Here Sean Antrim and Tristan Markle of the Mainlander interview Adriane Carr and Stuart Mackinnon of Vancouver’s Civic Green Party. Mackinnon is an incumbent Parks Board Commissioner, and is running for re-election. Carr is a candidate for City Council. On June 26 2011, the Civic Greens rejected Vision/COPE’s offer of only one candidate spot as part of a joint slate. Instead, the Greens are running three independent candidates – one for Council, one for Parks Board, and one for School Board. The election takes place Nov 19 2011.
Sean Antrim: What are you going to do to make Vancouver an affordable City?
Adriane Carr: That’s a big question. It has to be answered, and I want to really focus on that. It’s not an easy set of solutions, because we’ve had programs like EcoDensity from the NPA and the STIR program from Vision, neither are delivering affordable housing. These programs are also creating social conflict, with spot rezonings for incredibly high towers where they don’t fit. People are upset.To get affordable housing you have to work within the zoning that’s there so we don’t get the social conflict. People are okay with four storey or six storey or even smaller high-rises if it fits in with the neighbourhood. So let’s get that straight.
There are incentives that are being offered to developers that include density incentives that I think should be off the table. There are other incentives that could bring down the cost of housing. Those incentives might include reducing parking requirements in areas where you have good transit. You have to make a deal with the developers that says, if we give you these incentives, the cost of construction is going to come down, and that will be passed on, in a lower cost of housing, whether it’s rental or not.
We’ve also got incredibly strong lobbying from the City to the federal government to reinstate the kind of tax breaks that enticed developers to build intentional rental housing. I’ve talked to developers about whether or not that would work, and they’ve said yes, especially if you include some ongoing tax breaks for upgrading and maintaining rental housing, because it’s hard for delopers to say “I could build this condo unit, sell the unit off, make a bundle, or do I build this rental housing unit which has ongoing costs.”
You have to entice private investors, you have to put those tax breaks in place. One idea that Stuart and I have talked about is creating some of those affordable units in neighbourhoods along the transit corridors, near shopping and community centres already are, and create them in a variety of sizes and types so that people who are reaching retirement can sell a home that’s too big and move in to a unit that’s in the neighbourhood they love. We don’t have that in Vancouver right now, that level of affordable housing for every stage of the life cycle.
Tristan Markle: Where are some neighbourhoods or areas where that might work?
Adrianne Carr: You name one it will work. I can’t think of a place in Vancouver where there aren’t people who would relish the chance to do that. Dunbar, Marpole, East Vancouver, all over this city. We are an aging population. There are people who have homes that are too big. Those corridors exist.
Stuart Mackinnon: Look at Renfrew or Nanaimo, that’s a really good example where there are smaller homes. The population in that area is aging. Nanaimo and Renfrew are fairly busy corridors, and people don’t necessarily want a house along there, but you could build town-houses or lower-density buildings and get a lot more people in that neighbourhood, and those people are going to stay there. That’s what makes a neighbourhood strong.
Tristan Markle: I have a tough one now about the Downtown Eastside. Ellen Woodsworth just came out in favor of a moratorium on condo development in the DTES until the community plan is in place, with a strategy for housing people. I was wondering if you had a response.
Adriane Carr: We haven’t talked about any kind of moratorium on condo development, it just hasn’t come up in our conversations. I’ve worked in the DTES for many, many years. Prior to returning to politics in 2000, I worked with my husband at Western Canada Wilderness Committee and we had our main operation down on Water Street. So I’ve seen the deterioration of the Downtown Eastside. The solution in that area is not just about housing. It’s so complex. I saw such a deterioration in 1999 when we had a provincial NDP government and the deinstitutionalization of a lot of people from Riverview and they ended up in the DTES. The issues are mental health, drug addiction, the economy and the lack of even part-time work that could provide some sense of pride and usefulness in one’s life. There is a range of housing, some of which has to be socially supported housing, with a lot of support systems in place. The solution is not just stopping condos, it is really tackling the DTES as a very big social issue, and as a set of social issues.
Stuart Mackinnon: I understand what Ellen’s talking about, she’s talking about the displacement of people and gentrification, but we have to get beyond that analysis. In the Park Board when we did the redevelopment of Oppenheimer Park and the redevelopment of Pigeon Park, there was an incredible amount of push back from a certain segment saying we’re trying to gentrify. I was very offended by that. I’m saying, this neighbourhood deserves good parks as much as Shaunessy or Marpole or Point Grey does, so why are you stopping us from putting in excellent services in this neighbourhood, because you’re afraid of gentrification. The only way that we’re going to improve the plight down there is by putting in civic improvements. There’s going to have to be some sort of change in housing, because it’s all deteriorating. Whether we’re rebuilding single room occupancies, or putting in smaller units, or even putting in some condos, we’ve got to raise that neighbourhood. We can’t just let it continually deteriorate. Parks Board is doing its part by putting in first class parks down there. Now it’s the City’s turn, to start putting in first class services for those people.
Adriane Carr: Did you know that the very first issue that the Green Party of BC got involved in, was to support CRAB Park in the DTES. I was one of the co-founders in 1983. We asked people what we could do to help, and what the Green Party did was to get a porta-potty down there. That’s really the very first roots. I have to totally agree with Stuart. Gentrification is an issue that should be thought about, because that has happened in cities around the world, and this city too. But it’s about getting the complete quality of life enhanced and it’s just about providing housing, it’s about services, parks and open spaces, everything that makes quality of life better. I prefer and the Green Party has always supported communities that are robust and complete and mixed. You shouldn’t isolate social housing in any one neighbourhood of this city.
Tristan Markle: Do you have a plan to get social housing in other neighbourhoods?
Adriane Carr: Social housing comes with senior government support. It’s not paid for by the City, it’s the federal and provincial governments. I’m hearing people say that in the Mount Pleasant area, there seems to be a lot of socially supportive housing units going in. They’re asking “What about other parts of the city?” I’m willing commit to looking into that. I haven’t got an answer.
Stuart Mackinnon: What we’ve found is that there was the whole pushback at 41st and Fraser, when they were going to put in dual-diagnosis housing. There was an incredible push-back from the community because the City hadn’t done a proper engagement with the community. Once that was done, they realized that it enhanced the neighbourhood. There were people looking out for each other on the street. There was a more supportive network in that neighbourhood. Suddenly it was a safer neighbourhood than it was before. The City doesn’t do a very good job of getting out and talking with people and saying “this is what’s going to happen.” Instead they put this little notice in the newspaper that nobody can understand, that says “this is going to happen in your neighbourhood” and a little tiny bit at the bottom that says “if you don’t like this you can come and talk to our City planners.” This is not dialogue, and we’ve seen it over and over again. People push back.
Sean Antrim: So you’ve mentioned creating affordable housing by decreasing construction costs, but one of the major contributors to housing costs in Vancouver is the land. Is there any hope of decreasing land values, or is that something that the Green Party would even consider?
Adriane Carr: This is the biggest problem. We’re a global city, and we’re an attractive global city. Investors come here from around the world and it’s pushing up the price of land and housing, to beyond reach for local people. The solution is not just in the hands of the City. It has to be a comprehensive solution that spans all levels of government.
Right now, given that we are open to everyone investing here, the only thing that the City can control is the taxation levels on property, and the zoning. Both of those are signals around land value. When you open up the zoning issue, and the zoning by-law, to spot-rezoning, you escalate the price of land, you just do. Land prices do get set by the zoning that’s in place. So I think that the City has got to be diligent about sticking to a zoning plan. I believe it has to be diligent about moving off-track from what the City’s just adopted, such as the Regional Growth Strategy and get back to a Livable Region Plan, but that’s another issue.
In terms of the taxation of land, I do want to have a conversation the right mix of taxation. Only about eight cents on every dollar that Vancouverites pay out in taxes stays in the City. There’s a real fiscal imbalance in Canada. In terms of the mix between business and regular people paying tax, I think the shift onto people is not good. We have to redress that balance. There should be reward in the property taxes we use to support what we like and to stop what we don’t like.
We are talking about the exploration of a derelict or vacant property tax to increase the cost, heavily, to people who just let a lot lie vacant until they get the right opportunity to develop it. There should be ways to encourage, through property tax, the building of truly affordable housing, for the long term.
Tristan Markle: When you’re talking about vacant properties, there’s an idea that there are projects that are complete but haven’t been sold. The head of the real-estate board was on the radio saying they’re holding back units until the HST is abolished. But there’s also land that’s vacant, and on the contrary the City has policies such that if there is a community garden built on the land, then the developers get tax breaks.
Stuart Mackinnon: You’re encouraging the property developer to leave it vacant. There’s not an incentive for them to build on that land. The community garden is good PR for them, but you know that as soon as they see the opportunity to build, you know the bulldozer is going to come in, and they’re not going to care about people who have their garden there or what time of year it is. They’re going to be in there to build. It’s a really false premise that I think the City is working on, to give a tax incentive to make a community garden that’s not sustainable. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Adriane Carr: We need permanent sites for community gardens. We need permanent sites for winter markets. We need to institutionalize that in our city and not just give developers tax breaks for the short term when it suits them.
Stuart Mackinnon: Again, when talking about empty units, that’s not a civic issue. This is a real problem with Christy Clark and the Liberals in Victoria. From what we see, they keep saying they’re talking with their federal counterparts. There was a clause in the HST deal that after three years they would look at it again without a penalty. If they just wait three years, they’re done. Well of course that causes a lot of problems for the people on the ground. Developers only develop in order to make a profit so that they can move on to the next development. If they can’t move on to the next one, they’re going to wait. That’s a provincial issue.
Tristan Markle: We talked about building affordable housing on transit routes and for better or worse the most recent line was built on Cambie. It’s probably good that a line was built, but there’s a whole bunch of speculation then that went on behind closed doors and the general public doesn’t know about that. Selecting a route in a transparent way is important. If not, there will be speculation on all the properties along the line. On Cambie, key developers got a hold of the main sites to be rezoned afterwards.
In Richmond, the province came in and gave businesses relief, because they were being displaced. In Vancouver they didn’t. It goes to show that something significant was happening – such that the province had to come in and help businesses that were fighting up-zoning and speculation.
If we’re building housing along transit routes, how do we do that in a way where that kind of thing doesn’t happen?
Adriane Carr: You’ve raised a lot of issues. Let me say first off that I don’t think there has been transparent and truly engaged involvement of citizens in the decision-making around this city. I think that we as Greens are going to stand very clear on that. Stuart has already talked about how you post one thing, and have eight point text in an ad.
On the Canada Line, I faulted the process all the way along, both in terms of the “behind closed doors decision making” and the lack of consultation with the business community, the inaccuracy in telling the business community how it was going to be done, and the lack of compensation. Every element of it wasn’t good in terms of process. As it turns out, that line has high ridership. I look down there and think there’s a lot of low-rise development down there, and I bet somebody has snabbed those properties up and we’re going to see some development, and again without the community really being engaged. It wasn’t done right. How you do it better is in fact how Coquitlam did it better with the Evergreen Line. That’s where they cried foul. They had an engaged public process, they zoned and they rezoned in anticipation of that line. It was clear and transparent, on the books. And then they didn’t get it. We have the Canada Line instead. They’ve had the plan in place with the investors and the public knowing what those plans are.
We’ve got some other corridors. Out to UBC, there’s been talk of what kind of transit system is going to be built out there. I think we should be starting those conversations now. They should be above ground (not that the line needs to be). We need to have real community engagement, and I’ve seen it when it doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t work when you don’t engage the public.
Photo credit Flickr user miss604