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BC Government Economic Strategy Calls for Fewer Jobs in Vancouver, More Sprawl

Does Vancouver have too many jobs, particularly in the tech sector? The BC government seems to think so.

In January the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer reported on an government economic strategy report that was circulating within the government. I have obtained a copy of the report via a FOI request.

You can read the report here.

Most of the strategy consists of the typical and uncontroversial type of support that governments are inclined to give various sectors of the economy. Mining, agriculture and forestry all have dedicated sub-strategies.

The forestry section notably shows a government that is strongly committed to developing a mass timber building industry and developing expertise within the province. The strategy calls for making mass timber the default building material for provincial buildings.

What will likely be much more controversial is the plan to push jobs out of Vancouver to other parts of the province.

Citing cost of living and strain on city infrastructure, the plan includes multiple polices aimed at discouraging jobs from locating in Vancouver. The BC government is promising to spend money to try to push companies that would otherwise locate in highly economically productive, environmentally sustainable cities to other parts of the province.

A significant body of economic research shows that cities are more economically productive and innovative than non-urban areas. The BC Government may end up spending money in a way that reduces economic growth and innovation compared to a business as usual scenario.

Access to government start up grants are to be conditioned on a company not locating in major cities. Companies wanting to locate in Vancouver and take advantage of government grants would be forced to choose.

Immigration policy would also be used to attempt to decentralize population and jobs. Provincially controlled or influenced immigration programs would be directed to encourage participants to locate in suburban and rural areas.

While the strategy views “livability” as a challenge for established, large population centers, scant attention is directed towards improving livability where people currently live and work. Instead effort is directed to spread growth elsewhere on the unsupported assumption that it will be more livable.

Most confusingly, the report suggest this forced sprawl of start ups would be good for the environment, despite the locations being proposed being more car depended and lacking the opportunities that Vancouver offers for people to walk or take transit to work. The result of this plan would be to increase vehicle miles traveled, worsen congestion and increase BC’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The strategy’s approach to the infrastructure challenges in BC’s larger cities is not scale up investments to meet the needs of the city, but to attempt to slow employment growth in cities. The provincial budget, released on Tuesday, February 18th, notably did not include any new commitments to improve transportation within Metro Vancouver.

The NDP government have made significant commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 2007 levels by 2050. It is hard to square those commitments with a plan that doubles down on suburban sprawl and would emissions.

This post has been updated from a previous version to include a paragraph on the strategy’s immigration policy

Which MLAs aren’t team players?

Four MLAs didn’t give their party a penny.

The state of BC’s party finances

Good afternoon! Patrick from Cambie Report here with some analysis I managed to work through quickly.

Elections BC released the 2018 annual financial disclosures today and I had the chance to do a quick a skim.

Using the roughest of measures, cash on hand minus liabilities, we can get a sense of the overall health of each of the major parties.

The small amount held by the BC Liberals is mostly due to a $1.5 million loan that was undertaken in 2018. This was presumably, in large part, to fight against the proportional representation referendum. Noteworthy, the BC Greens cash on hand is about $50k more than they had to fight the entire 2017 election with. It may be safe to assume that Green party leadership are quite happy with their current financial footing.

Moving on to the total contributions in 2018:

While it looks like the BC Liberals fundraising machine is broken, it’s worth remembering it was a leadership cycle year, so they likely have similar fundraising capacity as the BC NDP at this point. Even with that assumption, the BC Liberals have not been outspent by the BC NDP since the 1991 election. Even if the BC Liberals manage to overcome their $5 million deficit versus the BC NDP between now and next election, fighting a campaign on equal financial footing with the NDP would be new and probably quite difficult for the BC Liberal Party.

These numbers raise quite a few questions around the possible timing of the next provincial election. For example, this gives the NDP Government the comfort to stay in office for longer if it would like, or to engineer a snap election should the BC Liberals look to dump their current leader.

There have been rumours out of Victoria that Andrew Wilkinson is having considerable problems within his own caucus. This is notable as there were very few rumours in Victoria of the same difficulties before 13 BC NDP MLA’s came out to publicly call for Carole James to step down; nor when the BC Liberal caucus was ripped apart in 2010 resulting in the ousting of Gordon Campbell. With rumours of difficulty within caucus and a party that appears to be in financial disarray, this increases the possibility that Andrew Wilkinson may not be the leader of the BC Liberals following the summer of 2019; though it is relatively unlikely that anything will occur while the legislature is in session. Typically, MLAs will take the temperature of their riding during the summer BBQ circuit to determine how well they’re doing. If the Leader’s circuit is a flop, or if the feeling is he isn’t working out, there could be a rebellion at the summer caucus retreat. This is when we saw the knives come out for Christy Clark in 2017.

The Green Party’s financial position is quite strong and that they may be able to fight a robust third party campaign, which has not been seen since the emergence of the BC Liberal Party in 1991. While elections are inherently risky, the BC Greens are not in particular danger of losing any of their three current seats and they have a range of 3-5 seats that they may be able to realistically challenge in the next election. While that may not sound like much, an additional 4 MLAs would mean approximately 11 more full time Green Party staff jobs in both the Legislature and Constituency Offices, which helps to build the party substantially.

It’s notable that in the 2017 financial disclosures the BC Green Party registered just $1,000 in office furniture and computers, while now they are reporting $18,000. This is a sign the party’s political machine has professionalized and stood up as a real apparatus rather than existing in the dens and living rooms of its members. This is the best sign we have that the party is going to be much more capable of fighting a political campaign than they have ever been..

The BC NDP meanwhile are looking at potentially the largest financial disparity between themselves and the BC Liberals that they may ever see. Couple that with their relatively strong polling numbers and the
the perceived weakness of the Liberal leader and this leads to a very strong position to try to engineer an election. With a federal election in the fall, the earliest we would likely see a BC election would be around the 2020 budget cycle. That is of course assuming things are unlikely to come to a head in the remaining 8 weeks of the scheduled session (presumably with the agreement of the BC Greens) forcing an election.

While there was reason to speculate the BC Liberals being flat broke for several months now, it’s hard to know what is going on behind another party’s public face when you’re enmeshed in a political apparatus. That means that senior leadership of the BC NDP may not have been aware of just how underwater the BC Liberal Party was until today. So it will be interesting to see the signals from government over the coming weeks.

Bad PR Arguments Everyone Needs To Stop Making

The campaign over the proportional representation referendum is in full swing. As with any campaign, that brings on a slew of bad arguments. Hearing the same bad arguments, day after day, has gotten me to the point were I felt compelled to write this (even if it is just to blow off a little steam).

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.