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episode # 342

The Most Important Election of Your Life with Peter Waldkirch

Vancouver is one week away from the most important civic election in memory. Will housing policy define the results? Who on council potentially deserves another shot? And did we actually just squander nearly a half decade of effective civic governance? Spoiler alert on the last question: we did. Research Lawyer and Housing Advocate, Peter Waldkirch, returns to the show to hash out the last four years with Adam & Matt & in the process provides a useful scorecard for each of our current city councillors. How ridiculous did council meetings get when few had the stomach to watch? Who are the bomb throwers & who pushed for plans to move our city forward? And, most importantly, is it time to clean house? Listen up and get out and vote!

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Episode Summary


 

Who is Peter Waldkirch? 

I’m a lawyer here in Vancouver – I live here and was raised here. My entire life, people have been talking about housing in Vancouver and how expensive it’s getting. 

I’ve been involved in housing activism with Abundant Housing Vancouver for the past few years. We believe there’s a huge housing shortage in the city. We can’t solve any of our housing problems without tackling the shortage first. 

Is housing the primary issue in the upcoming Vancouver election?

I believe housing is the primary issue and it should be. Our municipal governments have a lot of power over housing and land use in our cities. So it should be front and centre in this municipal election. 

Public safety is another big municipal issue; people have a right to feel safe in their communities. But there’s a fine line between protecting people’s safety and stoking their fears. Some politicians are crossing that line. 

The current movement around housing in Vancouver feels very different. Do you sense that?

There is a strong generational element to the current housing movement in Vancouver. But I don’t want to overplay that, as seniors do experience housing poverty at higher rates. 

But younger people are increasingly cut out of the vibrant cities like Vancouver offer. They’re pushed out to long commutes and substandard living because there isn’t enough housing available. 

There are also structural barriers to participating in these issues. People who have children or work long hours can’t attend all of these meetings and hearings about housing issues. So it’s the people that are most vulnerable to our housing crisis that can’t fairly participate. We need to think about how to make these processes more just. 

Is Vancouver doing well in some areas of housing? 

The type of housing matters but quantity matters and scale matters too. When there is underlying scarcity, everything we’re doing is just shuffling chairs around – but the bottom line is there are more people than there are chairs.

We need more social housing and more public investment in housing. But that’s hard to solve when 80% of our land in the city is reserved for detached houses, the most expensive type of housing. We’ll never get enough housing built as long as a ban on apartments in 80% of the city exists. 

Vancouver’s first comprehensive city plan, written by Bartholemew in the 1920’s, said that apartments are intrusions on the city and not appropriate for families. His plan was to enforce racial segregation through city planning. So the roots of Vancouver’s city zoning is ugly – it’s to enforce racial and class segregation. And it has led to a widespread housing shortage and climate crisis.

Low density neighbourhoods produce sprawl and car-dependent societies, which is not sustainable in our current climate crisis. We won’t solve our housing crisis or climate crisis as long as we continue to operate within a system that was designed to restrict housing. 

Vancouver has a goal to be a green city and has a progressive city council staff. So what’s going wrong? 

The most important thing we can do to fight the climate crisis is to live in compact communities that support walking and public transit. We need to build better cities and encourage people to live in them. 

The other side of that is technological – such as building energy efficient buildings and moving away from gas. Vancouver is good at that part. But if everyone has to drive to the energy efficient building, it’s still a climate disaster.

The thing is, people enjoy these compact, walkable and vibrant cities. It’s just easier for politicians to ban fossil fuels than to cultivate these communities. 

I’m particularly disappointed in the Vancouver Green Party. They have the name but they vote against so much transit-oriented housing. That is not green. That is harmful to climate action. 

Some people envision “green” as a big house in Kerrisdale with a green lawn. But that’s a superficial definition of green. The West End is more green than a bunch of suburban houses with sprawling lawns. But some people have a more aesthetic, cultural view and think these compact communities are undesirable. 

What grade would you give the current Vancouver city council? 

It’s tricky because the parties haven’t always voted together. I would give an A- to Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Councillor Christine Boyle. They consistently voted for housing and housing policy reform. 

While it’s better to vote for housing than against housing, the system itself is broken. So counting the votes only tells part of the story. We need to get away from voting on individual buildings and change the system. Generally, Stewart and Boyle did a good job and embraced change.

But overall, this council has been very dysfunctional. It’s a divided council that struggled to move anything along. They bickered, they pulled stunts and meetings often dissolved into chaos. The Mayor and Christine Boyle were the only two who took a professional approach to moving business along. Even if I don’t agree with them on everything, they at least tried to keep things moving. 

On the other side, the worst in terms of procedural issues was Melissa De Genova. If you’ve ever listened to council meetings, you’ve heard her talking over people and adding endless amendments. I think her conduct was unprofessional and it was painful to watch. She made it tough for city council to get things done. 

Does it matter who becomes the mayor of Vancouver?

Yes, it does matter who becomes Vancouver’s next mayor. Sure, the mayor is just one vote on city council; they’re one vote out of eleven. But the mayor does represent the city to other levels of government. 

A good mayor with a bad council can’t get anything done. But it’s still better to have a good mayor than a bad one.

I’m disappointed in Ken Sim and the ABC. They have three councillors right now who were former NPA members and have a pretty great record on housing. So I was hoping Ken Sim would have a more meaningful housing policy. Last time I checked, they still hadn’t released their housing platform, which I think is a catastrophic failure of leadership. 

Let’s talk about city council’s work on the Vancouver Plan and the Broadway Plan.

These plans showed us the big problem of this council: They’re more interested in endless consultation and planning than actually taking action. The housing crisis is worse than it’s ever been and this council has gotten almost nothing done their entire term.  

The Vancouver Plan took four years to get as far as it’s gotten – it’s not done yet. They’ve passed the first version but there’s no policy in it. It’s very high level. With a good council, they may be able to accelerate this plan. But with a bad council, the Vancouver Plan may stall indefinitely. 

In a housing crisis, we need more than a plan. We need action. But some councillors, like Hardwick from TEAM and the Greens, were happy to use these endless planning sessions as an excuse to not take action. 

So the Vancouver Plan is very high level and we’re years away from implementation. The Broadway Plan, on the other hand, is more specific. The basic idea is the provincial and federal governments invested money into building a skytrain line halfway to UBC with the condition that the city would build more housing along the route. The city undertook the Broadway Plan to fulfil that housing condition.

The Broadway Plan calls for more density around the skytrain stations and where there are currently apartment buildings, without displacing current tenants, and not much more density in current areas of low density. This plan began with the previous city council and after all the money and years of planning with the current council, we now have a not very ambitious housing plan. 

Does Mayor Kennedy Stewart hold the blame for council not moving faster on these plans?

I tend to be more sympathetic towards the mayor but he’s not without blame. However, as someone who has watched a lot of council meetings, it’s hard to overstate how dysfunctional this council was and how Hardwick used everything she could to obstruct and cause problems. The Greens too were unwilling to take action.

So yes, Mayor Stewart should hold some blame. But I’m skeptical that anyone could have gotten this council to function and take action. 

If you like the status quo – which is what Hardwick and TEAM are running on – dysfunction works for you. It just drags things out. She wants that low-density, suburban feel in neighbourhoods so endless planning becomes a strategy. 

For people who are focusing on housing, who do you think they will vote for?

If you care about housing, you agree that Vancouver has a housing shortage. I think that Kennedy Stewart is the clear choice. Ken Sim hasn’t said or done anything to make me think he’s serious about land use reform. Especially because his voter base is on the west side, where we need more of that density. 

I don’t have any confidence that Ken Sim has a serious plan to add the needed housing density. Some of his councillors do have a strong record on housing, but when it comes down to the mayor race, I think Kennedy Stewart is the choice. With a more supportive council, he could get stuff done. 

Is it productive to completely vote out the current city council and start fresh? 

It’s hard to predict the future. The only councillor who I think deserves to come back is Christine Boyle from One City. I think the Greens and Colleen Hardwick were a disaster on council. The rest of the current ABC people were a mixed bag and Jean Swanson was counter-productive. 

So if I called the shots, I would only have Christine Boyle coming back.

But another divided council without a clear majority would be a bad thing for Vancouver. Vancouver cannot afford another four wasted years. Because the last four years were absolutely squandered. 

So should people vote along party lines? 

For the most part, it does make sense to vote along party lines in the Vancouver election. It’s an overwhelming ballot with a lot of names that are randomly sorted. You can be fairly confident that people in the same party will vote similarly and work together.

If you think we need more housing, I believe the strongest parties are One City, Forward Together and Vision. There’s also Progress Vancouver – the polls aren’t great for them but I think they really get it on housing. 

Stay away from TEAM and the Greens. TEAM would be disastrous for the city and the Greens are problematic. They vote against way too much housing. 

Let’s talk about how Vancouver city council implemented the Emergency Interim Zoning Policy for Broadway Corridor to UBC.

The interim rezoning policy is another example of sheer inaction by the current council. Their main priority seemed to be just stopping things from happening. 

This policy happened before the Broadway Plan vote. The idea was to freeze all rezoning applications, outside of social housing, in Kitsilano and West Point Grey while they worked through the Broadway Plan. And that passed! 

This is shocking for a city in a housing crisis. One of the first things Pete Fry wanted to do was freeze housing development in one of the most expensive and exclusive areas of the city when the UBC subway wasn’t even funded. And he got council to agree with him.  

Is this policy still on the books? It is current city policy under a different name and, as far as I can tell, still in effect. But it’s the opposite of what this city needs. They also tried to reverse the previous council’s allowance of duplexes, further restricting density and building. 

Let’s talk about Vancouver city council’s action, or inaction, on streamlining rental policies.

This is another example of the Vancouver city council backsliding and being hesitant to take action. The former council enacted a policy that allowed for some townhomes and rental housing around the city through a pilot project. The pilot project expired in June 2019 and the current council didn’t get around to replacing it until December 2021. 

It took years of consultation! Staff tried to bring something to council in June 2020 but Adriane Carr of the Greens led a motion to turf it and send it back. This was shocking to staff as they figured the policy was a no brainer. That completely derailed the whole process and it became a multi-year saga. 

Renters and condo owners should be allowed to live on quiet, nice, side streets, not restricted to busy, main roads. It’s shocking that for two and a half years, there was no option for these types of projects. And when the new policy was passed in 2021, it was cut back from the previous policy. Because city council is so afraid of new housing, it’s a pretty disappointing policy. 

What is the MIHRPP (Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program) and how did it play out with council? 

MIHRPP was a policy that the previous council adopted to encourage below-market rental housing. The idea is if you apply, you can build a more dense building than you’d regularly be allowed to in exchange for 20% of the homes being below-market. It’s a pretty effective policy for getting below-market housing built. 

There’s an example of this at Larch and 2nd on a vacant lot in Kits where they planned a 5-storey building. So it’s a low rise building, that’s not displacing anyone, and there’s another apartment building across the street so it fits into the neighbourhood. Despite this, Hardwick, Carr and Swanson all voted against it. To me, that was indefensible. 

Another MIRHPP example was at Broadway and Alma. Again, Hardwick, Carr and Swanson all voted against it. They’re all housing-skeptical, despite being on different sides of the political aisle. As much as I want to support Jean Swanson, votes like this hurt renters. 

Lastly, there was a MIRHPP project at Broadway and Birch, where the old Denny’s was. It would be between two skytrain stations but once again it was voted down. So not only were all of these projects voted against, but MIRHPP is now basically dead. Council capped the project at 20 but they couldn’t even find 20 sites across the city to make this project work. 

Staff tried to revive the program by suggesting council tweak the vacancy control clause. With a tweak to vacancy control, once a tenant moves out, rents could reset to the target affordable level, which I believe is 20% under market rates. Note that the rent controls under the Residential Tenancy Branch would still apply to protect rental rates for tenants who continue to reside in the building. But again, council voted against this and MIRHPP died. 

Let’s talk about the council vote on 12-storey social housing buildings.

This was an important vote that showed us what council thinks about land use reforms. Staff were instructed to look into how we could build more below-market housing. They suggested that some zones that are currently restricted to four-storey tall buildings be allowed to go up to six if they’re being built for social, co-op or non-profit housing. Council approved this. 

But all of the non-profit leaders came back to council and said they needed more. They wanted 10 or 12 floors to really get housing built. And remember, this is in areas where apartments are already allowed. Only Boyle, Stewart and Swanson supported this move. 

Once again, we saw that the council didn’t want to take action on housing. This was a clear way to make it easier and cheaper to build affordable housing. This may have been due to misinformation by advocacy groups. But most councillors didn’t want to do anything. 

On democracy:

I think democracy is electing leaders to make decisions. Democracy doesn’t require that every single bit of housing be voted on. To me, that is anti-democratic, since the consultation processes aren’t accessible to everyone. The people involved in these consultations are whiter, older and more land-owning than Vancouver’s diverse population. 

So the idea that every home requires a consultation process is anti-democratic. It puts more power in the hands of a smaller group of people. 

I want people to know what’s going on and to get out and vote. Young people and renters are misrepresented in our city. So I want to restate again how disastrous it would be if Colleen Hardwick and TEAM came into power. It would destroy the future of our city. 

I want to see a city that is vibrant and has room for renters and immigrants. I believe the future of Vancouver is at stake in this next election. 

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

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