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episode # 328

A Complete Guide to Why You Will Be Forced to Leave Vancouver with Peter Waldkirch

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results… and, yet, here we are! Outlandish real estate prices, sky high rents and near-zero vacancies but Vancouver’s City Council can’t agree on whether we should build more housing along one of the busiest transit and employment corridors in Western Canada. Research Lawyer and Housing Advocate, Peter Waldkirch, sits down with Matt & Melisa to dive into the politics around housing affordability and the Broadway Corridor. Is Vancouver’s current dysfunction a symptom of this specific Mayor and Council or something more systemic? Where should we look for bold leaders come October? And can we actually build our way out of this?

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Episode Summary


 

Who is Peter Waldkirch? 

I’m a lawyer in Vancouver and I was born and raised here. Before law, my background was in music. I lived in Montreal for four years, which really impacted my view on cities, and then a few years in Ottawa, before coming back to Vancouver about 10 years ago. For the last few years, I’ve been working in research law. That’s given me flexibility to get involved more in my community.

I’ve been involved with Abundant Housing Vancouver for the last few years. I’m also working on a Master’s degree at UBC to do with housing. 

What are the differences between Vancouver and Montreal? How has living in Montreal impacted your views of cities and urbanism?

Montreal was somewhere you could find a place to live that was very affordable. There’s a lot going on in Montreal and they have more medium density spread out around the city. A large part of the city has low-rise buildings spread out all over. 

There’s not that same ultra-dense downtown in Montreal like we have in Vancouver. That creates a fascinating fabric to the city. Montreal is very vibrant and liveable. 

I lived in the Plateau area where there was affordable housing, lots of shops, and the ability to walk around in a community. Most of the shops were independent and you had a chance to get to know your neighbours. 

The neighbourhoods where I have felt most connected to my neighbours and part of a vibrant community were some of the most dense neighbourhoods, like the Plateau in Montreal or the West End in Vancouver. 

There’s a lament in Vancouver about how it is hard to make friends and feel like part of the community here. How has housing led to the feeling of isolation in Vancouver?

Yes, it is tough to make friends in Vancouver and connect in this city. I was born here, grew up here and went to school here – but not a single one of my close friends from childhood lives in the city. They’ve been pushed out of Vancouver due to affordability. 

Social isolation happens when all of your friends now live an hour’s drive or more away. The housing shortage drives this social isolation and the social issues Vancouver faces. 

What are the biggest issues Vancouver is currently facing?

Obviously the housing crisis is a major issue Vancouver is facing. But I think housing is connected to a lot of other problems we have. For example, we’re also facing the climate crisis. And when we have sprawling, low-density, car-dependent communities, that impacts climate change. 

Drug poisoning is another crisis we’re facing in Vancouver. And I believe that is tied to insecure housing. Everyone needs a stable, dignified home. 

How much of Vancouver’s problems are due to just general politics and how much is due to this specific city council? 

That’s a tough question to answer. The current Vancouver City Council is dysfunctional and everyone should be concerned about what’s happening at City Hall. 

Not everyone on council is bad. Agree or disagree with Mayor Stewart, he at least tries to get things moving along. I don’t agree with all of his ideas, but I do consider him pretty good on housing. Councillor Boyle from One City has been the best. She has ideas and tries to keep things moving.

On the other hand, we have councillors who want to maintain the status quo. So chaotic meetings and bickering is what they want. Councillor Hardwick is a constant obstructionist. Councillor De Genova consistently votes yes on individual housing projects but constantly derails meetings. Meetings under her watch dissolve into chaos. 

I’m also critical of Councillor Carr and Councillor Fry from the Vancouver Greens. They worked so hard to get into power and now appear to just be twiddling their thumbs.

So yes, there is a huge problem with our current Vancouver City Council. They are chaotic and unable to move business along. Regardless of your politics, you want a council that can function and make decisions. 

Why is Vancouver City Council so dysfunctional? Is it because most of the councillors are new to the job? 

Most people don’t understand how council works and don’t realize how weak the Vancouver mayor position really is. To get anything done, you need a majority and the mayor is just one of 11 votes. The mayor can’t do anything without council support. 

Of course, there was a learning curve for the new councillors; I believe only two councillors were returning. But now that we’re four years in, everyone should know what’s going on and how to do their job. Councillor De Genova was one of the returning councillors; if anyone should know how to do their job, it should be her. And yet, she’s the one who is most consistently disrupting things.

So I don’t think it’s a question of learning the ropes, but more a question of whether these people want to do something or not.

What is the Broadway Plan? How has the Vancouver City Council handled the Broadway Plan?

The Broadway Corridor is the second largest job corridor in the province and one of the most busy bus corridors in North America. Because of this, the provincial and federal governments decided to fund a subway along Broadway to Arbutus – hopefully one day it will go all the way to UBC. 

In response, the city was tasked to come up with a plan to how they would handle the space around the new subway line. So from Clark to Vine and from 1st to 16th, a plan has been developed to respond to this massive subway development. 

The plan looks at where new housing should go and how to protect current tenants. Planners want to encourage people to live close to their jobs and close to transit. This plan started in June 2018 and since then, thousands of people have participated in consultation on the project. 

When staff finally brought this plan to council, there were over 200 speakers who wanted to comment on the plan, taking four days with the responses from council. Four days may not sound long but it really is a huge public investment. 

What happened after the public consultation on the Broadway Plan? What amendments were added?  

After four days of speakers, there was a day set aside for the council to vote on the Broadway Plan. But councillors showed up with over 40 amendments to this plan, despite staff working on the plan for the last four years. Every amendment had to be worked through, which is a painful process. Of course, they couldn’t finish within a day. 

The amendments proposed were both good and bad. For example, Mayor Stewart proposed a good amendment; he wanted to strengthen the tenant protections in the Broadway Plan. 

Currently, apartments are banned in over 80% of Vancouver’s residential land. So the only way to build larger apartments is to tear down old ones and build new, which means evicting current tenants. The Broadway Plan proposed protections for current tenants that would allow them to return to where they were renting and rent a unit in the new building for 20% less than current market rental rates. The mayor proposed they be allowed to return for the same amount they were paying before or 20% below market, whichever is less. That proposal passed and it’s one I supported.

An amendment I didn’t support was by Councillor Wiebe. The Broadway Plan includes a substantial investment in parks and green spaces, and Councillor Wiebe wanted to increase that. In theory, that makes sense. But the problem is it would cost about $1 billion in land acquisition and Councillor Wiebe had no idea how to fund this. Staff had been told to prioritize rental housing with the Broadway Plan. If we need this extra park space, staff would have to reprioritize and create more condos, which could pay for the land needed. 

This is a larger problem with housing in Vancouver: Who should pay? Currently, there are fees that developers pay to the city to support parks, amenities, etc. And as a result, homeowners pay lower property taxes. To me, that is a fundamental equity issue. By piling on these fees, we make new housing less viable

On Councillor Hardwick’s position on housing: 

Councillor Hardwick denies we have a housing problem or a housing shortage in Vancouver. Which makes sense if you and your buddies are all house-owning people. If that’s you, maybe you don’t want to see the city change. But I don’t think that’s responsible leadership. So at every opportunity, including the Broadway Plan, she wants to delay and deny the need for housing. 

Did the speakers and public consultation impact the process of approving the Broadway Plan?

It’s hard to say. I think hearing from the public does give the good councillors cover for making a good decision and I think it gives the bad councillors heat for making the wrong decision. So I do think it matters.   

What happens if the Vancouver City Council doesn’t pass the Broadway Plan?

I think the Broadway Plan is likely to pass in some form or another. All of these councillors were elected to work on the housing crisis in Vancouver and have done basically nothing. So they have to approve something. But the concern is if the plan gets completely gutted due to all of these amendments. 

If the Broadway Plan gets gutted, the federal government can say they’ll only give Vancouver money if we build more housing. But the problem is there are people in Vancouver who will turn down investment in order to not have to build more housing. 

On the provincial government side, they do have more leverage over city council. The Attorney General and Minister of Housing of BC has talked about needing to intervene in municipalities that won’t allow more housing. This is something we’ve seen in California. The state government has gotten fed up and has begun to intervene on housing. We’ve also seen this in Oregon and New Zealand with widespread zoning reforms. 

On zoning in Vancouver: 

If you want to build a rental apartment anywhere in Vancouver, you have to go through a lengthy, expensive and uncertain process to get land rezoned. And you have to do that on a case-by-case basis. We should not be approving things on a building-by-building basis in Vancouver. Our senior leadership should not be debating the number of trees on an individual project. 

With inflation and interest rates skyrocketing, a lot of rental and non-profit housing projects are really in jeopardy. Our current council could have opened the doors to a lot of new projects back when interest rates were low. Instead, they’ve twiddled their thumbs and worked on the same plans for years. They act like there’s no urgency to the housing crisis and I strongly disagree. 

Is the Vancouver city council consultation process democratic? 

Voter turnout is low and local journalism has taken a lot of hits in Vancouver. But we’re still undergoing a meaningful democratic process when we vote for council members. To me, what’s undemocratic is saying to our democratically elected leaders that instead of being able to make decisions, they need to consult with this small clique of homeowners who are all part of a specific neighbourhood association. 

When it comes to these public hearings, many people can’t make it. If you work during the day, go to school, have to provide childcare, etc., you’re not able to participate. So that’s not democratic. We need to elect people who will make a decision, and not pass the buck onto these endless consultations. 

What is the Cullen Report? How is money laundering connected to housing in Vancouver? 

The Cullen Report is recommendations based on the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering BC. It was launched by the current government. My main takeaway from the report is that yes, money laundering is a big problem in British Columbia. No one wants to turn a blind eye to white collar crime. However, money laundering is not a meaningful part of the housing crisis. 

The report was quite clear that money laundering is not a substantial factor in the housing crisis in BC. Our housing crisis is driven by the fundamentals: supply and demand. I wish the people who drove that narrative – that money laundering was causing our housing issues – would take some responsibility. I hope they engage in some self-reflection in their role in creating a hostile environment. 

The Cullen Report mentioned that this false narrative has tied into a lot of anti-Asian hate in BC. And it’s not based in reality. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to change the way Vancouver looks, it’s very convenient for you to blame “the foreigners.” You get to be morally outraged while maintaining the status quo. 

What are your predictions for the Vancouver municipal election in the fall? Who will be the Mayor of Vancouver? 

That’s another tough question. There’s not a lot of polling, so you have to go off vibes. I think the current mayor is likely to remain. I have some issues with the mayor but, overall, I’m pretty okay with it. He is only one out of 11 votes. 

To me, the real question is what happens with the rest of the council. Will there be a pro-housing majority on council who can actually get something done? One City seems to be the strongest party for increased housing, and Councillor Boyle is pushing that. But there are a lot of parties running! 

We’ve got Ken Sim’s party, ABC Vancouver. Previously Ken Sim’s only housing initiative was to increase basement suites, which just isn’t a realistic solution anymore. We have Councillor Hardwick’s party, TEAM, which seems to be aggressively anti-housing. We have the Vancouver Greens, who also seem to be against housing. The two Vancouver Greens councillors voted against a below-market rental project in a transit-oriented area, which just baffles me. 

So I am a bit worried about what will happen in the municipal election this fall. The mayor’s candidates will probably be pretty strong on housing and so will One City. So there’s a chance we can get a working majority on housing. I am worried about the risk of Hardwick’s party doing well. As out of touch as they seem, I think they might do well with wealthy, home-owning voters.  

The reason why I started watching council meetings and live-tweeting them is because I think it’s important. A lot of what the city council does seems very obscure and I want to make it more transparent for people.

Find out more: https://twitter.com/pwaldkirch & https://www.abundanthousingvancouver.com/

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