Pete Fry pictured top, below is Jean Swanson
FOR PETE’S SAKE, DON’T VOTE JEAN
NPA still too strong to risk splitting left-wing vote too many ways
(4000 words. This analysis and opinion piece is typical of the “long form” reporting THE CROWS offers readers, an increasingly rare experience in a world of 15-minute attention spans. If that is you then start and stop three times – you will be better and more deeply informed after reading this than if you read four pieces of 1,000 words each. For anyone genuinely interested in the dynamics acting on the future of the DTES it is this kind of insight that you need, and which you will not get anywhere else. Just saying).
By David Beattie
On a cold January afternoon in 2016 the usual gathering of locals for yet another Carnegie Centre political ‘town hall’ were assembled in the Carnegie hall. A flip chart was stationed at the front of the room and Jean Swanson was in charge of it – both the flip chart and the meeting.
The subject up for discussion was what demands should be made of city hall’s plan to develop the 58 West Hastings site, the large and strategic open piece of land opposite Army & Navy. City hall owns the land.
Three or four participants suggested a range of ratios of welfare rate social housing to other kinds of housing. Without even bothering to write down the different proposed ratios, Ms Swanson concluded that not only should ‘we’ demand that no matter how large the one or more buildings eventually built on the land, every single unit had to be rented at full welfare rate, which was then and still is $375 per month. Start the bargaining at 100 percent, she said.
The discussion then turned to how large these welfare units should be. City hall now allows micro-suites as small as 250 square feet, about twice as large as many of the standard SROs or “Single Room Occupancies,” built in the early years of the last century, which make up the bulk of the cheapest rental accommodation in Vancouver.
Well-known and highly controversial activist Ivan Drury was at the meeting and suggested suites of between 300 and 400 square feet be the standard, for single people, in the hypothetical new building on the site. “No” murmured Jean, they should be at least 500 square feet, a number which she then wrote on the flip chart sheet of paper. That was it, the extent of the ‘discussion.’
I do not know what happened after that because I immediately got up and left, fuming. The meeting had been billed as a sort of workshop session at which DTES residents, mostly the lowest-income, would together hash out a strategy for the key 58 West Hastings site.
I should not have been surprised at the turn of events. I had in 2010 and 2011 attended a dozen or more similar meetings, in various meeting spaces at the Carnegie Community Centre, in which ‘discussion’ was similarly led to conclusions hatched earlier by the tiny coterie of insiders in the small office of the Carnegie Community Action Project, or CCAP, as it’s better known.
Ms. Swanson is nominally no longer head of CCAP but she still hovers over it like a colossus. And that’s a big part of the problem. What to many outsiders appears to be a fierce determination by Ms. Swanson to stay committed to pure ideals serving the lowliest is invariably experienced by those who deal with her more closely as stubborn intransigence.
STUBBORN AND UNREALISTIC
Take for example Jean’s insistence on the 100 percent thing. It is not only for the 58 West Hastings site that her CCAP insists be managed this way, but indeed ALL new residential buildings in the entire DTES. Not only does Jean and her entourage insist that all units in all new buildings be rented for no more than $375, but they go further in insisting that tenants themselves manage the buildings, independent of agencies such as Atira, Lookout, RainCity or even city hall itself.
I myself live in an SRO, in a private building at Princess and Laurel, and I can attest that any building rented at 100 percent welfare rental rate would test any management beyond endurance. You would need to ensure tenants had so few special challenges they would not be disruptive, and that is a tall order anywhere, not to mention in the DTES.
It is for this reason that even highly progressive commentators and professionals with insight into the DTES situation almost all agree that this would be a nightmare that would further entrench and aggravate the wretched state of affairs in the area.
So this goes to the heart of the matter – Jean’s suitability to hold elected office in a much wider context. There is no question she is a sincere person who has dedicated her life to combating poverty. Her Order of Canada award is deserved. But that is a distinctly different distinction from being a city councillor.
Jean is a good generalist but I am not sure she entirely thinks through the consequences of her broad policy directions. The 100 percent welfare rate rental insistence is a perfect example. Surely anybody familiar with the outcome of this – it’s been tried in numerous buildings already managed by agencies such as Atira and city hall – knows that it makes life extremely difficult for both tenants and management. People on welfare and disability often have special needs that make them disruptive. Many welfare and disability recipients make excellent tenants, I am one myself, and many people who have never been on welfare or disability and never will be are awful tenants.
But as a general rule-of-thumb people on welfare and disability, especially crowded together in a building that has no social mix, are challenging to each other and to management. Not only does Jean and her entourage refuse to acknowledge this, but they are now going further and calling for these buildings to be managed by the tenants themselves. It is not impossible to imagine a tolerable outcome to this – the possibility exists that a wise managing group could exist and that enough of the tenants would not be disruptive, but for that to be so the tenants would need to be extremely carefully chosen. Creating this outcome from the hundreds of currently homeless in the DTES is pretty much impossible, especially if the building is large and has dozens of tenants. The likelihood of another Balmoral-Lite is far greater.
RENT FREEZE AND ‘MANSION TAX’
It is this same kind of extremism that Jean’s campaign brings to this by-election. Consider the idea of a “mansion” tax and a four-year rent freeze. I am on disability of $1133 per month and live in a 150-square foot SRO in the core ghetto area of the Greater Downtown Eastside, the so-called DEOD or Downtown Eastside Oppenheimer District. I pay rent of $560 monthly. The Residential Tenancy Branch is allowing a four percent tax increase this year, so that will definitely hurt me slightly. I would love a 10-year rent freeze. But consider the implications.
There are tens of thousands of homeowners who now only just get by with a little extra from a mortgage helper. Holding them to a freeze for FOUR YEARS while inflation and cost-of-living increases accrue is too long. It is likely to lead to landlords and tenants making private arrangements which avoid signed contracts, concealing ‘landlordship’ in other ways and all sorts of dodges to get around the block. It is often tempting to introduce the heavy, heavy hand of government regulation, but when it is widely seen as an ass then people align in ways to kick it. In any event, as Mr Fry points out, rent control is a provincial jurisdiction – city hall has no control over it. Not only would Jean need to get a majority on council to agree with her, says Fry, she would then need to persuade a majority of MLAs to change the law. “It is an empty promise,” he says.
A rent freeze of one to two years at most has some merit, at least notionally. It gives time for the new BC GreeNDP government to make good on Premier Horgan’s huge promises. Its The NDP’s platform promises to build 114,000 rental, social, co-op, and owner-purchase homes “through partnerships” over 10 years.
The platform notes that these homes “will be a mix of housing for students, singles, seniors, and families and will range from supported social housing to quality, market rental housing.”
“In urban and suburban centres, we’ll build near transit hubs,” the B.C. NDP said going into the election. “And, instead of the BC Liberals’ land giveaways to their developer friends, we’ll use public land to build housing British Columbians can afford.”
I am no great fan of Vision Vancouver – they have played it too safe so far and have failed to get out in front of the housing crisis. To be fair, Gregor and his team haves struggled enormously with a hostile government in Victoria. With a friendly one such as John Horgan’s, it is going to take a year or two to see the fruits of that relationship. The danger with a sudden lurch to the far-left, in the shape form of Jean Swanson, is a resurgence in the NPA vote next year, when the next full city general civic election comes due.
Keep in mind that in the 2014 mayoralty race the NPA got 73,500 votes to Vision’s 83,500 – a fairly near thing. In the councillor contest, Adriane Carr of the Greens won most votes but second, third and fourth went to the NPA. Also, after the 10 that were elected, the next five candidates closest to being elected all were all NPA. One or two of them came within 500 votes of being elected. It is foolish indeed for progressives to be complacent about conservatives in the shape guise of the NPA. As it is, the left side of the field is crowded with multiple options while the right has only the NPA. It would be great if a flat-out libertarian party or candidate or two emerged, but so far no such luck.
A return to the NPA, the municipal equivalent of the BC Liberals and/or the Conservative Party of Canada, would be a setback indeed. A Green is a refreshing change from the two big business-as-usual parties, but not so much as to make the horse bolt.
Consider further a poll taken in late July this year (http://www.justasonmi.com/?p=5357), the results of which make intriguing reading. The Greens emerge as the likely winner, with 30 percent, and the NPA is second, close behind, at 27 percent. There is a large gap between these two front-runners and the next set of options: This is followed by a large drop and OneCity and its candidate Judy Graves, show at 18 percent, with Vision just one point behind at 17 percent. “Other – which is now Jean Swanson, freshly endorsed by COPE as of August 29, and Sensible BC candidate Mary Jean “Watermelon” Dunsdon came in at a mere 8 percent. The poll was done before Jean announced her candidacy, and her profile is certain to increase that number, but it is a compelling indication of just how little support COPE and the ultra-leftists enjoy. Given how strong a candidate Pete Fry is I am confident that even if he does not win, he will pull more votes than Swanson.
* Frances Bula of the Globe and Mail reports that a “late August” poll found the Green Party ahead with 38 percent, while Vision and the NPA were tied at 20 percent each. I have not been able to find any other media on this, however, which is odd. Ms Bula does not say who did the poll etc. The editor of the Georgia Straight magazine, Charlie Smith, opines that Hector Bremner of the NPA is the candidate to beat, putting his odds at 3:2. Next most likely according to Smith is Pete Fry, at 3:1, then Judy Graves at 4:1, Jean Swanson at 5:1, Vision’s 21-year-old candidate Diego Cardona at 7:1, and “weed diva” Mary Jean Dunsdon at 15:1.
What does Jean mean by a “mansion tax?” On the face of it, it is obvious and has appeal given growing resentment at the huge rich-poor divide in Vancouver. As it is, property taxes are based on assessed values, and so bigger and fancier houses, in more valuable areas, clearly pay considerably more. When does a big house become a “mansion” exactly – is it based on the square footage or assessed value? If it is size then there exists the possibility that simply large houses, built decades ago, is areas such as Grandview-Woodlands off Commercial Drive, will be caught in the net.
If it is assessed value then those houses are already paying more. Is Jean proposing a large property tax hike across the board, or one that only kicks in at a certain point? How much assessed value in that case? It is important to get precision be precise on these points, something unlikely to happen in the hurly-burly of a short campaign, at all-candidates meetings crowded with candidates and limited speaking time.
DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE LOCAL AREA PLAN
For at least four years between 2010 and 2013 dozens of individuals struggled to beat out a new Local Area Plan for the Greater Downtown Eastside – Cambie to Clark, from the Pport to Prior. Jean Swanson and CCAP were so hard-line they prompted a director of the First Nations Health Authority, Dr Liz Whynot, to quit in frustration at what she said was “the violence at the table.”
The eventual Local Area Plan was opposed by almost every participant in the process – for being too extreme in its social housing demands. CCAP also opposed it – from the opposite point of view. The requirement for 60 percent social housing in the Oppenheimer core was not enough, said CCAP. As it is the 60 percent requirement means that every new development in Oppenheimer needs government financial assistance because developers cannot make a go of it without it. As a result there is very little new construction and thus almost no new social housing. This may change under the new BC government but any increase in the number of welfare rate units in Oppenheimer must, by definition, offset the advantages of gentle social mix.
A number of observers have noted that Jean and CCAP always go after the lowest-hanging fruit – concentrating almost all of their fire on 12th and Cambie, and letting Victoria and Ottawa off the hook for their failure to play their greater part in tackling the shortage of social housing in Vancouver and BC. Instead of the endless protests at city hall and marches in the streets of the DTES, Jean and CCAP would have done well to picket the constituency offices of the former premier, her number two and housing minister Rich Coleman and successive social services ministers.
Should she become a city councillor, it is certain Jean will be frustrated at the inability of city government to dictate terms to its more senior counterparts. And unless Ms. Swanson has at least one ally she will find herself as isolated as Ellen Woodsworth, the lone COPE councillor to survive the 2011 election. But then again, perhaps acting as nothing more than a protest mouthpiece will satisfy Jean – going after publicity and public attention is one of her and CCAP’s most notable achievements.
58 WEST HASTINGS
Let’s examine another example of the sleight of hand by Jean, CCAP and its entourage that includes the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). In August 2016, they did get Mayor Gregor to promise 100 percent welfare rate housing at 58 West Hastings. But, and this is crucial, in the same breath he qualified that by saying it was possible ONLY IF both the province and feds pitched in their fair share toward the multi-million project. So far neither has pledged a single dollar. This is a very different thing from the great hullabaloo and crying blue murder CCAP et al have kicked up recently.
Also, at the same meeting – I was there – Robertson said 100 percent welfare rate units at the site was okay because CCAP et al wanted a particular brand of social mix. At least one third of units were to be reserved for Chinese-Canadian seniors, one third for First Nations (mostly women and children) and one third other welfare, disability and pension recipients. Again, if carefully chosen and wisely managed and supervised, a building of that nature might indeed succeed. No more than 10 percent of the tenants could be “high impact” – suffering mental illness and/or addiction to the degree it makes them high maintenance and disruptive. Of course that last part was conveniently left out of the equation by the CCAP-VANDU nexus – just getting housing for their constituents is the goal, not ensuring any quality of life once achieved.
Jean has a penchant for driving away potential allies. Her decision to run in addition to Judy Graves has upset numerous people in the broader COPE / OneCity school. A local activist had an open letter published in the Georgia Straight, which then prompted a row on Facebook (https://www.straight.com/news/955941/jean-swanson-supporters-urge-onecity-and-cope-members-not-split-progressive-vote). Each side accused the other of not playing fair. It is typical of the kind of dissent which seems to stick to Swanson at every turn.
Anne Livingston has been active in DTES politics at least as long as Jean Swanson. Ms. Livingston is the de facto originator of VANDU, which is now Swanson’s firmest ally. Livingston is now one of four or five women who created and run the Overdose Prevention Society, and the Street Market Society. They include former Vision parks board trustees Sarah Blythe and Constance Barnes. There is no debate at all that Blythe, Livingston, Barnes et al are providing a vital service and running it well. This is not enough for Swanson and her entourage not to be at loggerheads with the Street Market Society. As someone who ran for the NDP in the 2015 federal election, Barnes is clearly not alternative enough for Swanson.
Blythe and her allies have created a highly functional street market on a site at 501 Powell Street, which can offer services that the former street market on Carrall Street could not, such as storage in on-site shipping containers. They also run the Area 62 market at East Hastings and Columbia. CCAP, however, has accused them of gentrification for giving way on the city’s insistence that an alternative be found to the literal street market on Carrall, which required the street be closed for a half day and severely affected stores in the vicinity, for years. This is the kind of extremism and refusal to compromise that has isolated Jean as much as it has. She simply cannot work with others. She, has to have her way. Do not vote for her – it is a mistake.
Swanson’s platform includes some great ideas. She proposes a $5 monthly transit pass for people on welfare, the same as the City of Calgary. Transit is the bailiwick of provincial government, so this means city hall would need to offset the difference itself – an important point to add. She wants to end the war on drugs and make clean drugs accessible. Personally I could not agree more – BUT, those are both federal government jurisdiction. If the City of Vancouver were to attempt to unilaterally legalize or even decriminalize heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines, it would not take long before it was overruled by Ottawa.
If it is a gambit to force Mr. Trudeau’s hand, that is a different thing, and sure to put the fat in the fire. The cost of making “clean drugs accessible” as she wants is outside the budget of a single city. Clearly a move of this nature needs to be made nationwide or it will almost certainly lead to a huge stampede of drug users into the city. Both the federal Liberals and the BC GreeNDP government need to act decisively on drug policy. A good start would be expanding the existing injection programs to at least 500 more of the hardest pressed opioid users, see how that works and then go from there. Declaring an end to the war on drugs is, again, consistent with the jurisdictional over-reach of which Jean is constantly guilty.
Jean speaks of banning foreign and corporate donations – to the City of Vancouver municipal elections one imagines. Okay, but what about banning union donations as well, surely a fair quid pro quo if corporate donations are banned. Finally, she wants a ward system. This obviously plays to her strength in the Downtown Eastside. Well, 13 years ago Vancouver voted 54 percent against wards. Perhaps it is time to revisit the issue but then again, perhaps it is too soon.
Let us turn to the merits of Green candidate Pete Fry. By contrast with Jean, he is both a good generalist and ‘specialist.’ To prepare himself for his runs at office in the 2014 city election and the provincial by-election of early 2016, in the Mt Pleasant riding, he clearly studied the fine print of policy, drilling down to mundane technicalities. This is sometimes called “a policy wonk.” This comes from his years as president of the Strathcona Residents Association, where attention to minutiae is necessary to defend homeowners’ interests against the intrusion of city hall administrators and others. He recently took up the fight against large store frontages in Chinatown and was so familiar with the city plan he could quote it, by heart, chapter and verse.
Mr. Fry is on the left of within the Green Party. He has had considerable difficulty with many points in BC Green leader Andrew Weaver’s platform. He is making housing the key issue – we will soon learn the specifics. A large part of the impetus for Pete’s run is for the Greens to have a second vote to support incumbent councillor Adriane Carr. Here is how he put it at the party’s nomination meeting: “Adriane got the most votes of any council candidate in 2014 and has a reputation as the one councillor who actually takes the time to really listen to the citizens who take the time to speak before council.
Adriane has been alone on council pushing for resolutions on issues like whistle-blower protection, social housing targets that are tied to actual income, transparency around public benefits and so much more. But she’s just one Green on council. There’s a lot she can do, a lot WE can do with one more Green on council.”
But it is when it comes down to brass tacks that Fry excels himself. Most of us have had enough of sweeping rhetoric about acting “for the people” and other generalizations. Here is what he said before council’s vote to turn down the infamous development proposed for the key 105 Keefer site in Chinatown.
“This most recent application for rezoning to accommodate the Beedie Group’s new 12-story condo building at 105 Keefer Street offered little by way of public benefits: 25 units of seniors rental housing, only eight of which would be at pension rate, and paid for by B.C. taxpayers. The proposal was also to include a cultural amenity space at “below market rate” (which by definition is not necessarily affordable or accessible).
As most of the opponents agreed, the public benefits fell well short of what the community needs, and the building came at a significant cost to the neighbourhood. It’s too big, and in the wrong place.
As I went to speak before council Monday, the news that a Green-NDP deal had been struck just moments earlier presented a literal last minute game-changer. Among other things, both parties have committed to increase the supply of affordable housing.
That will likely mean that begging for developers’ table scraps will no longer be the only route to securing housing for our society’s most vulnerable.
With a new provincial mandate, the veritable knife through the heart of Chinatown in exchange for barely-there public benefits will seem a lot less attractive to city councillors going into a 2018 municipal election. Looking forward, any suggestion of developer-donor influence should be put to bed by the NDP-Green commitment to ban big money political contributions (over the 11 months of the 2014 civic election reporting period, Beedie Group and their VP Rafii Houta are listed at having contributed at least $65,000 to Vision Vancouver).”
Do I make my point? Specifics, specifics, SPECIFICS. And sensible specifics. For Pete’s sake, do not vote for Jean (or Judy or Vision for that matter).