Ask yourself this: is Vancouver a better city than it was four years ago? Mayoral Candidate Ken Sim doesn’t think so & neither do those involved with his new movement, A Better City. Ken sits down with Adam & Matt to discuss the current state of Vancouver, the challenges and mishaps that took place during Covid & the massive potential he sees for our city in the immediate years to come.
How can we create higher paying jobs? How should we tackle affordability? What role do we play in the West Coast & Pacific Rim? And which communities are ripe for improvement? This is an episode you will not want to miss. A better city is coming!
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Please tell us about yourself.
My parents immigrated here from Hong Kong and I went to five elementary schools in seven years because my family struggled to pay rent. I put myself through university at UBC, became a chartered accountant, and then became an investment banker working in Toronto and London. In 2001, when my wife, Tine, and I found out she was pregnant with our first child, we moved back to Vancouver and decided to start a business. Tina was on bedrest and we tried to find some caregivers, but had some scary experiences. And that’s what inspired us to start Nurse Next Door, which is a home healthcare company. We’re now celebrating our 20th anniversary. We have over 8000 team members across Canada, the US and Australia.
We then started Rosemary Rocksalt which makes Montreal-style bagels in Vancouver. So we know what it’s like to run small businesses during covid. We have four boys, 12 through 20 years old, and two dogs. I’m a proud Vancouverite and one of the primary reasons I decided to run for mayor was because my four boys don’t see a future for themselves here. I want to change that.
Why did you start Rosemary Rocksalt?
We have very good friends who run Siegel’s Bagels and we wanted to expand on their business. That’s been a passion project.
Did you always see yourself as an entrepreneur?
In hindsight, I think I was always an entrepreneur. In the 5th grade I found a comic store that would sell comics for $0.10 on Dunbar and then another store on W 4th that would buy them for $0.25. I’d buy all the comics I could for $0.10/comic and then take the bus across town to resell them for $0.25/comic. That was my side hustle. So I’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time.
I never wanted to be an accountant but when I graduated, I couldn’t find a job in finance. So I took a job at an accounting firm and it was the best decision I could’ve made. But I didn’t plan to be an accountant.
Can you tell us more about why you’re running for mayor?
I’m 99.99% sure I will never run for premier or prime minister. It’s not about being mayor or moving up in politics. For me, I’m so proud of our city. This was the city I was born and raised in; I left a few times but I always came back. Vancouver used to be this place everyone was proud of and that’s changed. My kids don’t see a future here. We need people to step up and change the direction of our city. That’s what I intend to do with a team around me. The goal is to build a movement that will change the direction of our city – and I’m just one part of that movement.
Is your background as an entrepreneur well suited to heading up this movement?
A lot of people don’t understand entrepreneurship. But entrepreneurship is no better or no worse than any other job, I just really enjoy it. As an entrepreneur, I provide a vision for something people can’t see. And then I deal with all of the challenges to bring that vision to life. The same thing applies to government. A lot of people feel that the city is not working. So it’s time we look at the problem differently.
Where is the City of Vancouver getting it wrong? Particularly with covid, what did Vancouver get right and what went wrong?
There are 11 people in that city council chamber and we don’t see everything they’re doing. But let’s celebrate what went well. The patio permits absolutely helped small businesses. We could’ve done it a lot faster, but let’s call it a win. The public plazas were great too.
The big miss was not advocating well enough for Vancouver. The federal government spent half a trillion dollars dealing with covid; based on population Vancouver should’ve received $10 billion. We did not get $10 billion. Let’s say we only got $500 million – that is the equivalent of the federal government spending $10 and Vancouver only getting a penny.
Public safety also really fell by the wayside. There have been anti-Asian hate crimes and many unreported personal property crimes. People don’t feel as safe as they used to. Businesses are also suffering, but we all know about that.
There are a lot of viewpoints when it comes to public safety. How do you plan to tackle that problem with all the differing interests?
It’s twofold: you have to triage the current situation and you have to build out a long term plan. For the long term plan, it’s complicated with many jurisdictions but it’s also simple. We have serious mental health and addiction issues, and people experiencing homelessness. If you realize that is the issue and the by-product is criminal activity, you can deal with the root cause instead of penalizing people.
For triaging the current situation, I do think we need to invest more in community safety. We have to stop throwing our police officers under the bus. Any mayor of Vancouver is the chair of the police board. So it’s the mayor’s issue and it is their responsibility to make things better.
I celebrate the fact that we have a diverse police force. To say we don’t have an empathetic police force is crazy. The police will be the first to tell you that they don’t want to be involved in a lot of the issues they’re involved in; they support shifting resources to mental health services. But the problem is you can’t do that overnight. The province deals with mental health services and that’s a separate budget.
We have to provide empathetic community safety and in the long term, get the province to step up more to help us deal with the real issue of mental health and addiction.
Let’s talk about the Downtown Eastside. You mentioned root causes of mental health and addiction. How do you plan to deal with that?
Let’s look at the safe injection site in Yaletown. If politicians had listened to the experts, they wouldn’t have put it there. We had one safe injection site very close to St. Paul’s and that’s where it should be – close to the first responders and not across the street from a park. The overwhelming recommendation was that Yaletown wasn’t the right spot; not because people were NIMBYs but because it wasn’t the right spot.
We need to depoliticize these issues and stop vilifying people if we don’t like their answer. We know what we’re currently doing isn’t working. We’ve seen during this pandemic that we don’t have a lack of resources. We agree that people are suffering and dying and we have the resources to help. We need the province to step up on the healthcare side and the federal government to step up on the housing side. And the city needs to step up by accelerating permitting and providing community safety.
Vancouver has some significant challenges and I believe we allow it to happen. There are things we do in the city that create bad situations. I want to create the solution. We need to have the hard conversations and get support from the government. It’s not okay to have someone suffering. Everyone in the Downtown Eastside is someone’s son or daughter.
With the election coming up in 2022, what is at stake?
Not to be overly dramatic, but everything – the future of our city for the next 30 years. Whatever happens in Vancouver also affects the rest of the province and the country. The future is where we are. It’s in our national strategic interest to have a strong Vancouver.
As a lifelong resident of Vancouver, our neighbourhoods are at stake. We all know what our challenges are – and they’re not going away in the short term. But Vancouver can be the best city on the planet. We’re in the right timezone. We have the most diverse and educated workforce. We’re the gateway to Asia. We have amazing movie, gaming and animation industries. We’re building St. Paul’s Hospital, which could be an anchor for healthcare excellence in North America. We could be an environmental leader.
We have everything going for us if we realize those opportunities. But we could drop the ball.
What happens if we drop the ball? What are the threats?
We have to give people a reason to be here. And we have to give them an opportunity to build their lives here. My kids are too young to think of housing affordability so they’re looking at the vibe of the city and job opportunities. If it was just about housing, Detroit would be an amazing place. Housing affordability is a massive issue in Vancouver but it’s not the only issue.
Vancouver is going to be a highly desirable global city, if we get it right. But for locals who are concerned about housing costs, there’s almost a friction there with not wanting more people to move here and drive up prices. Does Vancouver real estate make sense? How do we carve out an area for people who aren’t making huge salaries?
Vancouver real estate doesn’t make sense. I was speaking to a couple, two doctors, and they can’t afford to live here. If two doctors can’t afford to live here, we’re in big trouble. We all know Vancouver is a desirable place to live, despite our challenges. You cannot suppress demand without layering on billions of dollars in taxes, which hurts both owners and renters. So people who are worried about demand and want to curb it will actually be hurt in the long run.
We need to work on the supply side. We have to make it easier for people to build and we need to build the right stuff. We need to get rid of the red tape and be innovative about how we do things. We could increase the affordable supply of housing for people who want to live here.
Vancouver seems like a hard place to build in and that’s why we’re seeing more development in places like Burnaby or Surrey. How do we get rid of the red tape and the pushback from communities?
We need to make things simpler. If it makes sense for the city over the next 20 years, we should do it and we should expedite it. We shouldn’t be having conversations about six-storey buildings on main roads – that should be a given.
We need to have an overall vision for the city and then leave it up to the communities and the builders for how they’re going to fit that vision. I think it’s crazy that the mayor and council need to debate individual buildings. It’s an incredible bottleneck to increasing housing supply. It also increases the cost.
One of the things we’re talking about doing within our first month in office is permits you can get in two hours – not eight months to eight years. If you’re going to build a house that everyone knows is going to get built, we’ll give you a checklist. You go through that checklist on your own time and if it’s approved, you will get all your permits. But we will audit your build. So if you don’t build according to your plan, you’re in trouble.
We’re also thinking about instant permits for 3D printed homes. It sounds futuristic but you can build a beautiful 3D printed home in less than five days, at two thirds the cost and with 90% less construction waste. We want Vancouver to be the first city in the world to promote these homes. We are going to create higher paying jobs and opportunities for people in Vancouver to lead the charge on 3D printed homes. Politicians might not be thinking of things like this but entrepreneurs are. There are innovative solutions out there in the world – we just have to look for them.
We’re all environmentalists. Anyone who lives in Vancouver loves the environment. And that can coexist with other interests. I’m an entrepreneur and a businessman but I think in terms of the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. You need all three or else it doesn’t work.
What are your thoughts on gentle density?
I think it has a big role in our future. There are going to be a lot more people coming into Vancouver and a lot of our communities don’t work. When you travel the world, you see communities that are vibrant and a bit denser. It’s a good thing. I’ve talked to people on Dunbar and the people want it. Both young and old people want a chance to live there with their families. Gentle density allows us to have that community feel without putting up huge towers.
The type and amount of density depends on the neighbourhood. Some neighbourhoods will support four-storey buildings and others will support towers. Some developers don’t want to build to the max in order to keep the community feel and sell commercial space. So it’s not a one-size fits all solution. We would have a framework and vision for the city and allow people to work within that.
Let’s talk about the Park Board. What role does it play?
I’m all for a Park Board. I’m just not for an elected Park Board. Vancouver, Minneapolis and Cultus Lake are the only cities in North America with an elected Park Board. Every other city does fine without one. It’s become politicized and a training ground for people who want to move up in politics. And that would be fine if people weren’t literally dying because of the actions of the Park Board. The Park Board got in the way at Oppenheimer Park and Strathcona Park and people died. That’s the main reason we should get rid of them.
It has also taken the Park Board years to figure out if people can have a responsible drink in the park. They’re still studying it. They’ve spent millions of dollars on four toilets and they lost the Aquarium. So are they supporting the parks or not? I think it’s time to end the elected Park Board.
How did it get to this point and why are politicians supporting the status quo with the Park Board?
I don’t know how things got this bad. But I know it’s incredibly dysfunctional. People with mental health issues are being terrorized in the parks.
It’s rare to find people who will say, “This thing I’ve been working on for a long time isn’t working.” But as an entrepreneur, you have to admit those things. You have to admit when you’re off base or else you’ll go bankrupt. Politicians, generally speaking, need to save face. They don’t like being critical of themselves because they don’t get rewarded for that. When they admit their mistakes, their opponents jump on them.
A Better City is a new political party for the City of Vancouver. Can you tell us more about the party and what the plan is?
It’s a movement that represents most Vancouverites. There’s no right or left – it’s not political. We ask people to leave their political colours at the door because there’s no left or right when it comes to vibrant neighbourhoods, affordable housing, getting your garbage picked up, etc. We want to change the direction of our city towards what makes sense.
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