VANCOUVER ELECTION GUIDE:
How the city's housing crisis could topple the political establishment
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