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episode # 48

The Future of Commercial Drive with MLA Shane Simpson

Vancouver-Hastings MLA joins Adam & Matt to chat about the City of Vancouver’s proposed Grandview-Woodlands Community Plan, offering some uniquely informative insight into the challenges facing one of East Vancouver’s most sought-after neighbourhoods.

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Episode Summary


Adam: And welcome back to Vancouver Real Estate Podcast. I’m your host, Adam Scalena
Matt: And I’m your other host, Matt Scalena.
Adam: Matt, we’ve got an incredible show today.
Matt: This is a real special one.
Adam: It really is. We’ve got Shane Simpson. He is the MLA for Vancouver Hastings
Matt: Real coup for us.
Adam: It is. I mean he’s my former MLA.
Matt: Yeah, you were one of his constituents.
Adam: I was. I’m a huge fan of Shane’s so I’m excited to have him on the show and who better to talk about the Grandview/Woodland plan but also the major issues that are confronting that area right now…affordability
Matt: Yeah.
Adam: And everything else.
Matt: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny. We’re talking to Shane today but we’re really talking about some of the subjects that we’ve talked about before. I mean
Adam: Right.
Matt: affordability, increasing density in Vancouver but how to do that while maintaining some of the character of these communities. Tom Davidoff most recently talked about it on episode 40.
Adam: Sure.
Matt: We also had Death of the Single Family House with Nathan Lauster.
Adam: Yeah.
Matt: That was on episode 27. Adrian Crook, a blogger at 5 kids 1 condo was talking about you know the nimby not in my backyard, specifically focusing on on Grandview/Woodlands so you know these are some subjects that we’ve really been talking about sort of over the last year, year and a bit.
Adam: Sure.
Matt: And Shane is a great addition to this fairly complicated subject.
Adam: Yeah, absolutely and we have been talking about it kind of at a very theoretical level, right? Talking about should we really be limiting demand with something like a Foreign Buyers’ Tax or should we be increasing supply
Matt: Right.
Adam: with densification.
Adam: Well, you know now we’re actually with the Grandview/Woodlands plan seeing how that’s playing out on the ground level and it’s posing its own unique challenges.
Matt: Yeah.
Adam: So without further ado, Matt, why don’t we get to our interview with Shane Simpson.
Matt: It’s a great one so enjoy guys.

Adam: Okay so we’re here with Shane Simpson, MLA for Vancouver Hastings. How are you doing, Shane?
Shane: I’m great. I’m great. It’s good to be with you.
Matt: Hey thanks for taking the time today.
Adam: So Shane, can you maybe start by just telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Shane: Sure. I’m a lifelong resident of Vancouver, grew up basically in the Strathcona downtown east side and I’ve been elected for three terms now, twelve years, coming to the end of my twelfth year and my responsibilities right now are jobs, economic development skills training and labour but in a previous life before being an elected I worked a lot around planning issues. I chaired, I was on the Vancouver city planning commission for years. I chaired the planning commission for a while and have worked in the co-op housing sector and around housing related issues a fair amount at different times in my life and a lot around community planning and community sustainability issues broadly both doing that. I worked for Smart World BC for a time looking at sustainable growth management issues so it’s great to be able to talk about some of these things with you.
Matt: Yeah, no, that’s fantastic. So what are some of the current challenges facing Grandview/Woodlands?
Shane: Well, you know it’s a community that is in some level of transition. We know as costs go up in the city of Vancouver, housing being a big driver but a whole range of costs, it puts a lot of pressure on people who have modest incomes and there is a fair amount of people who live in the Grandview/Woodland area that are in that situation and I think they are finding it increasingly difficult around affordability questions in the community. There are also people who obviously have a long time investment in that community as their home and a place that is important to them and they have concerns about what the changing nature of Grandview/Woodlands is going to be and how that’s going to affect them, how it’s going to affect the character of the neighbourhood and whether it’s going to exclude some people who have made it their home for a long time and I think there’s a range of issues that kind of evolve around that and much of the conversation and I know we’re going to talk about the Grandview/Woodland plan. I think much of the concern of folks around that, drove some of the real concerns around the Grandview plan when it was initially released.
Matt: Can you speak a little bit, Shane, to the changing nature of the community? Some of our listeners aren’t actually that familiar with the Grandview/Woodland plan.
Shane: Well, you know the Grandview/Woodland community on the east side of the city, I think one of the changes that we’ve seen and I think that probably there’s some truth to this but you know as housing has got prohibitively expensive for a lot of people as they say there’s a lot of people who couldn’t afford that 3 million dollar house on the west side and they came over and bought the million and a half dollar house or the million dollar house on the east side in Grandview/Woodlands.
Matt: Sure.
Shane: You know and they’ve upgraded the house but you have a group of people who have come there to do that. You have a lot, a fair amount of young families in the community, people who have been there a long time, some of them are leaving now, I think because some of them will have an asset in their house that now is going to drive retirement for some of these people and they are selling the asset to drive retirement and you look at Commercial Drive. Commercial Drive is a very different place than it was when I went to Britannia and use to hang out on the drive as a kid. It’s very much about food and beverage now, some upper middle, starting to be higher end shops. The costs of rent, commercial rents are very prohibitive for a lot of people that use to have businesses on the drive that are now leaving because they simply can’t make the economics of it work because of the high lease costs and so that changes the nature of Commercial Drive and as that’s happening, it’s changing the nature of the community. I think there is a lot of people working hard to say we know there is a gentrification for lack of a better term that is happening here but let’s do it in a way that isn’t exclusionary to the people who have made this home and that’s not an easy thing to do but I think there is a lot of effort going into that right now and that again was much of the conversation around this plan. The Grandview wasn’t planned. Initially people thought that they had one plan, that they were working on. When the drafts came back from the city it was dramatically different. It showed a lot of high rise development not just around the sky train station but increased high rise development in a number of places along Commercial Drive, increased density in ways that people saw as hurting the affordable rental housing and just not a plan that resonated at all with people in the community and that’s, I think, the reason that the city pulled the plan back, went with the process with a citizens’ assembly to develop a second plan that was much more acceptable to people. It still had challenges. All plans do but it was a much more acceptable plan for people in the community and passed with some concern, some reservation, but we now have a plan that will go forward.
Matt: Right and so we’ve had a lot of people on like Tom Davidoff from UBC who talks about increasing density as helping with affordability. Obviously a concern for Grandview/Woodland is to have the people who have made the community for a long time afford to stay there. Do you think that density will help those people stay?
Shane: Well, you know, density on its own doesn’t resolve the problem. The question becomes density for who?
Matt: Right.
Shane: One of the issues that I have had with the plan, when I look at the plan in its newest incarnation, which is certainly a significant improvement. If I look north of Venables there’s a whole lot of affordable rental housing there, mostly a lot of three story walk ups, older buildings, larger older units, mostly rental or a large number of rental and they still are relatively affordable. Though you know affordability, it’s hard to talk about in this city sometimes, but these are affordable and the people who are living in them are getting by.
Matt: uhu
Shane: The plan calls for an increased density continuing to be rental you know purpose built rental in that area which is a good thing but with an increase in density and I know there is a lot of concern and I think it’s concern that has merit that that new rental housing aren’t going to be units of a comparable size to what’s there now. Some of the older buildings and are they going to be affordable for the folks who are living there today? Are they going to be able to come back and afford to live there and I think those are legitimate questions that I haven’t seen an answer to so that starts to worry people that it’s going to be rental but will it still be affordable for the people who are there or are they going to get pushed somewhere else and if so where?
Matt: uhu
Shane: So density, I tend to be inclined to sort of some of the softer approaches to density that can be used rather than building up all the time. I don’t think building up is always the answer by any means and so you know we have to really think about that and I’m not sure what the answer is but I certainly see a lot of people, my constituents, who potentially get excluded from that new housing because it’s going to, you know, double the rent costs on some of these units, maybe as much as that and that just won’t be affordable.
Matt: Right. So apart from affordability, which is obviously one of the huge concerns, what other types of concerns are your constituents raising about the proposed Grandview/Woodland community plan?
Shane: Well I think you know there’s concern of the community has pockets that are you know quite different when I look sort of broad or I look Commercial Drive heading east up through to Nanaimo and that, it’s mostly single family housing, some small apartment development but a lot of single family. I think people worry about whether that changes and does the pressure to build up and what does that do to the nature of the community and the neighbourhoods and how does that change that dynamic. I think that people worry about Commercial Drive, the kind of eclectic nature of Commercial Drive changing in a significant way depending on who’s bringing business to the street and what kind of motivation there is for businesses that are different than the ones today and how does that change so it’s people who are hanging onto a neighbourhood and not wanting to see the character of the neighbourhood change dramatically and these are people, who all will tell you we understand we need density. We need more affordable housing. We need to have strategies that make that work. We need to have better transit, a variety of those things, but we don’t want to do this entirely at the expense of a neighbourhood that we love and we’ve lived in for a long time.
Adam: Right. Right. So do you think that the current government is doing enough to address affordability?
Shane: Well…
Adam: in Vancouver?
Shane: I’m not sure that they are and it really does require a pretty concerted effort and a partnership that I haven’t seen and that means the federal government has to be brought to the table too. Back when there was federal housing programs and we had what was a 50 cent dollars the feds were throwing in money and matching provincial money, then able to sit down with the local governments and talk about land availability and zoning and other kinds of initiatives to make projects work. We need those federal dollars to be there in a significant way then I think we can get at this and the province has to have a better and more collaborative relationship, I think with local government. I don’t think it does anybody any good when the province is stepping away from their responsibilities in many cases and wagging their finger at the city and saying you have too many rules and you take too long to make decisions. All of that might be somewhat true but it’s not getting at a collaborative approach that I think has to be there to figure out where these solutions come from, whether it’s innovative housing style and stock, whether it’s innovative ownership models, maybe looking at cooperative models or limited equity models that allow people some of the security of ownership while at the same time having some limits on equity so that people can afford them. But that’s going to have to be a creative discussion that involves all levels of government and I think the province has to be the leader in that and I haven’t seen that leadership to date.
Matt: You’re talking about creative proposals. One that we have heard about here is the City of Vancouver’s Ownership Pilot Program.
Shane: Right.
Matt: What do you think of the
City of Vancouver’s Ownership Pilot Program and the current government’s role in it?
Shane: Well, you know I’ve seen a little bit around the creation of the housing agency and the pilot program, the modular housing strategy that they are putting forward so I congratulate the city on putting ideas out there and trying to find innovative approaches to address an extremely difficult problem that wouldn’t be easy for anybody to address so I am encouraged that they are trying to be creative and innovative around this. I think we’ll have to probably wait a little while to see what the success of these are because it always takes time with these initiatives to see whether they start to give you the results that you want to accomplish but they also, I believe, need that support of a provincial government that has to be prepared to think a little bit outside the box as well, in terms of housing. I think the BC Housing is the agency for the provincial government on housing issues, has to take a more innovative approach. I think we need to, you know, engage the non-profit sector and the cooperative sector more in that and we have to bring the developers and the lenders, the credit unions are the ones that jump out at me around mortgages, but I think all of these folks have to be at this table talking about how to make this work in a way that makes sense for the spending of public dollars and meets the needs around housing that people have and I just haven’t seen those tables created. I think the city may be doing some of that on their own. I’m not privy to those conversations but they might be doing some of that. I certainly think that what they are trying to do around innovation they deserve some credit for as to whether it works or not it’s probably going to take a little while before we know if it works or not.
Adam: Right, right. So Shane, we’re now entering into month 6 of the Foreign Buyers Tax. What are your thoughts on the BC Liberal’s policy? Is it good policy?
Matt: Yeah, speaking of the province’s role?
Shane: Well, you know the government, it was a knee jerk reaction I think. The government kind of jumped at that without a lot of thought. You’ll know, that it seemed like it was only weeks before we saw that tax, that Minister Coleman, the housing minister, was saying there isn’t a problem with affordability in Vancouver and don’t worry about it. They were dismissing a lot of the claims and concerns that were being raised including by my colleague, David Eby, about where this money was coming from and what was happening with it and I think there was a knee jerk reaction that the tax was. At this point I guess what we are starting to see is I think it did a couple of things. One of the first things it did is it slowed the market down because I expect that a lot of domestic buyers said,” Oh, this is happening now, I’ll put my money back in my pocket for a couple of months and see if it affects the market in a way that gives me better value when I go back out to buy so I’ll wait to see what the result is.” I think that slowed the market down somewhat by doing that. I also think the reality is probably the market was prepared to slow anyway. But I don’t see it as getting at the real problem because it’s not getting at the housing for the people who come into my office. The people who come into my office, I get a lot of families in the 60/70 thousand dollar annual family income bracket saying I need a 3 bedroom. I’ve got a couple of kids. I can’t find a 3 bedroom that I’m willing to put my family in and when I do find it to rent it’s 1500 dollars more or 1000 dollars more than I can possibly afford and I don’t think that the Foreign Buyers Tax and the iniatives around that particular aspect of the market really get addressed by that. The other thing and I’m glad that we saw the government finally back away from this is that they were hurting people who shouldn’t have been hurt in this, people who had work permits, were planning to come here and stay here and you don’t want to punish those people because they want to buy a house.
Matt: Yeah, yeah. We actually had one of those, one of the people that were affected or impacted. They bought just before the tax and it was a tragic situation. He was a young guy from California that was working here so yeah, we were happy to see that.
Shane: And that’s not who the tax should be targeted at. The other thing and I think we’ll have to see this. We keep hearing that Chinese government in particular is looking to slow the export of money from China and have more money invested domestically there, more cash so they have slowed down the ability to take money out of the country there and I think that that probably has an impact as well plus the federal initiatives around qualification for mortgages and requirements around that so a whole lot of things I think have played here and we’ll see what the results of that is but I think the tax was a bit of a knee jerk reaction by a government that had ignored the issue to the point where they couldn’t ignore it anymore because it was on the front page of the newspaper everyday so they reacted with this tax without thinking a whole lot about the implications of it.
Matt: Just thinking about the Grandview/Woodland plan again, Shane, are you optimistic about the future, thinking 5 or 10 years down the line as to what the community is going to look like?
Shane: Sure, I’m an optimistic person by nature so
Matt: Us too.
Shane: So I am but I think there are serious questions about how the plan gets implemented and I’ve had conversations about this with members of city council, certainly with people in the community and so I think it’s going to be very important over the next couple of years as the plan starts to come together around how this happens and what the results of this are in terms of how the implementation works.
Adam: Right, right.
Shane: And I hope that conversation is a meaningful one and I also think that these kind of community plans like this, probably the city is going to need to have conversations with the provincial government and others about ways to deal with some of the clear challenges that are created just around densification, around affordability challenges in Vancouver and how this plan allows this community to stay somewhat affordable in relation to many other places in the city that aren’t.
Matt: Fair enough. Well maybe we’ll leave it there, Shane, but we do have a segment on our show, it’s a newer segment. We have 5 quick questions. It’s called The Five Wire. Would you be able to stick around and answer these 5 quick questions?
Shane: Oh sure. I’m sure I’m sticking my chin out on this but let’s do it.
Matt: Your answers are probably bias considering your position but we’ll let Adam start.
Adam: Okay, so favourite area of Vancouver?
Shane: East Vancouver, Commercial Drive.
Adam: Favourite restaurant or bar?
Shane: My favourite restaurant is again on Commercial Drive, Arrivas, the best traditional Italian food in the city and the other one on Commercial that’s great is the Café Carthage, fabulous restaurant.
Matt: Awesome. So where’s the first place you bring someone who is not from Vancouver?
Shane: I often will take people down for a walk around Granville Island.
Matt: Fair enough.
Adam: Okay. East side penthouse or east side mansion? Or east side regular house?
Shane: I got a regular house, a 100 year old house that I bought 28 years ago and I remember my wife and I saying oh we’ll never get our money back but we love the house.
Adam: Beautiful, beautiful.
Matt: It turned out alright, I’m sure.
Adam: And final question…Al Pacino or Robert DiNiro?
Shane: You know at one point it would have been DiNiro but I’m probably leaning more toward Pacino these days.
Matt: Excellent.
Adam: So Shane, if people want to reach out how can they get in touch?
Shane: Probably the two best ways are by e-mail : or you can call my constituency office, my community office at 604-775-2277.
Adam: Okay. Well hey thanks again for your time.
Matt: Yeah, we really appreciate it Shane.
Shane: Thank you.
Adam and Matt: Take care.

Matt: So there you have it folks, our discussion with Shane Simpson, MLA for Vancouver/Hastings.
Adam: Matt, I thought that Shane had some really excellent points kind of from the ground level, right? You can tell he is living and breathing his community and he knows exactly where the growing pains lie, right?
Matt: Exactly and the people he talks to everyday, right? That’s what he does so he’s a great guy to have on the show for that.
Adam: Yeah, no. It’s fascinating. Like we talked about before we cut to the interview, watching how Grandview/Woodlands plays out over the next few years is going to be reflective of, I think it is in a weird way, it’s kind of a trial run for issues that Vancouver is going to have to confront. I mean it’s the cherished Commercial Drive and it’s changing.
Matt: Well and Shane even alludes to that right? Because he grew up there so he’s already hey when I was a kid you know different types of shops now and everything else and I think that is the feeling for a lot of the community there that people have been there for a long time. They love where they live. They love their community. They’re a little bit hesitant to see all the change so it’s going to be interesting to watch.
Adam: Sure.
Matt: And I do think you’re right. This is the microcosm for the larger Vancouver play out here.
Adam: In a lot of ways, it is. So that was great but also Matt before we leave for the day we’d love to invite you to go check out our website,
Matt: Yeah, sign up for “The Live Wire”, our newsletter there.
Adam: Yup, for sure. And also we’d really thank everybody for giving us a rating on iTunes. We really appreciate it. It helps us grow our podcast and yeah like we always say
Matt: It makes a guy feel good too.
Adam: It does make a guy feel good but the biggest complement that you can give us is to rate us on iTunes or to get in touch. We’d love to hear from you as well. And Matt, also, anything else?
Matt: Well, yeah the last thing I’d say is we’d also like to hear from you if you are looking for a job. We’re hiring realtors right now so if you are just taking your course you’re are in the business and you want to grow we’re looking to meet with you so get in touch with Adam or myself.
Adam: Absolutely. So Matt, how can people reach you?
Matt: Give me a shout at 778-847-2854 or
Adam: Or you can try me at 778-866-4574 or
Matt: And we should say we’ve heard quite a few comments in the last week since we’ve had Brayden on the show talking about how much better it sounds, the editing and the sound quality and everything else.
Adam: Breaks the former editor’s heart.
Matt: Oh stop.
Adam: Adam Scalena
Matt: Oh stop. But we should say if you want to get in touch with Brayden or the non- partisan line
Adam and Matt: Brayden
Adam: Okay, so have a great week, guys and we’ll see you next week.
Matt: VREP Short on Sunday. Stay tuned.
Adam: Take care.

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