat and flashing a hand signal widely recognized as a symbol of white power.

This was far from the first instance of right-wing extremism shown by the current NPA Board. Director Wes Mussio has strongly criticized mask-wearing, and has used Trumpian insults to describe BC’s pandemic response, preferring to live in Florida rather than Vancouver. Christopher Wilson, who used to work for the extremist right-wing Rebel Media outfit, suggested last year that residents should harass homeless people whom he called “lowlifes.”

Isidorou and Mussio were added to the NPA Board last November when two more moderates resigned. Councillor Rebecca Bligh had resigned from the NPA Caucus early over similar concerns.

It seemed that the NPA Board had decided to try to ride out the storm by saying nothing about the Tyee article. However, the pressures from both outside and inside the party became too great and a statement was issued that satisfied none of their critics:

“The article is nothing more than part of a clearly co-ordinated smear campaign to besmirch a newly appointed board member, as well as a continued campaign against the conservative persuasion of the board,” the statement said. “It is becoming increasingly clear the smear campaign against the NPA and its board members are designed to distract from the poor governance of the City of Vancouver under Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his progressive allies from COPE, OneCity and the Green party.”

The Tyee responded by pointing out the falsehoods in the NPA statement, and the Vancouver Sun described the NPA statement as “decidedly Trumpian”:

“Mawhinney’s statement didn’t include the expression “fake news,” but it bore a distinctly Trumpian tone, and party leadership seemed to be following the former U.S. president’s template of refusing to answer journalists’ legitimate questions on matters of public interest, with party leadership choosing to attack media coverage deemed unfavourable, without actually refuting anything or citing any inaccuracies.”

With their first response withering on the vine, the NPA released another statement:

“On behalf of the NPA Board, the party denounces racism and discrimination of ALL forms. We are an inclusive political organization and support every citizen of Vancouver.”

Still not good enough, less than two hours later, the NPA’s entire elected 9-person caucus (described by the Breaker News as “dominated by liberal women” in contrast to the board “dominated by conservative men”) demanded that the NPA call an AGM to elect a Board that would “reflect the values of the elected caucus, long held ideals of the organization, membership, and the diversity of our city and residents.”

The following day, in an interview with Lynda Steele, Councillor Sara Kirby-Yung announced that an open AGM would be held.

Angelo Isidorou resigned from the Board, said his white power gesture was just “mimicking” Donald Trump, and that he planned to sue both the Tyee and Postmedia.

Tough days for the oldest party in Vancouver. The Sun ran an editorial cartoon which was forwarded to me by one of the party’s previous major donors with a note saying the party was now “a sad joke.”

GWAC on Strathcona Park

January 30, 2021

This month’s meeting of the Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC) is on Monday 1st February starting at 7:00pm. It is, as usual these days, a ZOOM meeting.

The main topic this month is the tent encampment on Strathcona Park, its impacts and possible solutions. The discussion will be led by Katie Lewis, secretary of the Strathcona Residents Association.

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 846 2095 7804 Passcode: 669540

Vancouver for Renters?

January 24, 2021

Last Thursday, SFU Public Square hosted a ZOOM conference entitled “Towards a More Equitable Housing System: Is Vancouver a City for Renters?” It was co-hosted by Meg Holden of SFU and journalist Kerry Gold. More than 500 people joined the event, including at least seven Vancouver City councilors. It was, in my judgement, a very worthwhile two hours because of the range of viewpoints expressed.

The meeting kicked off with a poll asking participants to select the most urgent housing issues facing Vancouver at this time. 62% said homelessness, 52% cited affordability, and 47% suggested a lack of social and co-op housing opportunities.

The meeting proper began with a presentation by Andy Yan using his vast collection, and understanding, of the relevant data. He showed that renters represent 53% of households in the City, about the same as since 1971. This population is not spread evenly across the city: his maps shows 82% in Strathcona, 81% in the West End, and 62% in Grandview.

Further graphs showed that it is considerably more expensive to own property in Metro Vancouver than it is to rent (without even taking the down payment into consideration) and this shows, in his opinion, that renting is the wave of the future. His data also shows that roughly half of all renters earn less than $50,250 a year, whereas the median income of owners is $88,431.

Another interesting graph showed that for the purpose built rentals (PBR) approved between 2017 and 2020, 25% had anticipated rents suitable for those earning $150,000 and over, 66% for those earning over $80,000. Very few has rents suitable for the vast majority of the population earning a living wage.

Yan also noted that beyond affordability, accessibility is a real problem as the vast majority of new build approvals from 2009-2018 were market rental, with just a small number of rental suites. Thus being a renter has become significantly harder over the last decade.

Following the presentation, two more polls were conducted:

In the first we were asked to choose what types of rental should be built. 66% said co-ops, 63% said below market, and 53% said social.

In the second we were asked to prioritize the rental protection measures we wanted to see. 77% suggested protection of the current rental stock, 69% voted for anti-speculation measures, and 57% wanted more protection for displaced renters. I should note that vacancy control was not on the poll list but was given as an alternative by many of us i the chat box.

The panel discussion consisted on contributions from Evan Siddall of CMHC, Barbara Steenbergen of the International Union of Renters, Leilani Farha from The Shift, William Azerofff of Brightside Housing, and Khelsilem representing the Squamish Nation.

Sidddall kicked off the debate by decrying the glorification of home ownership and promoting a shift to rentals. He believes a paradigm shift is needed in cities that currently favour the rich.

Barbara Steenbergen gave a welcome European perspective, noting that in most of Europe housing is a right, that renters have significant protections, and that there is little or no disdain for public housing. She also noted that their are social rent laws in much of Europe. She suggested that it takes time to develop these protections and that we in Canada are just at the start of that process.

Leilana Farha made a pitch that what she calls the financialization of rental housing — the buying up of rental properties by REIT-financed corporations who then increase rents to improve their profits — IS speculation and must be seen as such.

Khelsilem gave a pitch about the 6,000 units the Squamish people are currently building on their land in Vancouver, with much more to follow on the Jericho lands etc. However all of these will be market rentals, with no social housing. He was very keen on the build more for affordability nonsense that decades of experience in Vancouver has proven to be false. He also seemed to suggest they would need huge subsidies in order to build more affordable housing.

Bill Azeroff discussed how Brightside is planning to expand on their existing properties to create more affordable units. He believe it is vital to have rents that are affordable in the areas of the city is which people have grown attached.

In the general discussion that followed, it was depressing to hear so many people still claiming that the only way toward affordability is to keep building unaffordable rentals. The myth of trickle down — which has never worked in ANY economic sphere — is still alive and kicking in Vancouver.

That being said, this was a valuable discussion and it was particularly interesting to hear the perspective of a European expert on how far behind we are in this field.

A New Governance for Vancouver

January 19, 2021

Vancouver City Council is today debating a report on civic elections and ballots. It seems a good time to revive my New Governance Model for Vancouver. The changes that we need are radical both in terms of policy and the form of governance under which those policies are pursued. This essay is a reworking of my thoughts on those subjects.


Vancouver is currently governed under a weak-Mayor system, with a Mayor and 10 Councillors elected at-large. Less than 40% bother to vote even though the municipal government controls much of how we live on a day-to-day basis. It has proven itself to be a system far too open to big-money, big union, ideological, and other influences that many consider malign in an electoral context. I would scrap the current system and rebuild it from scratch.

First, I would eliminate political parties from the municipal realm, I would eliminate the position of Mayor completely, and I would introduce wards rather than the at-large system. 

With regard to political parties, it may come as a shock to some to learn that Vancouver is the only major Canadian city that allows parties to operate at the municipal level. It is vital in my opinion that elected representatives be accountable to the voters that elected them rather than to some amorphous party that selected them. 

It may also be a surprise to some that wards are the usual way of managing Canadian urban areas and that Vancouver is once again a unique outlier.  I would suggest Vancouver have 15 wards, each representing about 50,000 residents. There are 23 or 24 recognized “neighbourhoods” but several are small enough to be merged.

Some have suggested using the 11 Provincial ridings in Vancouver as the basis for the wards, giving about 65,000 residents in each. My only concern with that idea is that Provincial politicians might gerrymander those ridings for Provincial political purposes, and without value to the City.

The case to be made for wards seems to be well accepted by many that I talk with. A few have suggested a mixed Council system where there are both ward and at-large Councillors. I see that as an unnecessary complication (do they have different voting rights? they will need different balloting and financing rules) without any genuine value-add.  However, as I have written this weekend, a mixed Council might be a first step towards a full ward system; a first step that would be better than what we have today.

Eliminating parties and bringing in wards are both ways to bring democracy closer to the individual.


As mentioned above, we operate in a weak-Mayor system, meaning that the Mayor has only a single vote along with each of the Councillors, and cannot break ties. It serves no genuine purpose other than to polish the ego of the person holding that position.

I would eliminate the election for Mayor. In its place I would institute a rotating chair system, in which the six leading Council vote-getters chair the body for a period of six months each.

One correspondent whose opinion I have valued over the years was worried, I believe, about the lack of a Mayor:

“you’re missing a crucial piece: the relationship with the civil service or: responsible government. Who takes ownership of staff work and can reps keep denying agency by following staff recommendations?”

My assumption is that the rotating chair would, in the absence of a Mayor, fulfil whatever executive management functions the former Mayor had completed.  I am hoping my critic expands on the issue as I am not sure I see a major problem here.  At least the discussion on that point allowed many of us to agree that the politicisation of the public service needs to stop and be reversed.

Some quick mental arithmetic will show that I am calling for a three year Council term (though I would prefer to return eventually to the two-year cycle) and I would propose a three-term limit for any Councillor.

There has been talk since the last election of somehow limiting the number of candidates. I would find any form of financial deposit to be obnoxious, designed to hamper the poor, and I am glad to see the current Council agrees.

However, I see no reason why a candidate should not be required to gather a substantial number of sponsors (say, 500) before throwing their hat in the ring. Without a party behind them for support, this will mean that each potential candidate will need to get out and do some face to face politicking with their friends and neighbours well in advance of a poll. We will gain from that better informed and better-known candidates in each ward, able to articulate their concerns and solutions.

I would like to see management of Vancouver elections be taken over by an independent third-party; Elections BC seems to the obvious answer.

Election Finances:

2018 was an interesting election so far as the money went. Some parts of the new Electoral Financing Act worked quite well: Election expenses were drastically reduced from the last election, because election donations totalled less than $1 million for all parties combined, so clearly some effect was being seen.  However, there are issues with billboard advertizing prior to the election, the cost of “volunteer’ labour, and the issue of dark money being funnelled to parties before certain legal dates.  We need to examine this election closely, see what needs to be tightened up still further, and hold the NDP’s feet to the fire until they actually change the law.

The key is to ensure that all monies that can be or are being used for political  purposes in, before, or after a campaign, from whatever source and given at any date be as transparent as possible and as available in as close to real time as possible. 

Of course, having no parties, no Mayor, and no at-large system — as I have suggested — changes the election expense pattern significantly. That will have to be taken into account in the redrafting.

Council Business:

In addition to the meta-changes suggested above, there other principles I believe should be adopted forthwith. 

  1. Public “real time” display of all City expenditures.
  2. Immediate elimination of all Non Disclosure Agreements for City business; if it involves public money, then everything must be public; if you don’t want to be public, then don’t do business with the city.
  3. If you or your company or your family members have made municipal political contributions to a municipal campaign within the previous four years, you cannot do business with the City (this would be a City rule, no need to amend the Charter).
  4. Return to line-item budgeting with details enough for everyone to understand.
  5. Make Vancouver number 1 in North America for the openness, speed, and efficiency of our FOI system.
  6. All documents regarding city policies, planning, and development to be made public at least six weeks prior to Council deliberation.  If later documents are created, then the meeting dates must be rescheduled in accord with this rule (no more showing up with 25 pages of amendments on the day of the vote).
  7. In camera sessions to be held exclusively for legal and personnel matters only.

There are probably others that should be included but, if just these seven proposals were adopted, our municipal government would be significantly more accountable and, I believe, far more efficient. 

If we can achieve this level of cooperation, trusting the public, then we might be ready for something seriously radical such as having recallable delegates rather than representatives, and referenda democracy a la Switzerland.

I hope the discussions continue and I look forward to some actual changes!

Commodity Housing

January 16, 2021

I went to the barbers today. It was busy, with all the chairs full. In the chair next to mine was a man in his late 20s, I would guess, chatting to his hairdresser, about the same age. For the full twenty minutes, they discussed the house that the client was preparing to buy.

Not once did he ever mention the aesthetics of the building or the landscaping. Not once did he talk about what a great place it would be to raise his kids or to have fun with his friends. No, his entire conversation was about maximizing his potential profit over the next 3 to 5 years. That was it, that was all he had to talk about; that was all that concerned him.

My parents, over the course of 50 years or so, moved from a cold-water inner-city slum to a modest semi-detached in the suburbs, then to a large rural house, and finally downsized to a suburban cottage. I bet that in all those moves, the question of profit from the property was never thought of. Making sure you could afford the move was important, sure, but having a comfortable and right-sized home was all that really mattered.

That mind-set has clearly changed and, in my opinion, it is this commodification of housing — encouraged by the real estate developers and their sycophants at City Hall — that keeps us in the mess we are today.

Another Reason For A Ward System

January 14, 2021

Regular readers may remember that I have pushed for a return to a ward system of elections in Vancouver for many years (see, for example, here, here, and here). Now, buried deep within a new report to City Council on electoral reform, we find a recommendation to change “the Vancouver electoral system from an at-large system to a ward-system.”

The recommendation is on page 66 of an appendix to a report on “Election Ballot Order Effects in Vancouver Municipal Elections” A commissioned report prepared for the City of Vancouver by two academics from Simon Fraser University, Eline de Rooij and Corinne Henderson. The appendix is to a City Staff report entitled “Report Back on the Random Order Ballot Model Used in the 2018 Vancouver Election.”

An excellent discussion on the entire report is found at CityHallWatch which also includes a full transcript of the appendix.

It will be interesting to see whether this particular recommendation is even mentioned in the Council discussion which is scheduled for 19th January. The NPA, for example, was founded in the 1930s specifically to fight the first at-large election after wards were eliminated; and the wards were eliminated specifically to defeat the incursion of the newly-formed CCF which threatened to take the then-existing eastside wards. I’m not aware of any change in their stance.

The local Greens have not, to my memory, ever pressed for a return to wards. The views of OneCity (and Kennedy Stewart) are also unknown to me but, as they seem to be the latest avatar of Vision Vancouver, it is unlikely they would support the change.

Back in about 2004, COPE made an attempt to bring the question of wards into focus but, as Allan Garr described it, “they fumbled the opportunity.”

Could this report re-open the debate? I hope so, but I am not holding my breath.

Calendar Date For Renters

January 11, 2021

The SFU Public Square is putting on a forum called “Towards a More Equitable Housing System: Is Vancouver a City for Renters?” It will be a ZOOM meeting on 21st January between 3:00pm and 5:00pm.

SFU’s description of the event:

Beginning in the early 1970s the percentage of Vancouver households living in rental units has been greater than 50%. Nevertheless, renters consistently face difficulties in finding housing that is adequate, stable and secure, with, in more recent years, rental affordability becoming a particularly challenging and detrimental issue for many households. While some in the city may strive for home ownership, data tells us that this possibility has become increasingly out of reach, even for those with moderate incomes.

Given the reality that a majority of Vancouverites will most likely continue to live in rental housing, what does this mean for the next generation, for seniors and families, for low-income, racialized and marginalized households, and for the many others who do not see a secure housing future in Vancouver?

How must the City of Vancouver think differently about housing and the housing market to better meet the needs of its residents, ensuring priority for those with the greatest need?

What is required of a new city-wide plan to ensure the urgent and transformative change necessary to establish an equitable housing system?

Join us to discuss these questions at the second event of The Future We Want: The Change We Need series.

There is an interesting range of speakers. Full details can be found at the SFU Public Square page.

Early Thoughts on 2022 Civic Election

January 10, 2021

We are now less than two years away from the next Vancouver civic election, and just about two years past the last one. It is about time we started thinking about how this will play out.

The makeup of City Council after the 2018 election was completely different than in the decade before. Unfortunately, it quickly became obvious that while we had changed the packaging, the content was much the same as before.  Mayor Stewart, supported by the VDLC, is a clone of Gregor Robertson but without the charm or charisma. He and One City’s Christine Boyle seem bolted at the hip when it comes to voting and generally at least two of the three Green Councillors are willing to go along. That means that getting just two NPA Councillors on board creates a majority, especially on development issues where the NPA are traditionally supportive of development and construction.

Vision 2.0 as I call Stewart’s coalition has the same top-down approach to city building as did Vision Vancouver. They may have changed the focus from unaffordable condos (no longer marketable by their developer buddies) to unaffordable purpose built rentals, but the “we know best” attitude is exactly the same. Supported by the Visionista holdovers in major staff positions, communities are regularly trampled on with just lip service paid to consultation. Clearly I can’t support them in 2022.

Looked at in the broadest terms, the Vancouver Greens whom I have supported over the years have been a terrible disappointment, going along with much of Vision 2.0’s program. I suspect they will make efforts to distance themselves from the Mayor over the next couple of years, for electoral purposes, but their record so far has been abysmal. In both Federal and Provincial politics, the Greens have been centrists (at best) in everything but environmental policy, and the civic group seems determined to follow that path.

The NPA is a party with a split personality. Some of its Councillors — Colleen Hardwick in particular — have been at the forefront of attempts to reform the civic administration. They have supported an Auditor-General (against a much broader opposition behind the scenes than was apparent from the final votes) and attempts to get meaningful housing statistics. However, recent additions to the NPA Board suggest the party has drifted further right than anyone with sense would wish, and with moderates such as David Chen and Virginia Richards leaving the fold, their future seems dark indeed.

Former NPA members such as Ken Sim and George Affleck have intimated a desire to run again, but where would their home be? Certainly not the NPA represented by the current Board.

As Vision 2.0 and its partner OneCity drift away from a genuine social democracy (not unlike their big brother in Victoria) where does that leave the left? Councillor Jean Swanson is still the darling of many and there is much to admire in her work. However, she has also on occasion bought into the Vision 2.0 notion that a tiny increase in almost-affordable apartments is worth giving developers the moon.

And where is COPE? Has it been ham-strung by the corporatist VDLC? Does it have it in it to rise to the occasion and actually threaten the corporatist parties with a campaign worthy of the red flag? I haven’t seen any signs of that yet. Perhaps we need to persuade the BC EcoSocialists to concentrate on civic politics for a while.

I’m sure my views will evolve as this year and next drift by, but these are my thoughts today.

The Cost of Gentrification

December 11, 2020

Salon has an interesting column on the costs of gentrification.  The writer is talking of American cities but the relevance to Vancouver’s situation is clear and obvious.

“The not-so-hidden message of gentrification is that there is always plenty of money to go around, even public money, for the whims of the rich. But for low-income folks — whether they’re the residents pushed out by development, the city employees shafted as priorities shift, or building workers brought in for the new jobs — those resources are a mirage. The private development of mass gentrification, made way for by public policy including public financing, not only systematically ossifies but intensifies the economic inequality within our nation’s cities.

As Ta-Nehesi Coates once wrote for the Atlantic,

[W]hen we talk about gentrification, understand that we really are talking about the result of actual policies endorsed, not simply by shadowy interests group, but by actual Americans, erected with the explicit intent of making sure that another group of Americans remain a permanent peon class.”

The writer calls gentrification’s methods “brutal” and the end results “truly tragic”. That is probably true. But I see genuine benefits from the kind of change that comes direct from residents. I think of this not as gentrification (which always comes from outside) but rather as a necessary and healthy renovation (always coming from within), regardless of whether this change is in form or in use.  Gentrification and renovation are not two sides of a single coin, they are each a distinct currency.

This piece is worth reading, even several years after it was written.

How Eco-Density Ruined Planning In Vancouver

December 10, 2020


In January 2014, I quoted Planner Wendy Sarkissian on the history of Eco-Density, the Sam Sullivan/Brent Toderian planning paradigm that Vision Vancouver vigorously opposed to win their first electoral success in 2008 but which, upon taking office, they vigorously adopted and expanded giving us the unaffordable and almost unlivable city we have today.  As I see a new group of community activists beginning to take arms against the determinism of CoV Planning and their developer cronies, I thought it would be worthwhile to reprint that article as a reminder that we have been fighting this fight for a very long time.

* * * *

One of Australia’s leading urban planning theorists, Wendy Sarkissian, has been looking at Vancouver’s planning system, and she has little good to say about it, especially Eco-Density:

It is now widely accepted that the [Eco-Density] Charter misrepresented community views and did not adequately address issues raised in the public process. There were strong community complaints of misrepresentation by Council officers (and senior planners) of the contents of community submissions; there were serious weaknesses in the analysis of submissions about the draft Charter. In meetings to work out the Charter, it was observed that the moderator skewed public comments.
In the community’s view, the 2008 EcoDensity Charter represented a “battering ram” approach to densification. Considerable discretionary power was eventually granted to Council by the Charter, thus undermining well-established policies of community engagement and implementation. Despite the extensive publicity campaign, the community hated and distrusted the policy. It sank Sam Sullivan politically. Shortly after he announced it, his popularity went into steep decline and, despite thirteen years as a City Councillor, he lost candidature after only one term as Mayor …
Research reveals that even the City of Vancouver planners were not convinced that the policy would work. Brent Toderian was quoted in 2007 as saying: “EcoDensity won’t provide housing that meets average incomes. I don’t think we would affect housing supply to the point that prices would go down.”
* * * *

Groups such as AHV would have us keep on that Vision pathway of build for the sake of building and for the sake of corporate profit. If only they would understand the recent history — say the 30 years from 1990 to today — they might understand that their path leads to an even more ruinous future than the one already bequeathed us.