It’s the end of “Gregor’s decade.” Are we standing at the possible threshold of a new era in Vancouver municipal politics? Mainlander Editor Andrei Mihailiuk sits down with COPE Council candidate Anne Roberts to talk ward systems, movement journalism and how the Coalition of Progressive Electors has evolved.
It’s the end of ‘’Gregor’s decade.’’ Are we standing at the possible threshold of a new era in […]
Over the past two years, a proposed development in the heart of North Vancouver has severely divided public opinion. This conflict came to its apex last week when the developer, Onni, announced in a letter that it intends to quit the project at 1308 Lonsdale, on 13th Avenue. The letter came after North Vancouver council voted 4 to 3 in favor of postponing the decision and holding another public hearing in the New Year. Councillors argued that another meeting was necessary because not all interested parties were able to speak at the November 19th hearing.
Onni first brought their proposal to city hall in 2011 prior to the election, where the council at that time voted against it 7 to 0. The vote did not kill the project but instead prompted Onni to revise its proposal, scaling back the height of the project and moving from three towers to two towers. It also prompted Onni to seek better links with city councilors. In the lead-up to the November 2011 election, current mayor Darrell Mussatto received a $5000 donation from RMPG Holdings Ltd, a parent company of Onni, and $5,000 from Pinnacle International, which is owned by the De Cotiis family. Councillor Linda Buchanan also received $1,500.
This is something which councillor Rod Clark feels has overshadowed the process. While it did not amount to a legal conflict of interest, Clark says, “morally and ethically? It stinks.” In response to council’s decision to hold another hearing in the New Year, Onni is no blaming Clark and fellow councilor Pam Bookham for holding back the approval.
Three dozen seniors living on fixed incomes in the Lions Manor building at 6th and Main have been served with a 45% rent increase. In a city with an ever-worsening housing crisis, the tenants could be faced with the possibility of having nowhere to go.
The Mount Pleasant Housing Society (MPHS), a non-profit organization set up by the Mount Pleasant Lions Club, has applied to the Residential Tenancy Branch for permission to exceed the annual rent-increase limit by more than ten times, arguing that rents at Lions Manor are below market value. In reality, the 36 residents of Lions Manor already pay between 35-45% of their income on rent, which is higher than the one-third cut-off rate defined by the City of Vancouver as affordable.*
The rent-increase hearing is scheduled for today (February 10) at the Residential Tenancy Branch. The hearing will take place by phone, adding even more anonymity to the fact that the building owners have not yet met face-to-face with the seniors to discuss the increase. Despite pressure to revoke their application, including a rally outside the Lions Manor yesterday, the Mount Pleasant Housing Society has confirmed that it will pursue the rent increase as planned.
In an extensive conversation with The Mainlander, Mount Pleasant Housing Society president Christine Norman confirmed that if the hearing comes down in favor of the tenants, her organization will appeal the decision. “We will do whatever we have to do to win the case,” said Norman by phone.
Rents have already increased within the allowable legal limit for at least the past two consecutive years at the Lions Manor. This year, however, the owners are seeking a special exemption from the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) beyond its allowable yearly limit of inflation-plus-two-percent. Under Section 23(1)(a), the geographic area loophole of the RTA, the Mount Pleasant Housing Society is applying for an additional 45% rent increase. The section reads:
A landlord may apply under section 43 (3) of the Act [additional rent increase] if one or more of the following apply: (a) after the rent increase allowed under section 22 [annual rent increase], the rent for the rental unit is significantly lower than the rent payable for other rental units that are similar to, and in the same geographic area as, the rental unit.
This loophole puts all renters in gentrifying areas at risk. The neighborhood surrounding Lions Manor is part of what the Vancouver planning department calls the Main Street revitalization corridor, stretching from Alexander Street south to 36th Avenue. The advancement of the condo frontier up Main Street has widened the rent gap between the ground rent and highest-best use capitalized rent, increasing the return on capital in the area. As such, market rents bear no reflection of the actual costs of tenancy but rather of the opportunity cost of capital. The Residential Tenancy Act exists to protect renters from the most exploitative aspects of the housing market, but Section 23(1)(a) cancels out the very purpose of the Act.
MPHS states that it needs a 45% revenue increase to funds its renovations, although Norman would not speak further for fear of “jeopardizing” her case before the Residential Tenancy hearing. According to Norman, the building should have been repaired 10 years ago. Balconies were left to decay by the Lion’s Club and only repaired when they became a safety hazard.
The Mainlander’s Sean Antrim sat down with their Mayoral candidate Randy Helten of Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) to talk about affordability, accountability, the arts, and Vancouver’s future. It is a tall order for a political party that does not receive corporate and developer donations to get candidates elected. NSV has been fighting an up-hill battle.
Sean Antrim: What amount of development do we need in Vancouver right now? And the reason that I’m asking this question is because many people, and the mainstream press, have criticized Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver as being NIMBY-based. A lot of journalists have been around for a while, and in the 1990s with Gordon Campbell, NIMBY-ism was quite a problem.
Randy Helten: To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows the answer. The people who know the answer are concealing the answer. Because the City has removed from public access numbers that show the current zoning capacity. It used to be up and available, but it’s gone now. My understanding is that Professor Patrick Condon at UBC has done some studies, and he’s saying that for construction within the current zoning, the capacity for additional population density is enough for decades into the future. Construction could happen without any rezoning, to fill all of the incoming population.
The City has these numbers, and in January of this year [COPE Councilor] Ellen Woodsworth put forward a motion that was passed, according to which the planning department was supposed to release the numbers of zoning capacity to council some time in February. It’s off the map. Despite repeated requests there’s been no response out of the planning department. So no one knows the answer publicly. The information is concealed. My suspicion is that if you take the West End, for example, I think in the current zoning, without rezoning, we could accommodate another 5,000 people or so. That’s just a sense, because I know the areas that are zoned right now for six stories that are currently two stories. If you take the average of all that and you look at a long term thirty-year plan or a hundred-year plan, and look at the land area in the West End and long term population goals — steady growth, not too extreme, not too rapid — the West End could accommodate several thousand more people.
Sean Antrim: That’s the way most cities do rezoning — blanket rezoning — which is doing an entire neighbourhood at a time. Why do you think we have so many spot rezonings in Vancouver?
Randy Helten: My understanding of the dynamics is that a spot rezoning allows exceptions to happen within the existing zoning. In many cases it offers huge returns to the owner of those specific spots. If you go to the old adage “follow the money” and look at who’s making campaign contributions to our elected officials, it makes sense. They’re making the campaign contributions, the officials get into power, and they have control over land use decisions. They’re supposed to regulate the land on behalf of the entire public and balance all the interests of all of the stakeholders. Both Vision and the NPA as organizations are incapable of avoiding undue influence from that private money, and that’s what we’re seeing as the results of their decisions.
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?
Here Sean Antrim of The Mainlander interviews Sandy Garossino, who is running as an independent candidate for Vancouver City Council this November 19.
Sean Antrim: You launched your campaign in the Georgia Straight attacking the affordability crisis in Vancouver. At the Mount Pleasant all-candidates, every candidate from every political party gave lip-service to this issue. I think that everyone recognizes that there is an affordability crisis in the city. In 2008, Vision Vancouver was elected on a platform that would address housing, homelessness and the affordability crisis, but we all know they have done little to tackle the problem. How will you address this issue, and what distinguishes your platform from that of Vision Vancouver?
Sandy Garossino: Almost everyone that I have heard discuss this sees the affordability issue. I’m talking here about broadening this beyond homelessness and subsidized housing, but also market housing for the average working person. Almost everyone who talks about this, talks about it in the simple supply and demand equation, and their point is to increase supply. Because I deal with Asia, I understand capital markets in Asia, and I have dealings there, this seems to me to completely miss the true nature of the issue and the challenge that we confront. Just to give you a little bit of a background, our median income levels in Metro Vancouver place 20 out of 28 urban regions in Canada. Our median income levels for 2010 were below Sudbury, Windsor and St. John’s Newfoundland. We have the highest real estate prices in Canada, relative to median income. We have almost the highest real estate in the world. Relative to median income, we are 56% higher than New York City and 31% higher than London, so there’s clearly a serious distortion in the market. One of the first challenges we have is we don’t have the data. We don’t have information that can pin-point exactly what is going on and the extent to which capital is entering, and the extent to which that capital is non-resident, and how much that is affecting the market. We need to know a lot more than we do. But based on anecdotal information, which is turning out to be corroborated in news reports, it looks like global capital is having a massive impact.