INTERVIEW | Vision’s Geoff Meggs on the affordability crisis, Occupy Vancouver, and Operation Solidarity

Below, Tristan Markle of The Mainlander interviews Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs, who is running for re-election to Vancouver City Council. We discuss Vancouver’s unaffordability malady: would Meggs make the correct diagnosis, or propose a sufficient intervention? We discuss other cities with similar disorders, but which have more robust public housing programs: would Meggs help implement those programs here, or take responsibility for the ongoing destruction of public housing? We discuss developer contributions to political parties: is Vision passing the buck on campaign finance reform? Finally, we compare 1983’s Operation Solidarity (in which Meggs was heavily involved) to the Occupy Together movement: is Vision misrepresenting, even vilifying, the new movement?

Markle: Why is housing so unaffordable in Vancouver, what’s the main reason?

Meggs: I would say there’s some short term key drivers, and some longer term ones. In the short term, the key reason’s been that the economy’s been quite buoyant here, and we’ve had a lot of people moving here, so it’s been driving up demand, and demand has been coupled with a lot of speculation. Because for about about 15 -20 years housing prices have tended to go up. So there’s a speculative element, there’s no doubt about it. But I think in the longer term I think the bigger picture is that land supply is quite constrained here and the ALR [the Agricultural Land Reserve] is part of that, it’s a positive part but it’s a contributor.

Markle: When you said that speculation plays a part, what exactly do you mean?

Meggs: Well I think many people had an expectation for a long time that if they purchased real estate that they would see gains in their equity that was faster than the rate of inflation. In other words, they could benefit economically by buying real estate more so than buying an RRSP or putting it in a bank account or buying Canadian savings bonds. And for a long time that was true. As a result, there was more pressure on the market than was justified by reality.

Markle: Last year prices went up over 20%, still. So how is that happening?

Meggs: Well I’m not an expert on all of these things, but I believe that because the BC economy and the Canadian economy have been relatively buffered from the global crisis, and because there are a number of underlying factors that make this a very attractive place to live – you know, say, no civil wars or armed conflicts going on, a pretty solid stable legal system, all of these things that are appealing – a lot of people have been coming here to purchase and to some degree to speculate. So we’ve continued to see higher prices than almost anywhere else in North America, certainly in stark contrast to the United States, for sure. That seems to be related to our place in the global economy.

Markle: We hear a lot about people from other countries buying property here on the one hand, but research doesn’t make it so clear that the majority of capital invested in new condos, for example, is necessarily coming from people from elsewhere, at all. You’ve covered some of the research that shows that it’s not so simple as that.

Meggs: I don’t think it’s useful to pursue that line of inquiry at all personally, and potentially dangerous, because it’s a classic deflection in BC politics to blame our problems on outsiders. The reality is that if there are purchases by offshore investors at the high end of the market, it’s not having and impact on anybody that I’m worried about at all. The real problem is at the mid-range.

Markle: Depending on what type of housing you’re looking at, whether it’s stand-alone homes or condos, the median price is way out of proportion to median income. High end properties won’t affect that median much at all. So when Bob Rennie did a study recently which said that all the talk about housing being unaffordable is skewed by the high end, he missed the point. The most simple measures of housing affordability – median income versus median price – are not affected by high end. So what is it then that’s driving up the prices, if it’s for the large part not money flowing in necessarily from elsewhere, not necessarily for high end luxury properties, so what is it?

Meggs: Well I think it’s a relatively constrained area to build in, and a lot of demand to live in the downtown core, it’s just a desirable place to live. I don’t think it’s foreign money or anything else, I think it’s largely a long term factor of people seeking to live here. And the cost of land has been higher because of factors like the ALR and things like that. If we were in Calgary there’d more sprawl and prices might be lower. But now in Vancouver, in BC, to get into a range that the average working family can afford, you have to go a very very long distance for a huge commuter cost. There’s no escaping it. Either you go where the housing’s cheaper and pay enormous amounts of your personal time and money to commute, or you come downtown, and so many more people I think are trying to be downtown.

Markle: So the high price of housing is not exactly so good for the environment is it?

Meggs: Sprawl is not so bad as it might be without the ALR [the Agricultural Land Reserve], but it’s still unacceptably bad.

Markle: All this begs the question of why are prices for median housing are so out of proportion with our incomes. Are we just working more to shovel 50% of our income to housing? There was a debate at the board of trade about whether we’re in a housing bubble. I’m not necessarily interested in whether if there’s a housing bubble it’s going to magically pop or collapse on its own necessarily. A housing bubble can go on for a long time if people continue to shovel 50% of their income into housing. Are we in a housing bubble and what does that mean to you?

Meggs: I have a feeling that we’re not in a bubble in the sense that the whole market would fall apart the way it did in the United States. I don’t believe that it’s as easy to borrow here or as easy to take those risks as it was in the United States with subprime and all that stuff. And I hope that we’re not in a bubble because a massive deflation in housing prices would hurt a lot of families who have not contributed to the problem, but would suffer greatly if it collapsed that way. But I do feel that it’s got to moderate, and it’ll moderate in a way that will still be too expensive for most people. There’s no answer here in terms of a sudden deflation in the housing market to achieve affordability, I don’t think anybody’s really hoping that’s the case, it would be a bad way to get there.

Markle: I was thinking about this today, and it was making me think of Slavoj Zizek’s speech at Occupy Wall Street. I don’t know if you saw Zizek make his speech at Occupy Wall Street…

Meggs: I heard he did…

Markle: He talked about his favourite metaphor of the cartoon character, like Wile E. Coyote, who goes off the cliff, and that’s Wall Street, and they’re just taking everyone way off the cliff. So he said the Occupy Wall Street people are the ones saying “hey, look down”!

Meggs: [Laughs] He’s still going to fall.

Markle: And you don’t blame people for saying “look down” when they’re being taken off the cliff.

Meggs: No.

Markle: So are there any people who benefit from housing prices being so out of whack with our incomes?

Meggs: Oh yes…

Markle: And who are they?

Meggs: Well I mean I think the development sector has done very very well in this. I don’t believe they conspire to make life miserable for us by driving up prices, but you know the real estate sector in Vancouver’s been fantastic for a long time. And BC’s economy’s been shifting in my view for a while now from a more resourced-based one, to one that’s more based on financial instruments and financial services and things like that. The speculative element of our real estate economy has been a huge part of economic growth, if it is real growth, over the past ten years. There’s no doubt about it that the real estate sector has done very well. And it cannot, and will not on its own, produce affordable housing.

Markle: A lot of times, people talk about supply and demand without talking about supply of what exactly. How do we get enough affordable housing? How do we do that if developers aren’t going to do it on their own?

Meggs: I think that it’s a hidden part of this campaign. Hidden in the sense that it hasn’t been debated even though I’d say there’s two very difference views. On the one hand you have an NPA approach which says it’s all about supply and laissez faire and the market will take care of it, even though it clearly has not, and reduce red tape and so on. And on the other side a more interventionist approach proposed by Vision and COPE, but certainly by Vision. And what it entails is an attempt to produce more housing that’s more affordable because it’s not necessarily home ownership, i.e. rental, and also a commitment to evolve new strategies which might have some impact in terms of replacing, at least, and hopefully expanding, more affordable stock like co-op stock and things like that. But I think that the initiatives and the specific nature of this will have to be worked out in a lot of consultation in the coming year or two if we’re successful in the next election. To me it’s a combination, to leave the market to do what it wants to do, but make sure there’s regulation to get done what it won’t do, and that’s create more affordability. I don’t know the city has the tools it needs to liquidate the problem, I don’t think it does.

Markle: Speaking of tools, other cities around the world that have affordability problems, or that used to have problems, have stronger housing authorities – or whatever they’re called now – so Toronto used to have the Housing Authority, which is now called Toronto Community Housing, and it operates housing that houses almost 200,000 people in the city of Toronto. Why don’t we have that?

Meggs: Well we do, but it’s been put in the shade a bit. I mean Metro Housing has several thousand units, it’s not on the same scale

Markle: No, it’s not.

Meggs: …but clearly public ownership of housing is one of the ways to go, and it has to be fought out in the democratic arena that that’s necessary, and I’m not just talking about social housing which people are going to accept but I’m talking about a wider band of it. Then I would say that cooperative housing is also a really important contributor, and a lot of the equity that working families has could be mobilized for homes as opposed to real estate benefit. We need a change in the culture in that way. Maybe the strength of the credit union movement in BC will be of help in that regard?

Markle: So why does Toronto have a more robust public housing program than Vancouver?

Meggs: I don’t know.

Markle: Is it because we’ve had so few left-wing mayors?

Meggs: No, I don’t know, I’d only be guessing to be honest. I don’t know enough about Ontario to say. Without provincial funding it’s very difficult. These programs all had provincial funding. One of problems that’s coming along in the Metro program is that although the units are there and we have the ability to maintain them, we don’t have the capital strength to produce more right now without senior government funding, it just doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to get there.

Markle: Today I just heard that Heather Place, which is public housing up the street here near VGH, is under threat of being lost. I know it quite well, it would be really terrible to have one of the last low-income housing in this area being lost…

Meggs: No, it’s not under threat from being lost, I’m on the board, and we’re totally committed to replacing it. But the threat to it comes now from envelope failure, and the cost of envelope replacement is really prohibitive. Although more analysis is being done to see if it could be fixed, it appears best to replace the housing, much more cost effective. At the moment, it’d be a mixed development, where we’d replace on a one-for-one basis at the least, and the rest would have to be condominum development to pay for it, which is not a very good option, and all of those issues are going to come before the next board of Metro Housing. My position has been that it should be a phased development, and we should seek to have more than one-for-one replacement. So, phased in the sense that people aren’t dislocated like they were at Little Mountain, although that adds to the cost significantly, because the community there is quite important.

Markle: Do you have any regrets about little mountain, the way that went down?

Meggs: Oh yeah, terrible, I mean it’s a disaster, the city did propose, and the developer accepted the idea, of phased development, which would have meant that we could have done the whole bloody process with the people remaining in place, but instead the province insisted on demolition.

Markle: Why did they do that?

Meggs: I don’t know. I think it was maybe to avoid a political problem, they felt they should just squeeze everybody out. But the whole site’s laid fallow now for three years, it’s ridiculous.

Markle: Jim Green [Vision Vancouver founder] just left [working for the Little Mountain developer Holborn] somehow, do you know why?

Meggs: No. Just what’s in the newspapers.

Markle: Are you sure?

Meggs: Yes.

Markle: At the Mainlander we’ve been looking into other cities that have the same kind of housing problem as us. Hong Kong has a similar disparity between incomes and housing prices. And they’ve had a strong housing authority for over fifty years. The reason it started is because there were fires in some of their slums and squatters areas and SROs…

Meggs: And a huge wave of refugees from China…

Markle: …yes, refugees, an interesting history. But now they have a housing authority, and I think that the politics around housing are more sophisticated there than here. People understand that market development causes displacement, so people displaced by market development have first dibs on new public housing brought on line, and there’s a big waiting list, and people run for re-election based on how they’re going to get rid of the waiting list and get people housed. So why don’t we have something like that given that we have a big problem?

Meggs: Well, I don’t think that people saw it as a big problem until recently. I think it’s very striking that the front of Vancouver Magazine, not noted for its coverage of social justice issues, is talking about the loss of talented young people. I mean only in the last four or five years did we see people on the right, and in economic positions, identifying housing as a problem for them. So it came on the radar when it was hard to recruit people here because of our housing costs. So I’m in meetings now where I meet people at the high end, they can’t even recruit doctors. If you’re a scientist recruited by UBC, you might be paid $120K a year, your take home income would be much higher if you were at a quality university in Boston or Washington or San Francisco than here because of housing costs. So when it became a competitive disadvantage for the upper end, then it became an issue on the agenda. But also when…

Markle: When they lose elections.

Meggs: Yeah, but also the problem of homelessness become prominent, which was important to bring to the fore. And most people felt that they were winning from the boom as long as it continued. Because despite the fact that incomes are polarizing and access is an issue, more people are vested in the system than not, and so they don’t want it to turn down.

Markle: Or at least a lot of people, because slightly more than 50% of people are actually renters.

Meggs: Yes, it’s about half, exactly. And renters have been organized where they’ve faced direct pressure, on the renoviction front and things like that. But the two big issues in this election – affordability and transit – are distinguished by the lack of organization of the victims of the problem, so we don’t have organizations of transit riders and we don’t have organization of tenants that are vocal enough to deal with it, that’s a big problem.

Markle: I saw a recent stat that the average income of homeowners is exactly double that of renters, so you literally have two disctrete classes in the city.

Meggs: Yeah, yeah, and even renters are clinging to the side of the car as it roars down the road. Both my daughters are trying to rent, and paying a totally disproportionate share of their incomes even though both have decent paying jobs.

Markle: OK, let’s move onto campaign finance. This past council passed a motion on campaign finance reform, passed it on to the province, they said they’re going to sit on it. Did you do enough to make them act on it, and why isn’t it being implemented?

Meggs: Well, there’s very little agreement around campaign finance reform in other municipalities, that was one shock to me. I was at various gatherings of progressive municipal officials over the last period of time where I was criticized by my colleagues who had labour endorsement and so on because they feared that it’ll disproportionately hurt them in those areas. So there wasn’t strong enough pressure across the board, and that reflected the fact that Vancouver is off the charts in terms of campaign spending, like stratospherically above anybody else, so the problem is not as acute elsewhere.

Markle: Yes but the Vancouver Charter is specific to Vancouver anyway, why can’t council just say “we want this, do it”?

Meggs: Well, I don’t know why we can’t do that, and we may have to….

Markle: You got them to come on Christmas eve to bailout Millennium [developer of the Olympic Village], for lack of a better word, so why not Christmas eve to fix campaign finance?

Meggs: We could certainly sit down, and I think we should sit down and see what we can do with our own Charter. Because we’re not likely to get a provincial reaction in any kind of real time frame, and it would be good to resolve. It’s crossed my mind to be honest during this campaign why we don’t see what we can do on our own. I mean the Charter gives us a bit more flexibility perhaps, and I’d be interested to see who’d try to stop us, I can’t imagine who would.

Markle: How much money has Vision raised this campaign.

Meggs: I don’t know how much we’ve raised. Our budget is between 1 and 2 million dollars. The NPA’s is over 2 million. You’d have to ask COPE about theirs.

Markle: How much of yours from developers, how much from unions?

Meggs: I don’t know again our current numbers, but if you look at the latest disclosures, certainly the largest share, like 60%, was business, and the biggest chunk of them was developers. Probably 30% was unions, and 10 or 15% was individuals. But certainly the lion’s share comes from developers

Markle: Why do they donate so much? What do they expect out of it? Given that they must think of it as an investment, what’s their return?

Meggs: I think they want access, and a relationship with councilors, absolutely. They don’t continue to give money to councilors who are not longer elected, I’ve noticed that. [laughs]. And it’s not a personal gift, of course, right? It’s done because they want to make sure that they get a fair hearing, although there’s not an expectation in my experience that they will necessarily get what they want in a particular project. They want to, like the labour movement, ensure that there’s some responsiveness to their issues when they bring them forward. I mean the firefighters are very very strategic about how they do it, they interview everybody, and they make a big issue out of their endorsements.

Markle: Why did Vision split from COPE, what’s the main reason, and why are they still separate?

Meggs: I can speak for myself. We believed that is was necessary to create, well…The experience that we had had was that of different perspectives that didn’t coexist properly in a single organization. Actually we function much better and transparently I think in two organizations. I think it’s striking how well coordinated we are now, but I meet on the doorstep lots of people with friends in COPE who say they’re glad there’s COPE and they’re glad there’s Vision, they like having the two. The historic reasons were all kinds of issues, but I think fundamentally a desire to make sure that there was a perspective that allowed us to go forward and do a number of things we hadn’t been able to do up to that point, and on a number of very specific issues that people divided over. But now with two organizations we’ve been able over two elections to evolve a pretty good working relationship, a very good one.

Markle: I understand the parties aren’t competing with each other for seats and all that. But voters deserve to know what are the fundamental things that make Vision Vision, versus COPE. We know you’re clarifying the differences between Vision and NPA, but why vote for Vision as such, what makes Vision distinct?

Meggs: Because Vision Vancouver brings together the broadest spectrum we’ve seen so far in this city of people committed to implementing what I think is an important social justice agenda around homelessness and affordable housing with a green agenda which we didn’t have. I think the other thing that’s happened is that COPE’s historical roots are much more in the social justice agenda, and what Gregor has in particular has brought to the table is a much wider group of people whose perspective is more from the environmental side, and the combination of the two has proven to be very effective in civic politics.

Markle: I came across something that you published in 1983 with Jim Sinclair during Operation Solidarity, it was a pretty radical manifesto. Does that ring a bell?

Meggs: Certainly we worked closely together all that time, I’m not sure if we wrote a manifesto, anyway. What was it called?

Markle: I didn’t bring it with me, it just came to mind. Do you see any connections between the global Occupy Together movement and Operation Solidarity at the time, in terms of a backdrop of restraint and austerity and so on? [Editor’s note: the document I was thinking of here was, in fact, “The Declaration of the Rights of the People of British Columbia,” which was adopted at the Operation Solidarity mass rally in Vancouver to protest the Social Credit budget legislation on Oct 15 1983. The version I had seen was published in The Fisherman, Oct 21 1983 by its editors Geoff Meggs & Jim Sinclair. Thanks to Am Johal for setting me straight, and to Jeff Derksen for digging up the clipping. Interestingly, both Operation Solidarity and Occupy Vancouver were launched at a mass rallies on October 15. — TM].

Meggs: I think so, I think that there’s certainly some shared values, but fundamental differences in approach. Operation Solidarity was highly structured but very inclusive, and inspite of all its problems brought the government of the day to its knees. And I don’t see the occupy movement doing that, or even seeking to do that, particularly. The only pressure that’s coming on any level of government as the result of Occupy Vancouver is on the Vision council for its failure to protect people from fire and rats and so on. And I’m being very honest, Occupy Vancouver’s been a big electoral win for the NPA, on the civic electoral front, and an issue for us to manage. And in that respect, I hope it works out well, but I don’t see leverage being exerted on any particular target here. I know that we only talk about that to reporters, that’s the only thing they ever ask me – just as a specific example, the affordable housing announcement on Sunday which Vision made, elicited 3 questions from a big media scrum and 14 questions on whether there were rats at Occupy Vancouver.

Markle: And it was the riots before that.

Meggs: I mean that’s not the fault of Occupy Vancouver. But maybe I’m old school, but I think the lack of structure is a really big….I don’t get it…we’ll watch and see how it evolves, but I don’t get it. And I think in the Vancouver context, it’s quite different here than from being on Wall Street where the logic is clear, right?

Markle: From Vision’s perspective I can see how it could be a headache given that you’re the ruling party. But isn’t it up to Vision whether or not they’re going to deal with it from a logistical perspective, or if they’re going to talk about policy, because it’s not true that the occupy movement isn’t about policy – it is. And it’s up to politicians whether they’re going to get into the trap of talking about logistics and management and rats and so on (browse around here) , or if they’re going to talk about policy.

Meggs: Well, we have to answer questions that are posed to us, and we don’t get any about policy.

Markle: Well the NPA clearly wants to talk about management and rats, but it’s up to the parties on how they want to talk about it.

Meggs: Well, no, and I’ve said I see rats wherever I go in this town, so I’m not intimidated by the discussion. But the Operation Solidarity and this movement to me are more of a study in contrasts, though there’s clear continuities. I mean there was a big legislative agenda, which a popular movement sought to reverse. It came after an election where there had been no discussion whatsoever about what unfolded right after the election. So you had a very very close dead-heat election where the people suddenly saw an agenda that they had no idea it was there and even those who might have been sympathetic to one or two elements of it hated the process, so there was a huge mobilization. In this case there’s a global phenomenon, there’s social media, so many things, that I could think of more differences than parallels.

Markle: There’s a sign at the entrance to Occupy Vancouver that says “Real estate speculation is Vancouver’s Wall Street”…

Meggs: Oh yeah?

Markle: As you know, Gregor promoted an empty condo tax before the last election. Andy Yan [from BTA] did a piece saying there are empty condos, maybe not as much as some people said, and there could be more than he counted, and certainly there’s more with the HST thing. Would it hurt to implement, not just an empty condo tax, but maybe an abandoned property tax, developers sitting on empty lots, things like that?

Meggs: I don’t know how you’d get blood out of stone. If it’s empty property and its worthless for somebody to develop, why would they pay tax on it, I’m not sure.

Markle: Take north false creek for example, Concord’s paying very low taxes on that, and that’s prime land.

Meggs: Yeah, but they’re steadily, constantly developing to the dismay of some people like you.

Markle: It’s not to my dismay, no, it’s only to my dismay what they’re developing, if it was affordable housing, it’d be great.

Meggs: They had a 25 year plan and they’re pretty much on time for it and they now were prepared to go ahead. They haven’t been holding off on that, that’s the toughest land to develop. And in fact the trigger to develop that land is cleaning up contaminated soil, and the decision about how to do that can only be made after we know what the park’s gonna look like. So in my view, Concord, while it would be great if they had developed it, didn’t really have an obligation to do anything until the public had decided what shape the park would be in. And it drives a lot of health and safety issues about the contaminated soil. On the empty land tax, I just haven’t seen a big problem…I mean there’s spot problems around assessment of community gardens on plots of land that are actually going to be turned into condominiums towers and things like that. But I don’t see that as a large issue, that there’s a ton of trapped land that would be unlocked if we taxed it, I don’t see that as a problem.

Markle: One thing people have been saying about the occupy movement, in the states, is that it’s about the younger generation that can’t get jobs, and in Vancouver a lot of people, even with Master’s degrees, can’t get jobs, and can’t afford to live here. It looks to me like over the next 10 years, it’s this generation that’s going to be putting the pressure. So if the generation in power now doesn’t crack the housing crisis, the younger generation is going to have to speak for ourselves. You’ve spoken about this generation, your kids and so on, who can’t afford to live here. Are you concerned that if you don’t have the policies that will make a difference that maybe there’s going to be a big change?

Meggs: I’m not afraid of big changes. If you can’t do it gradually it’ll probably have to come with a big bang, I mean historically that’s been the case. I think that’s true on a number of fronts now, whether it’s environmental, or housing, or income distribution. In the absence of clear and tangible improvements, then people are going to see the pressure build, and it could burst out in all kinds of uncontemplated ways. I think you see that in Greece. I hear all these stereotypical statements about Greece, and I’ve only visited there 30 years ago, but it seems to me to the idea of putting massive restructuring to people in a vote is a reasonable thing to do. Without consent, why would the people of Greece agree to the terms dictated by leaders of other governments sitting in a different place. I mean, they may consent to it, but they should be invited to give their view, right? So I think that obviously failure of incremental change to work in Greece has led to this huge shake-up. And we’ll see how it pans out.

Photo of Meggs at the Grand March for Housing, April 4 2009, by Raigen D’Angelo, from Flickr