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More than 1,000 out for Ladner-Robertson homeless debate

October 23rd, 2008 · 17 Comments

The long series of debates between Vancouver’s two mayoral candidates drew the biggest crowd ever tonight, i’m told more than 1,000 were at the event at St. Andrew’s Wesley, as people came out to hear the two talk about what they would do when it comes to solutions for homelessness, affordable housing and mental illness. Combined with the 400 who went out to a very different event this morning, the Vancouver Sun-sponsored debate at the Board of Trade, that made for quite a wide-ranging day. The elements of the morning’s debate are here, thanks to the Sun’s Derrick Penner.

There was so much discussed tonight that I can’t possibly capture it all, but here are the highlights.

1. Gregor introduced in his opening statement some main points of Vision’s homelessness plan (at last some details). That included:

– Ensuring there are enough shelter beds in the city

– Using city bylaws to make sure rental buildings are safe and kept up, even if the city has to do repairs itself and bill the owner

– Increasing the city’s outreach teams

– Creating a mental-health advocate for th city

– Expanding training programs to help street youth get into jobs

– Protecting low-income rental units throughout the city

– Being a “strong voice” in Victoria and Ottawa.

Each of the candidates got asked a series of yes/no questions:

1. Would you hire a mental health advocate, considering the city is already facing a 10-per-cent tax hike. Peter: no; Gregor: yes.

2. Would you continue Project Civil City? Peter: yes; Gregor: no.

3. The current mix of non-market or SRO housing and market housing is 75/25. Should stay at that level? Gregor: Yes, around there with input from the community; Peter: No, it should change.

4. Do you think there should be an annual report to the city on what’s been done about homelessness? Peter: Yes, but don’t we have one already? Gregor: Yes

5. The city has a temporary moratorium on demolition or conversion or its stock of low-rise, three-storey rental housing. Do you support extending or modifying that? Gregor: Yes, extend it to ensure there’s no net loss of housing. Peter: No, I don’t like moratoriums. They encourage buildings to become rundown.

6. The city currently has two supervised-injection sites. Do you support a third one along the model of the Insite facility, which has treatment and transitional housing as well on site? Gregor: Yes. Peter: I’m leaving that up to the health authority to decide. (He was told he had to answer yes or no.) No.

7. There are several SRO buildings in Vancouver that are empty as the owners await redevelopment. Do you support having the city meet with the owners to try to convince them to lease their rooms out temporarily. Gregor: Yes. Peter – Yes.

8. The Little Mountain social housing complex currently has over 100 empty units. Do you beleave the city should put pressure on BC Housing to fill those temporarily. Peter: I couldn’t understand his answer. Gregor: Yes.

9. Would you support having Vancouver establish a living-wage policy, where it would commit to paying any workers or people employed through contracts a living wage, defined here locally as about $16.50 an hour? Peter: That’s more than councillors make. Gregor: Is that why you’re running for mayor? Jokes aside, Peter: No, because I don’t know what the impact would be on city finances. Gregor: Yes, I’d like to see that.

Then the two got to give long-answer responses to more detailed (sometimes a lot more detailed) questions from the panel members, which included me, The Tyee’s Monte Paulsen, and former provincial mental-health advocate Nancy Hall.

In general, I’d say that Peter Ladner shows a lot more passion and empathy on these issues than I think people gave him credit for in the past, along with knowledge of many of the subtleties. On the other hand, Gregor, whom I’ve frequently noted in the past has not displayed a lot of detailed knowledge, showed a couple of times that he had a more in-depth analysis on a particular issue that Peter did.

What continues to be very boring for those of us in the listening audience are the misleading accusations and criticisms made about the other candidate. (For Peter, his accusations that Gregor has never even talked to Housing Minister Rich Coleman in his years in Victoria. Who cares? To my knowledge, Peter, who refused to go along on Victoria lobbying trips with his now-deposed mayor Sam Sullivan, has done little more than chitchat with Coleman at housing announcements. For Gregor, it’s the accusation that the NPA council has done absolutely nothing about homelessness. While you could argue that they could have made homelessness even more of a priority or they wasted their money on useless side projects or that they were only pushed into action by the upcoming Olympics, it’s silly and untrue to say they did nothing.)

Okay, enough of my picky ranting. Onto what they had to say — I’ll pick out the one thing they had to say on the topic that seemed like their essential message.

1. What will you do about people sleeping on the streets?
Peter: “I don’t think the city should jump in and build shelters. Our taxpayers cannot do everything. We need to be strategic and thoughtful.” Gregor: “I don’t think there’s anything strategic or thoughtful about forcing people to sleep outside. We can make space for hundreds and hundreds of people. I would like to see a whole lot more energy and effort put into dealing with the short-term crisis.”

2. How will you pay for your homelessness plans? (to Gregor)

Gregor: “We are in the process of costing the plan but it won’t cost much.” Money now going to Project Civil City can be put in, but I don’t see this adding to the tax burden or requiring us to cut services somewhere else.

3. Why do you keep saying the NPA has created 3,800 housing units when that’s not true? Monte Paulsen went into quite an analysis of the numbers, saying that the 900 rooms that are existing hotels being fixed up don’t really count, another 900 units were actually started under the previous council, and 1,100 units underway now might never get funded.

I won’t attempt to reproduce the boxing match that went on, but suffice it to say there was one. Peter argued back that it does make a difference to have a decent hotel room rather than one occupied by cockroaches, mice and rats. He also pointed out that the NPA council has taken a considerable amount of heat while approving new social-housing sites (that’s a fact, especially in Yaletown and Dunbar). He also said he has no question the provincial government will fund all 12 of the new social-housing sites now being planned.

3. What about creating psychiatric hospital beds?

Unsurprisingly, neither candidate opposed the idea of doing this and both talked about the necessity of having options like making better use of Riverview. (Peter Ladner, however, accused Coqutilam of causing that project to be stalled — that ought to make Maxine Wilson hopping mad. The mayor of Coquitlam has been fighting to get the province to stick with the original plan, which was park land and facilities for mental health, as it used to be. Coleman has been talking about building a massive market housing complex on the site, which is what Coquitlam is concerned about.)

4. What’s your vision of how to create affordable housing in the second phase of Southeast False Creek? (Remember, in the first phase, the Olympic village, the new NPA council decided to change the plan to have one-third social housing, one-third low-cost rental and one-third market. Instead, it will be about 30 per cent social housing now and less than 10 per cent low-cost rental. However, they did vote that for the second phase, they would try to stick with the one-thirds model.) In what was a surprise answer to me, Peter said he wasn’t sure that one-third model would work any more for the second phase. “The second phase needs a lot of thought.” Gregor repeated the standard line that the NPA blew the first phase by going for top dollar and a developer who would build luxury condos. I never really got an answer to that question from him.

What was more interesting was when Nancy followed up with a question about what the two might push for at Little Mountain. Peter said the city has been promised $75 million by the provincial government from the profits of that site to invest anywhere it likes to create social housing. He said that it should be invested away from there so as to get the most housing for the money, since that development, which is close to Queen Elizabeth Park and other attractive amenities, will be too expensive. Gregor asked where the “other places” are that social housing is going to go, then, and he expressed concern that an NPA council will only want to put social housing in places that are less desirable and away from the kinds of services that other residents get to enjoy.

In a couple of his sharper moments of the night, he also pointed out that Peter was mixing up the definitions of social and low-cost market housing (which was true at that point). He also was quick to point out that Peter’s argument that the city should lobby for tax changes could be a long time coming, since it’s been 35 years since the federal government got rid of the tax incentives for building apartments and intense lobby efforts at all levels since then have been unsuccessful in getting them to change that back.

When asked which pillar in the city’s Four Pillars drug policy they thought was the weakest, Peter said prevention, Gregor said treatment. Peter said there doesn’t need to be any more money for enforcement. “We spend 75 per cent of our dollars on enforcement.” What the city needs from its council is for its members to fight to make sure that treatment space is available, even when local residents are opposed to having a facility in their area.

Categories: 2008 Vancouver Civic Election