Vancouver must stop allowing the development community to set the agenda
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, Saturday December 14, 2018
This last Vancouver civic election in October was the first under new campaign finance rules that were intended to remove corporate and union big money influence from civic governance. What we learned is that this influence still prevails through the lack of third-party controls. The public clearly voted for change, but because some of the dark money remains, it is unclear how much we will meaningfully move in a different direction this term.
Since third-party campaign finance rules only applied during the six-week election period, it gives broad licence for third parties to be unregulated throughout the rest of the four-year term. Some of this was obvious.
The Vancouver and District Labour Council was very public in its support of a slate. Developers were less transparent in support of candidates, such as the $85,000 donation by developer Peter Wall for billboards promoting Hector Bremner’s Yes Vancouver party just before the third-party controls came into effect for the election period. This was exposed by the media.
So the big money continues to flow into campaigns. And it is even darker and less transparent than before, with multiple sources of third parties, most of whom the public are completely unaware.
One of these political action groups is modelled on the San Francisco “Yes-In-My-Back-Yard” (YIMBY) group. Realtor Bob Rennie endorsed the first of these groups in June 2016 speech to the Urban Development Institute titled, We have to change the narrative.
In the speech, Rennie said that San Francisco’s pro-housing groups that advocate at council for housing projects were the model needed to change the narrative in Vancouver. Sonja Trauss, the founder of the Bay Area Renters Federation, BARF, had a mantra that you have to support building even when it’s a type of building you hate. She said, “Is it ugly? Get over yourself. Is it low-income housing in your neighbourhood? Get over yourself. Is it luxury? Get over yourself.” Trauss continues, “We really need everything right now.”
The groups started to appear simultaneously with the UDI speech in June 2016, first as a twitter account “YVR-YIMBY.” They tweeted “Inspired by SF-BARF … VOMIT — Vancouver Objective: Mass Infill and Transit.”
In March 2017, the institute brought Trauss to Vancouver for a seminar. “Today Sonja gave us a game plan,” Anne McMullin, president and CEO, said in a media release.
For more than two years, these industry supported groups have been active on social media and advocating at city hall. They claim to represent Millennials, but the new housing they promote is generally unaffordable to young people while what they can afford is being demolished.
Another of these groups is Generation Squeeze. They are funded by the UDI and developers such as Wesgroup. They also advocate for development in the name of Millennials, as does the group Abundant Housing.
Trauss advises Millennials to go to planning meetings and speak out. Now the development industry is tapping into the desperation of the young to advocate for development against their own interests.
See the pattern?
Rennie said pro-development groups are the future in changing the narrative about development. In his 2016 UDI address, he said tattooed hipsters should be in the focus groups, not a panel of “12 angry white rich guys.” But that is whose interests are being served by pro-development YIMBY groups and their message of build anything everywhere.
The groups were involved in the October election but they proved to have no significant electoral base. Vision Vancouver was wiped off council. Bremner’s Yes Vancouver didn’t come close to electing anyone. One City elected one councillor, Christine Boyle, and Kennedy Stewart barely got elected as mayor by less than 1,000 votes, mainly due to the labour council’s backing.
The unions and developers continue to try to infiltrate city hall. Until third-party campaign funding is properly controlled, the dark money will continue.
Thankfully, we have a new council that isn’t dominated by these groups and no party has a majority. But there are headwinds. These pro-development groups still show up at council and planning meetings to indiscriminately advocate for all developments.
Weeks before the election, the Vision majority council forced through a rezoning of RS amendments citywide. Only industry and the pro-development YIMBY groups had influence on the city. Hundreds of letters and speakers in opposition and thousands on petitions did not dissuade Vision. They even enacted the bylaw after the election in the last meeting of the former council after they had been entirely wiped off the new council.
However, the Greens’ Adriane Carr and the NPA’s Melissa De Genova voted against the rezoning and both were the only incumbents reelected. Both brought with them a team largely based on this record. A motion to rescind the rezoning is coming forward with further information on whether to refer for the required new public hearing.
No doubt the pro-development YIMBY groups will continue their pressure to build anything everywhere. But it is unclear if the city, especially staff, will continue allowing the primary influence of this pro-development lobby or will genuinely listen to the communities that elected the new council for a city that works for everyone.
The new council just approved undertaking scoping for a citywide planning process to proceed. The concern is whether the process is going to be hijacked by these industry endorsed groups. They are loud and aggressive, especially on social media, where they are often rude and bullying.
But they do not represent the majority, or even a significant portion of the population.
Another theme in Rennie’s 2016 UDI speech was how to get older owners to fork over the equity in their homes to benefit the development industry. He saw this as an opportunity for seniors to downsize to a larger condo for themselves and a down payment for their children on a small starter unit.
Now development related academics and advocates promote punitive property surtaxes that will force many locals out of their homes. The industry would gain both in being able to buy up properties cheap for speculation and redevelopment and to sell those same owners new units for both themselves and their children.
But is hollowing out communities of even more locals a good idea? With every character house that gets demolished, there usually is at least one secondary suite that goes with it.
We will soon see if the city is heeding the lessons of the election or if it is going to continue allowing corporate and union influence to direct public policy. We need public policy in the public interest for a change.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for B.C. Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun Print Edition – Saturday December 15, 2018 – page A19
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2018 all rights reserved.