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episode # 149

Vancouver Price Tags with Gordon Price

Has 2018 been a good year for Vancouver? The time to take stock is now. Former City Councillor & Founder of the influential “Price Tags” website Gordon Price sits down with Adam & Matt to discuss the present, the past, and the future of Vancouver in one of the most wide-reaching conversations to date. Tune in to hear Gordon’s take on all things Vancouver, including his unique insider account of local politics, why building permits ought to take as long as they do, and his surprising predictions for the next neighborhoods set for redevelopment. Oh, yeah, and we also cover the coming apocalypse.  This is not to be missed!

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Episode Summary


 

About Gordon:

Gordon is a fellow with Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a former Vancouver city councillor (1986-2002). He came from Victoria in 1978 and has lived in the West End for most of his time here, except for four years in Yaletown. After he served on city council, Gordon became director of SFU’s City Program. He’s always been interested in urban studies.

On his blog, Price Tags, and its mission:

Gordon started Price Tags 10 years ago; it was an easy way to get online. UBC offered the server for blogs when the World Urban Forum was in town. Gordon liked the format and switched from PDF files about exploration of cities. He uses the blog to discuss observations about the urban environment, politics, and transportation, along with what we can learn from other cities and what they can learn from us.

On how 2018 has been for Vancouver:

The civic election has told us about where and who we are. We’ve entered some generational change. This has happened a few times. In 1972, the NPA (formed in the late 1930s) dominated council and conducted the city as though it were a business. Things were changing generationally (baby boomers), politically (Trudeau in Ottawa, Barrett in Victoria, and a group led by investment banker Art Phillips, which was the best we’ve had and set a new direction for the city – everything from the property endowment fund to the way we plan, to our attitudes and how we define ourselves). No one would have anticipated the problems we’ve faced in the past five years, which have inevitably been followed by change and a generational shift: the millennials.

On the dramatic changes we’ve seen in the past five years and if they caught him off guard:

The scale of the changes surprised Gordon, but it was no surprise we were becoming more of an Asian city from the immigration patterns. He saw “the future” when he was on council and visited a social studies class in southeast Vancouver. 80-90% of the students were predominantly Asian. It was very clear that the city’s ethnicity and culture would fundamentally change, and a reorientation would come with that. The sale of the Expo ’86 site meant we were opening up to the Pacific Rim and welcoming investment, and we had already welcomed immigration. Still, nobody Gordon knew anticipated Vancouver would become polarized around whether you could afford a place to live here.

Now, the city is 50-60% rentals, comprised of 52% people of colour, and becoming economically separate even from parts of Metro Vancouver. This means it needs to be thought of and governed differently. Gordon doesn’t believe the expectations of millennials are much different than his were when he came to the city: He did not expect to live in a single-family home, but he did expect diversity, opportunity, and acceptance of how he defines himself. This has not fundamentally changed. For example, young gay men still come to the West End and go through what Gordon did; now, perhaps they just happen to typically be Asian or of another background. The anxiety, anger, and questioning we’re going through comes from the fact that Vancouver is so unaffordable that many people feel there is no place for them here.

On his concerns with this tension and sentiment:

The basic function of local government is not why people run for local office. We don’t hear about the servicing of land, pipes, water, etc. because we are a rich, well-run city. Engineering, police, and fire basically constitutes the budget. Once taxes cover this, you can debate about where the rest of the money should go. Going back to basics, can you provide a place to build so that people have a place to live? If not, you shouldn’t be in civic government. This links to planning and accommodating expectations in a city that ended greenfield planning (open spaces) in the 1970s and, under Gordon’s council, used up most of the brownfield (industrial) sites without going into existing neighbourhoods and changing their scale and character. How do you accommodate people who want to live in areas that we like as they are? If you’re fortunate enough to have bought a house, even 10 years ago, you’ve ridden the curve up and made a lot of money. Gordon has benefitted from this without having to do much at all, and it’s become part of his sense of security, identity, and expectations for the future. Civic government exists to provide opportunity for place, whether home or business. The fundamentals are the same, but our ability to deal with it and the responses we must take now are very different.

On the preservationist, urbanist, NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality:

During his time on council, Gordon noticed you really get distracted by the density or height question. If you are satisfied and have been in your community for awhile, say five to 10 years, you’re likely most anxious about a change in scale. This can be as simple as a single-family home of one story changing to two stories. It can be a major high-rise change, but it’s more typically a sense of character. If the rate of change is slow enough or, in particular, if it stays the same, you can accommodate a lot of change.

On what we need to do to accommodate this:

Municipalities are hoping to achieve this by talking to the community. But, they need to spend capital and decisions made around rate of change, scale, and character. To keep things the same is not hard to do if you’re not concerned about affordability, because you induce scarcity. City council’s traditional job is to not allow a sense of scarcity and to open up development, transit, etc. The market can then do its job to reasonably allocate for a broader scale than what we’ve seen over the past ten years.

On where Gordon sees the new council going:

Every move they make is indicative of where they hope to position themselves. Sometimes consultation puts off decision-making, but there are good points to it as well. If you get the buy-in of those in the community, you can make change. Where it doesn’t work is when you don’t acknowledge the community hasn’t evolved or aged to the point that it’s ready for change. Strategically choose which neighbourhoods are ready for change. For example, when Gordon was on council, the NPA looked to change single-family zoning. Gordon understood where this came from and doesn’t believe there’s a culture that doesn’t have a single-family home as an icon. If everyone on your block or in your neighbourhood shares that common set of values – of the yard and fence and space – it’s as good as it gets! Historically, very few people in the world could attain this, but here you could. Every neighbourhood along the streetcar line was suburbia, single-family homes. To go into communities and change this for people who treasure the idea and for those who have come here and bought into it, whose identity is partly formed by it, won’t end well.

However, eventually a neighbourhood is ready for change, for a few reasons. One is it becomes largely rental and speculative. Enough people have bought houses and are waiting for rezoning (for instance, apartments in Mt. Pleasant and high rises in the West End). There is so much rental housing and so the neighbourhoods do not want to change. You can’t replace it, so there was incentive to keep the status quo. There was more or less a balance for ten years until in 1989, a zoning bylaw change was put in place that didn’t allow for almost any change in areas like the West End, South Granville, or the Kerrisdale apartment district. However, an area like Yaletown was ready for change; all the auto body shops, industrial shops, and parking lots changed to affordable housing. There was more or less a balance for 10 years and a rate of change bylaw was created because council was prepared to rezone and accommodate growth in a place of intense change. Up to 2000, this worked. In the West End, for example, council was able to accommodate density without changing the character. Yet throughout the city, seven major projects were being built simultaneously. Thousands of units came onto the market every year; there was no scarcity. Then, the pressure came back to neighbourhoods like the West End, accompanied by a tsunami of money and wealth. Though the new council reflects the settling of this, the spectrum between the preservationists and urbanists has not changed or been reconciled yet.

People are prepared for three kinds of density: invisible density (e.g. a secondary suite you can’t see from outside), hidden density (e.g. a laneway house you can only see from the back), and gentle density (something that fits the character of the neighbourhood). The West End went through significant change with the first two types of density, twice. Almost everyone had an illegal suite to cover mortgages and when they were ready for change, council rezoned all the RS1 for secondary suites. This would have been unthinkable when Gordon was on council, but it happened within a ten-year period. The same applies to laneway homes. These are standard now, and incremental change – when a neighbourhood is ready for it – is key to making these types of changes acceptable. If you make too much change too soon, you give a neighbourhood ammunition: something to fight, someone to hate. If our current council thinks they can rezone the entire city from top to bottom, it won’t happen. There is way too much process and political capital required, and it’s easy to fight.

So, what neighbourhoods are ready for change? Where is it best to try out new forms of housing and restore at least minimal affordability?

Perhaps the main arteries: Hastings-Sunrise, Fraser, Oak, Cambie, Knight?

There are walls along Cambie now. This is acceptable because you’re buffering the single-family; the noisiest areas are for density, and the “purity” keeps its sense of status in quieter areas. Zoning and development is always about this.

Brentwood has huge density now, which is a new neighbourhood, much like Yaletown was. Neighbourhoods like this and Metrotown, among others, were intended by the City of Burnaby as apartment districts and were accepted by single-family home owners because they weren’t touched directly, and it was coordinated with rapid transit. Areas in Vancouver like this include Jericho, Heatherlands, and some of the Fraser, among others. The big players for most of these areas are First Nations, which can do whatever they want with their land as they aren’t governed by the same zoning regulations as municipalities. Mike Harcourt has said that most of the growth, if we maintain the status of existing single-family neighbourhoods, will be on the west side of Vancouver. Aside from extending the Millennium line out to UBC, we may even need an express line as well.

Southeast Vancouver is ready for change – the River District and master planned communities in highly industrial, vacant lands.

Gordon thinks it would actually be “Vancouver Special” areas. So much of that stock is second and third generation, ready for change. The owners and renters may be ready as well. Ethnic immigrants (mostly South Asians) from the 1950s and 1960s live here. Builders came up with these homes as an affordable type of accommodation that could be built easily and cheaply. Many contained illegal suites for extended family, etc. These areas might be ready for what we did in Kerrisdale in the 1950s.

Renfrew and Renfrew Heights, too.

Yes, with its new transit and job opportunities. This is where consultation really makes a difference. People may well be ready; they know they can cash out and their housing needs may change as kids get older, etc. Kerrisdale has nice, green, leafy streets with upper-middle class housing and “McMansions”. In the 1950s on either side of 41st, the City built a streetcar neighbourhood, West End style. It’s a compact community organized around retail and transit, which works brilliantly and is great for people to age in one place: You can move from a house to an apartment and have more walkability and everything you need in your own community. Could this be done in places like Memorial Park, or the slopes up from the Fraser? We can look at areas strategically and plan to scale. We’re good at this and we know it works. The problem is that we did this so well, it became a commodity in the global market.

It sounds like there’s a way that works and a right strategy for the city plan and block-by-block changes.

Yes, in a way that works for the circumstances, which Gordon won’t pretend to understand (this is where generational change comes in). However, you can see the spectrum between preservationist and urbanist. Young people are moving towards urbanist as they see it as their only choice for a place in this city. Many people are angry that people like Gordon (long-time residents) are staying in place and don’t want to be taxed, don’t want additional change, services, and wealth to be consolidated. There is a sense of unfairness.

On why areas on the east side (e.g. Renfrew) would be more open to change:

Gordon noticed, particularly on the southeast side of the city, that he very quickly became a minority. However, he saw these people still aspired to a middle-class way of life. Culturally, there isn’t much difference: Nearly every group that came here reinvented themselves as suburban Canadians. This is what “ethnoburbs” are: South Asian people in Newton, Koreans in Coquitlam, Persians in North and West Vancouver. They are still living the “Canadian dream”, though their attitude to change may be different. If the housing stock is deteriorating or not serving their needs, it may be easier to speak to these communities if the timing is right. Gordon believes it’s much easier to speak to the communities that are ready, rather than do a mass rezoning in the name of being “fair”.

If the majority of people really believe council wants to use social justice (or “spatial justice”) to bring the social problems of areas like the Downtown Eastside more broadly into the community, it will poison the atmosphere from the beginning. Areas that are wanting to keep the status quo and not open or ready for change should not get the City’s contributions to amenities.

On the state of our supply crisis, as compared to previous years:

There has never been anything like this; it’s unprecedented. Gordon has seen the cycles and remembers the crash in 1981 and the mid-1990s. He could have correlated that with commitments council had made, or with building and real estate cycles. Now, we’re in this long (demand) cycle we can’t see the end of. What does that mean for a city council? Don’t get into it! They don’t know what interest rates will be, or how migration patterns will change, or what geopolitical outcomes will be. Focus on capital plans, infrastructure, maintenance budgets. Make sure we have appropriate police and fire resources. This is 80% of the job. For planning, coordinate it regionally. You need to know you can accommodate what we’ve historically seen (about 40,000 people per year). This won’t stop the politics and anxiety of people, but it’s the basic job that has served us well for so long, and nobody has come up with anything better. If you disrupt the rate of change, you will induce a large reaction. We’ve had a lot of supply, and realtors and developers haven’t been able to say why this hasn’t worked for the city, and they’re not prepared for that discussion. We’ve put off talking about foreign capital (over concern about racism issues); we did not acknowledge the degree of corruption that’s taken place. There is a real crisis of confidence in the development community. Gordon thinks this council is coming around. He has not seen evidence that flooding the market with supply will (one-to-one) deliver what’s expected.

On what the future type of housing product looks like, who will build it, where the money to build comes from, and the benefit to those building:

If there is money to be made in this city over the next few years, there will be people there to make it. Interest rates and job opportunities are far more significant. The City wants more affordable housing, from shelters and mobile homes in the Downtown Eastside right up to above middle-income. Every society finds a solution to this if they don’t build: They crowd. We did this from 1929-1945; during the depression and the war, we didn’t build. The population of the West End is about 40,000 people in a square mile. In 1951, there were more single-family homes and no high rises, and the population was less than half. The unit count went up five times without even doubling the population! People turned homes into suites and rented out their attics and basements; we were crowded, and we are crowded again. Gordon thinks many international students, for instance, live five or six to a one-bedroom apartment. People do what they have to do. This makes the population more than ready for change. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about rezoning neighbourhoods.

Gordon is in both the preservationist and urbanist camps. Let’s build more but recognize the values that are the DNA of the city. Recognize we are good at it, it takes process and time, and it is expensive, but it’s a way we regulate the rate of change so that it’s tolerable. This also applies to the rate of permits. We do need to build more, but if we built what we wanted to all at once, we would not like the result.

On how the city has changed and what the problems are:

How corrupt are we? Fentanyl, laundered money. Trump may be shown to have provided a mechanism for money laundering; his name is on a building here, so there is likely a connection. We’re all affected and polluted by this. We have moved into international corruption. The development industry may not be at this scale, but it will become hard to tell the difference. We have a lot of work to do to fix this. As anecdotes become demonstrated cases, it will get worse. Whether it’s real estate, development, planning, or politics, we need to fix this problem.

On the “missing middle” for people who want homes. Developers are at a point where they can only afford to build luxury product downtown, for instance.

We are the creators of wealth when we give access to land (e.g. by putting in the pipe, road, or transit line). Then, the market inflates the value based on scarcity. The difference between that market value and what you could do if you increase density is what council appropriates. This is what Gordon Campbell did. He recognized this public value could be used to fund basic amenities that the public would share. It’s not enough to simply say land is too expensive to build on. You can appropriate land value and put it back into affordability. That’s what council is probably trying to do with the STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental) projects. This response was incremental, but clearly was not enough. Who knows if they could have been politically successful. The public just senses that they sold out to developers. Anything moving forward needs to be a partnership. Though sometimes the private sector has no choice about following regulations, the City can’t just mandate it themselves.

On a city that can inform where we go from here, and a city in a similar situation to us:

How did we end up being compared to cities of 6 or 8 million?! Cities of a similar culture and economy to us are Seattle and Portland. Historically, in terms of affordability, cities like Vienna, Berlin, and Copenhagen compare.

Gordon would look to other municipalities in the region. We rely on them and it’s an unreasonable expectation that you can’t travel a few SkyTrain stops from, say, Burnaby, into Vancouver. What we need to find is the point between no change in scale and character and what a variety of communities will accept close to the Kerrisdale model (lots of change), to reduce the sense of scarcity so that the “missing middle” is provided for, both economically and structurally. It will stay expensive because people don’t want a decline in the value of their major asset that would return affordability to what it was before. They also don’t want prices so high that people are priced out and the city’s social and economic character completely changes. Gordon thinks this is solvable, perhaps by interest rates. We might be in the midst of it. Gordon feels the housing crisis as we knew it is over. Supply and demand parameters are changing, and maybe in a year or two we won’t be having this conversation. The non-market housing community never felt comfortable acknowledging success. They encourage a good start but seem to think keeping pressure on politicians to keep going and allocate resources will mean more change. However, it works the opposite way. If you ensure someone gets full recognition for the political and real capital they provided to address a problem, they will do more of it. Don’t give people a sense of hopelessness or corruption when progress is being made. Before you know it, we’re into Trumpism.

On the City’s major infrastructure projects that Gordon is excited about:

Gordon is very proud of the Clouds of Change report from his time on council. Vancouver was the first municipality, at least in North America, that took on climate change. The strategies became part of city hall’s culture, but recognition wasn’t taken too seriously. It’s hard to change lifestyles and we’re all waiting around for something we hoped wouldn’t come in our lifetimes. Gregor came in with this mandate. The new council is not a working majority, which is something we’ve never had before. A majority allows you to implement your agenda with continuity over time. It creates confidence. Kennedy Stuart’s leadership will be tested without this. This council seems to reflect a city that’s changed, and so they’re likely willing to consider change that would not have been discussed in previous generations.

As a matter of adaptation and response, Gordon would really like to see us get serious about the existential threat of climate change. How will we stop Stanley Park from burning down? Look at California. How we allocate resources is fundamental. Liberal democracies are under threat. Our responsibility for leadership as a kind of “general”, to mobilize people and resources, is what Gordon would look to now. This is something our culture can do. Why did the bike route issue unleash emotional forces? It wasn’t really about bike routes, but rather about underlying anxiety, existential change, meaning of status and power, territoriality, “why are you taking away my road space that my taxes paid for?”, etc. We need a plan to find the acceptable rate of change, and then deal more profoundly with global threats, whether economic, geopolitical, or climate. This will test our leadership and social cohesion, but we can handle it. With the current generation’s thinking, success, discussions, wealth, and opportunity, this is the right place and army to try being a “general”.

We will be dealing with favelas for the relative-rich. It’s reasonable to consider that the electrical grid in Arizona and southwest America could fail, under elevated heat conditions. People won’t survive this without air conditioning. These people will look for a cool, green place. This has happened in sub-Saharan Africa as they’ve gone to Europe. We will need to respond in, say, 20 years. We avoided the conversation around corruption and affordability, and we consequently got that change. You can’t deal out a whole generation of at least half the city and think there won’t be a response!

Gordon is watching if Jon Stovell, a major developer and leader of the Urban Development Institute, comes up with a strategy for reasonable security for tenants of the Berkeley Tower on Denman and Davie, which is under threat of renoviction. This model could be applied to other buildings in the area, but the current council won’t allow it and Gordon’s council did not allow it either. There was a three-storey walk-up in Kerrisdale due to come down. They were going to evict elderly people who had lived there for decades, only to replace it with a condo that would have fewer units and people. It would have been higher and blocked views. Affordability and density would be reduced, and political controversy would ensue. Every subsequent building would be targeted, and they knew they could lose their constituents, so they stopped it. They did the same in the West End and Granville, keeping the status quo while pursuing major projects. Now it’s a question of whether the partnership between this council, city hall, and the community can be re-established with the development community to offer more affordable (though still expensive) options. Deliver the City’s promise that people can have a place here, or an opportunity for one in the future.

On Gordon’s optimism for the future of Vancouver:

Gordon doesn’t think in terms of optimism, but rather in terms of possibility. He feels blessed to be a Canadian, on the west coast, living in the West End. If he can’t feel content, happy, or optimistic, he doesn’t deserve to live here and should make room for someone who can.

Five-wire:

  1. Favourite neighbourhood: The West End: a lower income rental neighbourhood performing the same function it did years ago
  2. Favourite bar or restaurant: Breka
  3. First place he takes someone from out of town: to his apartment that overlooks Lost Lagoon
  4. Downtown penthouse or west-side mansion: a second or third-floor apartment to avoid elevators and to see people on the street
  5. Something he’s purchased in the past year for under $500 that’s had a positive influence on his life: Transit app which is free. You can find out when the next closest bus is coming, find the nearest car2go, the closest docking station; it gives you a range of transportation choices.

To find out more about Gordon:

Visit pricetags.ca. Gordon also podcasts on Price Talks.

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