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The search for what to do about dog poop, Vancouver edition

September 3rd, 2019 · No Comments

Engineers at Metro Vancouver tell me that they get asked about this topic by reporters more often than any other issue, including sea-level rise or drugs in sewage.

What to do about the by-products of the tens of thousands of dogs in the region seems to endless fascinate people. The breaking on news on this? Vancouver is putting out an official request for innovative solutions. My story in the Globe here. Full text also posted below.

Naturally, we’re not the only city concerned about this. It’s been suggested that Toronto condo owners have their pets’ DNA tested to find out who is behind poop problems there, while there’s also a search for solutions in Ontario generally.

In the meantime, still no word on what to do about all the cat poop (it can’t have the same treatment as dog stuff because of the toxoplasmosis in cat feces) and the goose poop (one of my faithful readers was more concerned about that the dogs, according to an email I got today) in the city.

By the way, you may all thank me now for my refusal to include any terrible dog-related puns in my story, which is something that seems to be a near-fatal affliction among newsies.

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Two-thirds say our housing crisis the result of “basic flaws of capitalism,” others say cheaters; critics say false choice

June 13th, 2019 · No Comments

Okay, 361 people voted in my silly little poll asking if our housing crisis is the result of “basic flaws of capitalism” or cheaters taking advantages of a basically good system. And 64 per cent picked door number 1, although I have to note that a number of Twitter commenters said I was posing a false-choice question. I agree this may say more about my followers than about housing.

A sample:

One person had so much to say, it couldn’t fit into a tweet, so here are his thoughts in full. Please continue piling on.

Supply side:
    • Land use and zoning: 90+ years of highly restrictive zoning on a majority of our residential land. The city planners and leaders of the day were at least honest enough to clearly state that Single Family zoning was most definitely about preservation of property values, as well as segregation of classes/races. The City’s early money, having built their mansions in the West End, became upset when developers came along in the 1920s, bought up some of the earliest ones, and replaced them with economically more advantageous apartment buildings (right beside remaining mansions). Basically, natural urban economics at work. The result of their displeasure at this natural phenomenon, especially the resulting mixing of classes and races, became First Shaughnessy and the City’s first zoning plan in the late 1920s/early 1930s. There’s a rich irony that those who likely earned their wealth from unbridled colonial capitalism then turned around and used government power to both heavily restrict it and skew it mightily in their favour when it came to their own homes.
    • Of course, it must be mentioned that all this took place in a city wiped clean of its original First Nations inhabitants, and that many of Vancouver’s first 1%ers earned their wealth thanks to Lt. Gov. Trutch’s earlier actions, who believed “that British Columbia’s future lay in taking land from native people and making it available to developers such as railway companies.” BC, from its earliest days of violently erasing First Nations from their lands, has always been about development and speculation.
    • Since the first city plan established the dominance of single family zones, we’ve seen a few formerly SFH areas upzoned to multi-family, mostly in the 1960s (a small portion of Kerrisdale, along with portions of Kistilano and Marpole), and less so in the 1970s (Fairview). Other than that, and the already mixed zoned West End of the 1960s, most of our density has gone into formerly industrial areas (thanks largely to the anti-development changes brought in by Art Phillips and TEAM): False Creek south in the 1970s on old industrial wasteland, Champlain Heights in the 1970s on the old city landfill, Yaletown/downtown/False Creek North on post-Expo industrial/warehouse land from the 1980s-2000s, Arbutus Walk on old brewery lands, and finally River District on old industrial land. I don’t know the history of Joyce/Collingwood, but I’m guessing it was similar to Fairview in the 1970s: one of the poorest areas of Vancouver (after the DTES) and not wealthy/organized enough to argue against upzoning.
  • Any other density has gone in on a few select arterial roads (Cambie/Oak), where the 90 year old policy/philosophy of placing multi-family housing closer to pollution (noise and air) continues.
  • ALR: we can argue about the merits of the Agricultural Land Reserve, but it has clearly restricted the supply of land for development, whether residential or commercial/industrial, in Metro Vancouver.
  • Transportation: roughly 30% of our land is given over to roads and on-street parking. That seems…sub-optimal, in terms of land-use economics. That figure hasn’t changed since the first City Plan of 1927/28.
Demand side:
  • 1940s/50s: creation of CMHC to support housing construction via subsidized government-backed loans. By the mid 1950s CMHC provided mortgage loan insurance for all mortgages with a 25% downpayment, a substantial form of subsidy backed by all taxpayers.
  • 1970s: capital gains tax exemption is allowed for the primary residence (after capital gains taxes are brought in by Trudeau Sr. on other investments). This is now a subsidy worth $7-8 billion per year.
  • Accommodative central bank policy, especially over the past decade: the Bank of Canada tracks the housing market closely, and adjusts interest rate policy accordingly. Similar to with the ALR, one can argue the pro/cons of the past decade of record low interest rates, but access to capital in Canada has been very easy for most of the past decade. Canada has happily claimed its place near the top of the global debt to income charts over the past decade. That has changed to an extent over the past 12 months (B20 rules and a slight increase in interest rates), but these kinds of moves take time to have an impact on house prices.
  • On a smaller scale, there are other direct and indirect subsidies below the federal level: provincial home owner grants that reduce an already low property tax rate, along with some of the lowest municipal property taxes in North America (thanks to an outdated Vancouver Charter restriction).
  • Finally: zoning is also a large subsidy for property owners, especially single family homeowners:
Foreign capital:
  • with the above structures in place, in some cases for decades, I’d argue that the influx of foreign capital (both legal and illicit) simply added fuel to a fire that had long been burning. Vancouver has had a housing crisis for decades, if you were low to middle income. It just so happened that certain upper middle income and upper income classes (engineers, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals) got burned by that fire in the past 5-6 years, and were far more effective in complaining loudly about it.
  • we’ve been looking for an easy bogeyman to blame for our crisis, and most of us are looking everywhere else but in the mirror. So, foreign capital it is, and let’s conflate legal and illegal sources to boot.
I’m certainly happy to see the provincial government put demand taxes in place (FBT, School Tax, Speculation Tax), and launch inquiries into money laundering (long past due). But if we think focusing only on demand measures and illegal capital will solve our crisis, I think we are sorely mistaken. When our provincial housing minister argues that townhouses and duplexes are legal in BC…
…without acknowledging that municipal zoning restrictions make both illegal on most residential land, then I’m not confident that we will sort this out.
We’ve placed significant restrictions on supply for most of a century, at the same time as we’ve subsidized demand at all levels of government for 70 years or so. No wonder we have a crisis.
To answer your question: the system is not OK, we should definitely curb cheaters, and what we’re dealing with is typically what happens when government policies mix with subsidized capitalism: a bastard hybrid that benefits a chosen subset of the population. It just so happens that that subset forgot about its children…and they’re pissed, along with some of the upper classes who were hoping/expecting to join them in single family house land. Will the rest of the city’s residents be happy with any proposed solutions? Will we be honest enough with ourselves to properly diagnose the various, complicated reasons behind how we got into this mess? Based on discussions with friends and acquaintances, and reading media and Twitter threads, I have my doubts…


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The Vancouver dilemma: How to build new apartments without displacing tenants.

May 16th, 2019 · No Comments

I had a story in Tuesday’s Globe about a couple of old and very inexpensive apartment buildings on Oak Street in the heart of Marpole, which are up for redevelopment. (Full text of story after the break.)

The owner wants to build 91 new units to replace the 1959 and 1964 buildings on site with 43 units between them. The problem: Even though the owner is offering 30 per cent off of whatever the new rents will be to existing tenants (which is more than the 20 per cent the city requires), it’s unlikely that any of them will be able to afford such a jump. So many will be forced out of the area and possibly even Vancouver.

That’s the Sophie’s choice that Vancouver is going to be facing multiple times in coming years, as apartment owners holding 50- and 60-year-old buildings decide whether to redevelop, upgrade, or simply let things deteriorate.

The applicant pulled this project from the public-hearing line-up Tuesday, after a suggestion from the city that it might be better to wait until after June 11, when council will be hearing a report on even more protections for “vulnerable tenants” in these kinds of buildings.

Unknown whether this project will go ahead if council asks for a lot more compensation or guarantees. It’s a case many are watching closely to understand where this council will land on projects like this.

Of course, some might say that the real problem here is that so much (needed) new rental is forced into a limited number of areas, most of which are the sites of old and cheap rental. If some single-family (really, triplex) zones could be switched over to apartments, that could alleviate some of these awful choices, they’d argue.

But there’s also the issue that many of these older apartments need loads of maintenance. Even if they aren’t redeveloped, any number of landlords are looking at significant upgrades which, guess what, frequently entail kicking out all the tenants, doing the renos, and then renting at higher prices.

I await the sophisticated solutions to this, but don’t see any in sight yet.

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Squamish plan for massive development by Burrard Bridge gets a surprisingly warm welcome

April 14th, 2019 · No Comments

So my big story for the week was the news that the Squamish are moving ahead with plans to create a huge new development by the Burrard Bridge. My story was in the Globe Thursday, with a follow-up including the mayor’s comments on Friday. (I’ll post the full stories below.)

The reaction on often-toxic Twitter was very positive, with people (at least in my stream) very excited about the thought of a lot of new housing in an area where there’s a huge demand, as well as the news that the Squamish are seriously considering making the units all rental.

I’d advise people not to break open the champagne just yet, as some members apparently are arguing in favour of the early money that some condo development would provide. As well, no one is saying what prices the units might rent for yet.

Some people are also dubious about the idea of having Westbank/Ian Gillespie as the partner, given his penchant lately (Vancouver House, Butterfly, Oakridge, Kengo Kuma tower) to build for the ultra high end. He did do the Woodward’s building, granted, with its two social-housing components, but that’s quite different from trying to figure out a market approach to providing affordable rental. CHMC people sound very excited by the project and say there’s money available (cheap financing, etc.) if the Squamish do decide to make some or all of it lower-cost.

In the meantime, the really interesting story behind all this is how the Squamish were slowly pushed off their land, which was a permanent settlement, not just a summer camp for them.

This timeline from UBC provides some excellent information and mapping of what happened over time.

As I said earlier, I’ve posted the full stories below

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Airbnb-style rentals getting fines, investigations into 820 units — but critics say city is losing the battle

March 15th, 2019 · No Comments

Like many other cities, Vancouver is fighting the war against short-term vacation rentals that take housing away from long-term locals. Their info here.

The city was the first to put in rules last April. Yesterday, they released results on the numbers of licences and investigations.

But critics of Airbnb say the city is always going to be fighting a losing battle, because the agreement it has with Airbnb requires city enforcement to do all the work of checking on made-up business-licence numbers, units deceptively advertised as being not in Vancouver, and many other loopholes.

My story on all that here (and pasted below)

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You’d think people would be panting to have someone pick up and take away their old homes. But no

February 20th, 2019 · No Comments

Stumbled across this story by accident when I was researching something else. It turns out that there is a big market of people looking to buy Vancouver’s (and Victoria’s and anywhere else’s) older homes — and newer homes — that are being demolished for something grander.

The problem is: owners seem unaware or uninterested. So they continue to be demolished and/or recycled into sawdust.

My story here (and text attached below for those without subscriptions)

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Transit fights of the past illuminate the present: Remember Granville B-Line opposition, and Canada Line battle?

January 30th, 2019 · No Comments

Okay, youngsters, gather ’round while Grandma tells you about the old days.

As we’re seeing bubbling pots of protest in West Vancouver, Surrey and Vancouver over transit, just a reminder of some of the history.

Does anyone recall the massive opposition to the Granville B-Line — it did actually cost the NPA councillors a ton of political capital. They didn’t lose the election, but their wave of support definitely receded. Below is a story from July 1998 about the final vote, which describes the massive opposition along the way.

I won’t attempt to link to all the anti-Canada Line stories (or, as they were then, anti-RAV (Richmond-Airport-Vancouver) stories. But here is one that includes some interesting information on whether the P3 for that project really benefitted taxpayers. Don’t be influenced by the somewhat misleading headline.

Granville rapid bus service okayed despite opposition: City council voted unanimously to support the plan but critics vow to continue battle.: [Final Edition]


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North Van council rejects affordable-housing project: “non-profit model is untested”; “not enough to address climate change”

November 21st, 2018 · No Comments

Lots of concern and outrage across the region this week, after the surprise decision by the new District of North Vancouver council to reject the rezoning for a non-profit, affordable-housing project that included a seniors’ respite centre. Stories here and here.

The decision was striking to many for the grasping-at-straws reasoning used by some councillors, like the concern that it didn’t do enough for sustainability because it wasn’t a net-zero building (while single-family houses that are nowhere near that are built every day in the district, often entailing the demolition of something else on the site) or that the non-profit model “wasn’t proven.” That was along with the other evergreen “I support affordable housing but ..” arguments: not enough consultation, building too high, parking.

For those who missed it, here is my story on Catalyst, the non-profit company that was working with the district the last two years on this project. It’s the only non-profit developer in the region and seen by many as the kind of development company that’s desperately needed to help with the Lower Mainland’s housing disaster.

I’m also copying the story in full on the turn, for those without access to the Globe’s website.

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My intersectional, diverse, covering-all-bases voters’ guide to Vancouver council

October 19th, 2018 · No Comments

Okay, deep breath here as I try to provide some insight into candidates in one of the most complex civic elections in Vancouver’s history.

A word about the limits I’m working under, first. Usually when I do my little voting guide in the election, I can assess the performance of many of the candidates because they’ve been on the public stage at council, school board, or park board or in community groups, fighting for some kind of change.

This time, there are so many new candidates that I barely know many of them outside of what they’ve said in the last few months and their social-media presence. (Yes, I know, unrepresentative but using the information sources we have.)

Finally, this election is, more so than the others I’ve covered in 25 years at the city, about trying to sort out the ideology and identity of all the new parties and candidates. Before, we had right, left, and really left, for the most part. The question for many was a simple, almost binary choice about right or left, with some consideration given to who were the most credible candidates in those groups.

Now, people are curating much more nuanced lists, picking candidates by using many more vectors: young/experienced; male/female/other; party/independent; ethnicity; environmentalism/not; ideology, but way more fractured this time, with parties ranging from hard left to looks left but makes weird decisions to libertarian right to soft right to right mixed up with typically lefty housing policy.

For many, a simple right-left doesn’t work. The diehard COPE voters will never vote for anyone Vision, no matter what the Vancouver and District Labour Council says, seeing them as neoliberal sellouts. People inclined to support Vision in the past will be wary of voting for what they see as unreconstructed and unrealistic radicals, like COPE. On the right, the divisions are equally profound, with some seeing the traditional NPA as part of the problematic status quo, while some of those old-time NPAers are unlikely to support candidates who seem too extreme.

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NDP has some things to fix with civic-election campaign law when this is all over

October 15th, 2018 · No Comments

One of the big issues in this campaign season has been the discovery of holes and glitches in the province’s new campaign-finance law for local elections.

It turns out third parties can spend whatever they want up until 30 days before the election, independent candidates who are a team but don’t register as an official party can accept more in donations than a party, unions can pay staff to campaign among their members without any declaration of spending, and more.

For the last six months, that’s been a dominant theme, starting with this story back in April about the NPA raising money for “operating expenses,” something that was not limited until the NDP decided to amend this bit in June.

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