Megaphone vendors question Vancouver mayor about the city’s future
Sitting down with Vancouver's mayor
Peter Thompson: As you know, developers are coming into the Downtown Eastside, building new, expensive buildings that end up pushing people who can’t afford rent out onto the streets, and out of the neighbourhood even. You’ve taken on a campaign to end homelessness, so what do you plan to do about this situation?
Mayor Gregor Robertson: Our goal is still to end homelessness in Vancouver, and we’re focused on getting more shelters and interim housing open. Interim housing like the Quality Inn right now, although that site’s being redeveloped. So we’re looking at the next buildings to get housing into.
We’ve made a proposal to the federal and provincial government with 20 sites around the city to help solve homelessness, create social and supportive housing. That land is worth $250 million. We’ve asked the feds for $500 million to build the buildings, and we’ve asked the province to match that as well. We didn’t get a commitment in the federal budget, but they’ve been positive in their responses that they want to work with us on homelessness and affordable housing.
The province, we’re waiting to hear from. They say they’re going to do more investment but there’s nothing confirmed yet. We built 13 buildings around the city of supportive housing with the province, but there’s no commitment going forward for more buildings—and we need that. We’re hopeful the province is going to commit to a next phase of supportive housing for people who are homeless. We can move people off the street and out of shelters and into those buildings.
We’re also hopeful the province will raise welfare rates. They’ve been frozen since 2007. That’s deplorable when there’s so much pressure on housing, affordable housing, and welfare has been stuck for this many years.
PT: What about the empty lot on Ontario Street, the Little Mountain site?
GR: One social housing building that opened there last year, it’s the only building that’s built on that provincial land. The province sold it to Hollyburn Development. The city requires them to replace the social housing that was there.
They’ve got to create more units that have existed there before, but they’ve been going slow on their development timeline.
We’ve been waiting for them to advance their plans, and it’s taking a long time. The first building opened, but we said the first development needs to be social housing and start replacing what was destroyed.
There were some people that still lived in the last building there. We’re waiting for the developer and the province to get going with the redevelopment. That includes the social housing. That’ll have a bunch of new social housing and we’re waiting on the province for next commitments.
In the Downtown Eastside, we’ve got rental projects that have some affordable housing included in them. In the Downtown Eastside, there’s a no-condo zone. It’s rental development only. That project across from First United is the first that’ll be built in the new plan, the local area plan, which a lot of people in the community shaped.
Stephen Scott: I was homeless myself when I came to Vancouver, I was born in Montreal. I didn’t know the cost of living was so expensive. Why do we have the lowest welfare and disability support, yet we’re the most expensive city to live in? That doesn’t make sense to me.
GR: The B.C. government approach for low-income people is punishing many people, having the lowest rates in Canada for welfare and disability, not increasing the rates for so many years in an expensive city and province. The cost of food going up, it’s a big one. The cost of living goes up and there’s no recognition of that from the B.C. government, which puts a crunch on everyone’s livelihood. There are certainly lots of wealthy people moving to Vancouver and buying houses, but Vancouver is still a very diverse city.
We’ve got to do everything we can in the city to stay diverse and inclusive of people regardless of their income. This is not about money, it’s about making sure people who live here can keep living here and it’s troubling to see so much pressure on housing now. Housing is the real crunch point. And we’re building more housing than ever before in our history. It’s a massive volume of new construction and we’re building more rental housing than we’ve built, then Vancouver’s seen since the early ’70s when a lot of the rental housing was built. There were federal programs that supported rental. And then they stopped for 30 years, 40 years, and the city, we’ve got incentives to get rental housing built so now we’re up over 20 per cent of our construction is rental housing. For decades it was 5 per cent for what was built. Only one in 20 units was rental, everything else was condos and houses. Now we’re up to 20 per cent. We’ve got to stay focused there and try to get more affordable housing built wherever we can, and use city land as much as we can to get the cost down, but unless the province and the feds come to the table—where 90 per cent of our tax dollars go—we’re very limited. We’re trying to deal with a market that’s this hot.
Hendrik Beune: It was part of your election platform to eliminate homelessness by 2015, which is a rising problem given Megaphone’s recent report showing that more people are dying in the streets. In your opinion, what are the significant obstacles standing in the way to achieve such a goal in your term as mayor?
GR: The number 1 barrier is getting provincial and federal money to build supportive social housing, they have to invest for us to build enough to solve homelessness. The thing is the city has land. We have 23 sites in Vancouver that we could start building social housing on right away.
We need them to jump in and provide the funding. That’s their responsibility. That’s where we’re stuck. We can deal with the cost of the land. I think that’s where I think Vancouver taxpayers can reasonably contribute to solving the homelessness.
You’re seeing it around the province, homeless camps in Maple Ridge and Abbotsford. The B.C. government needs to invest all over the province now. It’s not just a Vancouver problem. We gotta keep this as a top priority. We can’t slow down. We can’t let up. We’ve just got to keep going. Put all our efforts into it. Keep pressure on the B.C. government in the election next year. This needs to be a big issue.
HB: Given your history with organic farming, what do you think we can do to increase food security for people in Vancouver?
GR: More urban agriculture will help. Sole Food’s done a good job of growing food, keeping jobs locally. We need to see a lot more green roofs, gardens on roofs, producing food. We tried to get a garden on the roof of a Chinatown parkade, but there was a bunch of blowback in the neighbourhood, concerns about rats in the garden—misunderstandings of what that is. We’ve also got to support, protect the [Agricultural Land Reserve] in the Fraser Valley. All around the city we’ve got great agricultural land and we’re losing it. The B.C. government has got to stand firm on protecting the agricultural land that we have.