Vancouver Byelection Thoughts

Today is the byelection to fill the seat vacated by Geoff Meggs, and to elect an entire school board after the last one was unceremoniously fired by the provincial government. I gave some of my thoughts on Episode 56 of the podcast, but wanted to put a few more thoughts down about the byelection. I am going to focus on the council seat because I have not followed the school board election closely. This post is going to focus on the main candidates. While there is a lot I like in Damian Murphy’s response to Abundant Housing Vancouver’s questionnaire, at the end of the day, he and the other independent candidates, save one, have a near zero  chance of getting elected.

As with most of the coverage and discussions of the byelection, I place housing at the top of the list of principal issues. Which isn’t to say that some other issue couldn’t be the tie breaker between two candidates, only that housing accounts for about 98% of my decision matrix. At least as far as this election goes, I am more or less a single issue voter. The other criteria I am looking at is whether candidates propose policies that are actually within the city council’s jurisdiction to enact. A candidate wins no points from me for proposing something the city council can not do. The election campaign is effectively an extended job interview. I wouldn’t hire someone who showed up to job interview not knowing what the job is, and I am not going to vote for someone who doesn’t seem to know what the role of the city councilor is. Jean Swanson, for example, is running on a housing platform that requires provincial legislation for every headline item (rent freeze, mansion tax). If Jean Swanson wants to change the provincial laws she should run for MLA. I am looking for someone to govern the city and vote on city matters at council.

Jean Swanson has done a surprising good job at shaping the debate in this election for an independent candidate. Part of that is she has the support of the leftist COPE and the other part is solid campaigning by her and her team. The campaign appears well organized and Jean Swanson is always on message. Swanson’s signature policy is a rent freeze, which is little more than rebranded rent control. Although the policy calls for it to be in effect for four years and

Jean Swanson’s response to Coalition of Vancouver Neighborhoods questionnaire

reviewed at the end of that period, I would bet every cent I would earn in those four years that she would push for it to be extended. It is her support for rent control that is a big red line for me. Rent control has been shown time and time again decrease the quantity and the quality of available rental units. With the acute rental shortage and rock bottom vacancy rates, such a measure would only exacerbate the problems in the rental market. Jean Swanson’s rent control policies would privilege incumbent renters at the expense of new renters who must compete for the increasingly scarce rental units. Swanson also supports a neighbourhood veto over development, which ironically would further privilege the rich mansion owners she has railed against. Between rent control, opposition to denser development in single family neighborhoods and supporting further empowering NIMBYs I believe Jean Swanson’s policies would be a disaster for housing in this city.

Running on a somewhat similar progressive brand is One City’s Judy Graves. But while the progressive brand and marketing may be similar, there are major policy differences. Notably Judy Graves supports city wide zoning changes to allow apartments in all neighborhoods. This is a stand out, winning policy for me and Judy Graves gets a big kudos for it. A major contributing factor to the housing problems in this city is the atrocious land use policies of the City of Vancouver that reserve the vast majority of the land for expensive, low density, single family homes. It is literately illegal to build an apartment building in most of Vancouver. I do have some reservations about some of her policies. Expanding inclusionary zoning is major part of the platform but I am not sold on it’s effectiveness. And there is the previously mention provincial jurisdiction issue when it comes to the progressive property tax Graves is proposing. And perhaps most troubling is the One City has been less than clear on where they stand on rent control. At the West End Housing and Homelessness Forum Graves said she did not think a rent freeze would work but her response to the Vancouver Tenants Union questionnaire was more favourable to it. Over all Judy Graves has a really solid housing platform and everyone, especially those left of center should give her a serious look when deciding who to vote for.

I don’t have much to say about Diego Cardona, running for Vision. They have been running the city for nearly ten years now and have failed to adequately respond to the housing crisis. They have been slow to respond and what they have done has been too little too late. Even their much vaunted Cambie Corridor plan still reserves areas within walking distance of the Canada Line for single family houses. And that whole unambitious plan is only finally happening eight years after the Canada Line opened. I do sort of like Diego’s new six unit “Vancouver special” but there is simply no way Vision will have my vote.

Pete Fry is probably the most knowledgeable and articulate of the candidates but has the major downside of running for the Greens on the Green’s platform. The Greens are the most NIMBY friendly party out there. They opposed the Broadway subway extension over concerns it would spur too much development and they want to spend public dollars to empower neighborhood groups to throw yet another monkey wrench into the already way to difficult process of building desperately needed homes. Experience from other cities has shown these local groups rather than help plan better, help plan to exclude new housing and new residents. Seattle is getting rid of their equivalent city funded neighborhood groups, in part because of the recognition of how they privilege incumbent voices and are used to exclude new comers to the neighborhood. And Carr is by far my least favourite councilor. I once heard her complain that a project wouldn’t have enough parking. I am not sure what she was smoking to make her think more parking was green. Pete Fry seems like a smart guy, probably the smartest of all the candidates, but as long as he supports Carr and the NIMBYs there is no way I will ever vote for him.

Finally, is Hector “The Connector” Bremner of the NPA. He is more or less running on a YIMBY platform, calling for widespread upzoning to allow more homes in all the neighbourhoods in the city, which is music to my ears. As mentioned above the city has horrible land use patters that greatly contribute to its housing problems. Not only does zoning create housing shortages but Vision’s policy of spot upzoning adds cost, uncertainty and delays to building new homes. It fuels speculation as people rush to capitalize on spot rezonings and the discretionary nature of it hurts public trust and fuels perceptions of corruption and city hall being in the pocket of developers. Bermner’s proposal would ameliorate those issues. Permitting delays are an often-ignored problem that Bremner is also campaigning on fixing. It can take 2 or more years to get a permit to build approved, especially if rezoning is involved. Right now, if you were to be gifted an empty lot and the money to build below market housing for those in need, it would be two years before the first shovel would hit the ground, then months of construction time. That is two years of paying property taxes, and project managers to push the paperwork through the city government. All of which are real costs that add up and make new housing more expensive and squeeze out the small scale builders and less profitable projects. Supply problems are not the only factor at work in Vancouver’s increasingly out of control housing market, but they are the main one the city government has control over. Hector gets points from me for focusing entirely on what is in the city’s control.

At the same time, there are certainly things to criticize about Hector Bremner. Dodging questions during the West End Housing Forum about the BC Liberal’s record on housing, after having brought up his time in the Housing Minister’s office, was definitely a low point. And his view that if we just improved consultations, people would be on board with development, is naive at best. Time and time again people show up to consultations to complain about the most mundane and minor points, regardless of the merits of the project. That is not unexpected. The costs of a project are visible and concentrated among a small group of neighbours, who have an understandable incentive to oppose a new building next door, while the benefits are dispersed among the city in the form of lower real estate prices, and for those with a concentrated benefit, ie those who will live in the new building likely don’t even know who they are, so won’t show up to support the building. All of this creates a major status quo, anti-development bias in any consultation. The NPA has a mixed history with densification. Former Mayor Sam Sullivan proposed Eco-density before he left office but the current NPA councilors are not as pro more housing as Bremner and it remains to be seen if this is a genuine change of direction for the party or a blip before returning to old ways. And personally, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about Bremner, which I think is the slightly too polished, not entirely genuine slick politician persona. However, all things considered, the excellent platform does overcome those reservations.

The most striking aspect of this byelection, is how the debate has shifted. On one side Jean Swanson has been successful at making a rent freeze a major campaign issue. On the other almost all candidates, including the NIMBYist Greens, have at least paid lip service to upzoning and expanding the housing stock, with several going as far as to propose some of the widest spread changes since Vancouver adopted Euclidean zoning. Overall the positions taken by the candidates were good and present several options for those looking for a pro-housing candidate to vote for. Jean Swanson’s rent control and Pete Fry’s placation of NIMBYs exclude them from consideration, for who I will be voting for. Diego Cardona would be okay, if not for the massive weight around his neck that is Vision Vancouver and their lackluster record. Hector Bremner and Judy Graves both have excellent pro housing platforms. While I didn’t mention them Mary Jean Dunsdon and Damian Murphy have staked out similar positions. I would encourage anyone who cares about housing in this election to give Bremner and Graves serious consideration. For me personally, Bremner’s platform over comes my reservations about him and just barely edges out Judy Grave’s excellent, if not for the ambiguity over rent control, platform.

I am about to head out to vote, I encourage you to do the same.

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One response to “Vancouver Byelection Thoughts”

  1. I’ll add my thoughts as a comment since I don’t feel like writing out an entire blog post of my own.

    First, I’ll start with the Vancouver School Board. My wife’s a teacher and I’m personally big on the importance of our education system ensuring the future health of our society and democracy. I also believe that if we’re going to elect a school board (and I still think it’s a good idea) then those trustees should be advocates and not just stewards of our system. Otherwise, why not just appoint a bureaucrat to manage it?

    With that in mind, my ballot ended up matching the endorsements (and reasoning) of blogger Raymond Tomlin at VanRamblings

    • Adi Pick (independent)
    • Diana Day (COPE)
    • Carrie Bercic and Erica Jaaf (OneCity)
    • Vision Vancouver Slate.

    The one note I’ll add is that Jamie Lee Hamilton (IDEA) was also potentially on my ballot. Hamilton’s a long time progressive activist in Vancouver and has run for every position except mayor (I believe) in past elections. She’d be a strong voice for reconciliation in schools and marginalized communities. That said, I think the energy and momentum is with Pick and I really love the idea of a twenty-year old building a strong campaign.

    Vancouver City Council

    Ultimately, I voted for Swanson. I think she’s built an incredible grassroots campaign, that as Scott notes, has driven the narrative in this byelection. This energy, passion and left-radicalism is something I want to see more of in our politics and frankly probably gives her the best shot of the “left” candidates (ie Fry, Graves or even Cardona).

    I do share some of Scott’s concerns over rent control as a long-term policy and her similar aversion to the Broadway Line that Fry has. That said, Vancouver rental and housing is in crisis mode. Freezing rents (which won’t actually happen since she’d be one voice on a council that doesn’t have the power to implement the policy) for four years gives some assurance to the people who will otherwise be pushed out of the city while we start to look at longer term fixes.

    Those fixes, from Swanson’s point of view, are a mix of building social housing and taxing the wealthy (which ultimately pays for some of the construction). If the mansion tax pushes some to sell, it can act as a brake on Vancouver’s out-of-control real estate market, slowing the prices down while also making the social housing construction more realistic.

    In the end, this byelection comes down for me over this ongoing debate over whether housing is a right or something to be fixed by the market. Given the forces pressing on the City of Vancouver – rapid population growth versus its fixed land area – we face a tragedy of the commons. There are definitely things to be fixed on the market side – such as zoning restrictions, the building permitting process and consultations being usurped by NIMBYism (cough Bremner) – but the market will always favour those with wealth over those without. In my view, we do need to get governments back into the housing market. Margot Young pointed out repeatedly in last week’s forum how far behind Canada is relative to comparable countries in how much of our housing is provided by the market. While this might be sustainable in rural Canada, where land is plentiful and cheap, in downtown Vancouver we need a different approach. Jean Swanson presents that opportunity.

    The Rest

    While I like Judy Graves and the fact that many of her policies line up with Swanson, I was underwhelmed by her performance at the forum. She lacked the passion that I think is needed to be an effective opposition (which either would be) to the status quo and anecdotally I have seen far more momentum behind Swanson. In a byelection where the left is very fractured, finding the consensus candidate becomes even more important.

    I share most of Scott’s concerns with Pete Fry. While he seems to know his policy inside and out, his opposition to the Broadway Line (in favour of buses??) and the municipal Greens questionable track record veto him from my ballot.

    Similarly with Diego Cardona. He did exceed expectations at the forum for me, but those were somewhat low to begin with. While I hope to see him continue in politics, this seems like Vision’s sacrificial campaign – where they knew going in that all the cards were stacked against them and Cardona was set up to fail. I’m still somewhat sympathetic to Vision’s ultimate platform but it’s been nine years and aside from some bikelanes (that I’m very supportive of), it doesn’t feel like they have enough to show for it.

    Hector Bremner’s deep connection to the BC Liberals makes me immediately skeptical of him as does the hypocrisy of his YIMBY after NIMBY stance. At the forum he most came across to me as the stereotypical politician in the worst ways. While I am sympathetic to the mass upzoning proposals (rather than project by project status quo), I’m still skeptical as to how much of a dent it would have in the crisis we face – particularly for those hit most hardest by it.

    Finally, among the independents, I think Mary Jean “Watermelon” Dunsdon stands out the most – particularly for her emphasis on tackling the opioid epidemic (which has not received the attention it deserves in this debate) through harm reduction and promoting liberal approaches to cannabis decriminalization and accessibility in transit. That said, independents generally face an incredible uphill battle with this city’s absurd at-large first-past-the-post electoral system.

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