How the city's hous­ing cri­sis could top­ple the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment

BC Business Magazine - - Front Page - by FRANCES BULA

It’san­other un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally swel­ter­ing day in Van­cou­ver, one of many in a scorch­ing sum­mer around the globe. The sky is a grey haze of smoke from Rich­mond’s bog fire. Peo­ple are lined up at Earnest Ice Cream on Fraser Street for some­thing to cool their sting­ing throats.

But across the street, about 100 non–ice-cream eaters have cho­sen to spend the af­ter­noon at the Pol­ish Com­mu­nity Cen­tre, sup­port­ing yet an­other new Van­cou­ver po­lit­i­cal party and its crop of new­bie can­di­dates for the Oc­to­ber 20 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions. Among them: Glyn­nis Chan, a Chi­na­town travel agency op­er­a­tor who wants to im­prove tourism to Van­cou­ver; and Jaspreet Virdi, a phar­macy pro­pri­etor in the city’s South Asian epi­cen­tre who calls for a sup­port pro­gram for small busi­nesses. Virdi makes an­other point, one that’s cen­tral to his party: “We have a huge hous­ing cri­sis, and if we con­tinue to do things the same way, noth­ing will change.”

They’re all part of the new team for Yes Van­cou­ver, whose may­oral can­di­date is Hec­tor Brem­ner. That would be the former BC Lib­eral Party staffer and cur­rent vice-pres­i­dent of a pub­lic re­la­tions/ lob­by­ing firm who left the Non-par­ti­san As­so­ci­a­tion (NPA) after be­ing told he couldn’t be its may­oral can­di­date, pre­sum­ably be­cause of con­nec­tions to real es­tate de­vel­op­ers, de­spite hav­ing been elected as the party’s coun­cil­lor only a few months ear­lier. This is a guy no one had heard of a year ago but who is hop­ing to do what Gre­gor Robert­son did a decade back—break the city’s al­ter­na­tion be­tween right and left and come up the mid­dle.

“Our city is bro­ken, our city is bro­ken,” Brem­ner in­tones, his face som­bre as he closes off the af­ter­noon’s speeches by stress­ing the need to build more hous­ing and stop de­fer­ring to res­i­dents who block it by talk­ing about “char­ac­ter and soul and de­sign.”

Brem­ner’s odds of win­ning ap­pear low: he was show­ing up with a dis­mal 5 per­cent of voter sup­port in polls dur­ing the sum­mer, and coun­cil can­di­dates he’d re­cruited to run with him as an NPAER had bailed. But thanks to vot­ers’ fa­tigue with the usual pol­i­tics and par­ties, the chances of him and a party like Yes Van­cou­ver hav­ing some suc­cess are still higher than at any time in the past half-cen­tury.

That dy­namic pro­pelled both the new and old par­ties to go into over­drive dur­ing the sum­mer, in de­ter­mined ef­forts to ap­peal to the pub­lic. They held pic­nics in parks, put on fundrais­ers in pent­houses, cam­paigned out­side the Van­cou­ver Folk Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, showed up at Greek Day, car-free street fes­ti­vals and the Point Grey Fi­esta, begged for money through mass emails and sent out end­less news re­leases about their ac­tiv­i­ties.

The scram­ble among the largely un­known can­di­dates and new par­ties is the re­sult of a dra­matic new re­al­ity. Van­cou­ver, along with the re­gion and a few other parts of the province, is in a pro­found state of cri­sis. It should be a mo­ment when po­lit­i­cal su­per­heroes are rush­ing to save B.C.’S en­dan­gered cities, be­set as they are by hous­ing-cost in­san­ity that is warp­ing their abil­ity to func­tion, by erup­tions of vi­o­lence in quiet neigh­bour­hoods, by fierce de­bates over how to move peo­ple and ve­hi­cles around, by the ques­tion of how to re­spond to cli­mate change.

But no one of stature seems to want the job. No charis­matic former city plan­ner, like Toronto is getting with Jen­nifer Keesmaat. No barn-burn­ing cham­pion who al­ready has a fol­low­ing of devo­tees, like a Rafe Mair or Bill Van­der Zalm of yore.

“The elites are frac­tured, and there is no pop­ulist al­ter­na­tive,” says Greg Lyle, a B.C.based vet­eran po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and poll­ster who has been in­volved in elec­tions (mostly for con­ser­va­tives and Con­ser­va­tives) across the coun­try. “That means there’s a huge swing vote look­ing for a home. It’s a highly volatile sit­u­a­tion. And, gen­er­ally, things are go­ing against any in­cum­bents.”


And so, in many cities through­out the Lower Main­land, where half of the province’s pop­u­la­tion lives, the how-do-i-fig­ure­out-who-to-vote-for mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions will be even more con­fus­ing this year. In Van­cou­ver, there were eight may­oral can­di­dates—two of them in­de­pen­dents— more than 40 coun­cil can­di­dates and nine po­lit­i­cal par­ties fight­ing for air as of late Au­gust, as mu­nic­i­pal rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies on the right and left saw that the big, tra­di­tional par­ties were se­ri­ously wounded.

De­part­ing Mayor Robert­son and his Vi­sion Van­cou­ver, after 10 years in power, are un­der at­tack from al­most ev­ery­one about al­most ev­ery­thing: blocked storm drains, bike lanes, traf­fic con­ges­tion, too much de­vel­op­ment, not enough af­ford­able hous­ing, the fail­ure to pre­vent global cap­i­tal from sweep­ing over the city—you name it. But the NPA is also seen as part of the sta­tus quo sys­tem that has led to Van­cou­ver’s cur­rent prob­lems. And both of those former giants, which used to raise mil­lions for elec­tion cam­paigns, are now on a star­va­tion diet with new rules that pro­hibit cor­po­rate or union do­na­tions, as well as any per­sonal do­na­tions over $1,200.

Things aren’t bet­ter else­where in this time of change. In Sur­rey, the party brought to­gether by Dianne Watts that ruled that mu­nic­i­pal­ity unchecked for a decade is hob­bled by the same new fundrais­ing re­al­ity, and it has frac­tured. There are at least three se­ri­ous would-be may­ors in the run­ning. In Delta, the City and District of North Van­cou­ver, Maple Ridge, Port Co­quit­lam and more, new seedlings are mov­ing into the clearcut ter­ri­tory where old- growth may­ors have de­parted. Burn­aby Mayor Derek Cor­ri­gan is fac­ing a se­ri­ous chal­lenger. In Rich­mond, sim­mer­ing rage over empty homes and Mc­man­sions on farm­land is fu­elling op­po­si­tion move­ments to per­pet­ual Mayor Mal­colm Brodie.

The ques­tion for all of them: How can they sell them­selves to a pub­lic in­creas­ingly anx­ious about the ris­ing cost of ev­ery­thing, along with the sense that their cities are un­der threat? And what will be the mes­sage that ap­peals the most when it comes to solv­ing one of the re­gion’s most dif­fi­cult prob­lems—hous­ing?

Will the suc­cess­ful mes­sage be “Tax the rich”? Will it be “Ban hous­ing in­vestors, par­tic­u­larly those from off­shore”? Will it be “Hous­ing is very com­plex, and I will look for so­lu­tions on mul­ti­ple fronts”? Will it be “We need to lis­ten to res­i­dents more about their ideas and what they’re will­ing to ac­cept”? Will it be “Let’s change our tax sys­tem to

YES OR NO? Hec­tor Brem­ner hopes his new Yes Van­cou­ver party can break ground

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