Split Decision: Housing crisis looms large in Vancouver civic election

In this month's civic elections, Vancouver voters must ?choose from a bewildering number of parties and mayoral ?candidates. Will public anger over the housing crisis tip the balance of power away from the city's traditional rulers?

Yes Vancouver mayoral candidate Hector Bremner

In this month’s municipal vote, Vancouverites must choose from a bewildering number of parties and mayoral candidates. Will public anger over the city’s lack of affordable housing tip the balance of power away from its traditional rulers?

A note from the author: Modern-day elections are famous for their last-minute dramas, with candidates getting knocked out of races as problematic information emerges about their pasts, as they stumble in the public spotlight, as their campaign strategies blow up in their faces.

B.C.’s civic elections this year are following that pattern, but on steroids as a record number of candidates and parties jostled to break away from the crowded field once the campaign really got going after Labour Day.

The biggest upset was when Vision Vancouver’s mayoral candidate, Ian Campbell, abruptly withdrew from the race in the second week of September after the party discovered he had an eight-year-old stayed charge connected to a domestic incident.

Hector Bremner, the one-time Non-Partisan Association (NPA) councillor who has gone off to form his own party, found himself bombarded with public criticism after a mysterious third party paid for a raft of billboard and subway advertisements around Vancouver touting him and his #LetsFixHousing meme. The criticism only ramped up when the donor behind the ads was revealed to be mega-developer Peter Wall.

Added to that, unusually negative attacks have multiplied on social media, with some of them going far beyond the usual into allegations of criminal behaviour. Facebook has been busy taking down some of the worst pages. And Elections BC has been busy ruling on all kinds of new questions that have arisen because of the new campaign finance laws. The roller coaster will only continue until voting day on October 20—and possibly even beyond, as allegations of voter fraud, rule-breaking and other misdemeanours proliferate.

It’s another uncharacteristically sweltering day in Vancouver, one of many in a scorching summer around the globe. The sky is a grey haze of smoke from Richmond’s bog fire. People are lined up at Earnest Ice Cream on Fraser Street for something to cool their stinging throats.

But across the street, about 100 non–ice-cream eaters have chosen to spend the afternoon at the Polish Community Centre, supporting yet another new Vancouver political party and its crop of newbie candidates for the October 20 municipal elections. Among them: Glynnis Chan, a Chinatown travel agency operator who wants to improve tourism to Vancouver; and Jaspreet Virdi, a pharmacy proprietor in the city’s South Asian epicentre who calls for a support program for small businesses. Virdi makes another point, one that’s central to his party: “We have a huge housing crisis, and if we continue to do things the same way, nothing will change.”

They’re all part of the new team for Yes Vancouver, whose mayoral candidate is Hector Bremner. That would be the former BC Liberal Party staffer and current vice-president of a public relations/lobbying firm who left the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) after being told he couldn’t be its mayoral candidate, presumably because of connections to real estate developers, despite having been elected as the party’s councillor only a few months earlier. This is a guy no one had heard of a year ago but who is hoping to do what Gregor Robertson did a decade back—break the city’s alternation between right and left and come up the middle.

“Our city is broken, our city is broken,” Bremner intones, his face sombre as he closes off the afternoon’s speeches by stressing the need to build more housing and stop deferring to residents who block it by talking about “character and soul and design.”

Bremner’s odds of winning appear low: he was showing up with a dismal 5 percent of voter support in polls during the summer, and council candidates he’d recruited to run with him as an NPAer had bailed. But thanks to voters’ fatigue with the usual politics and parties, the chances of him and a party like Yes Vancouver having some success are still higher than at any time in the past half-century.

That dynamic propelled both the new and old parties to go into overdrive during the summer, in determined efforts to appeal to the public. They held picnics in parks, put on fundraisers in penthouses, campaigned outside the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, showed up at Greek Day, car-free street festivals and the Point Grey Fiesta, begged for money through mass emails and sent out endless news releases about their activities.

The scramble among the largely unknown candidates and new parties is the result of a dramatic new reality. Vancouver, along with the region and a few other parts of the province, is in a profound state of crisis. It should be a moment when political superheroes are rushing to save B.C.’s endangered cities, beset as they are by housing-cost insanity that is warping their ability to function, by eruptions of violence in quiet neighbourhoods, by fierce debates over how to move people and vehicles around, by the question of how to respond to climate change.

But no one of stature seems to want the job. No charismatic former city planner, like Toronto is getting with Jennifer Keesmaat. No barn-burning champion who already has a following of devotees, like a Rafe Mair or Bill Vander Zalm of yore. “The elites are fractured, and there is no populist alternative,” says Greg Lyle, a B.C.-based veteran political analyst and pollster who has been involved in elections (mostly for conservatives and Conservatives) across the country. “That means there’s a huge swing vote looking for a home. It’s a highly volatile situation. And, generally, things are going against any incumbents.”

Coalition Vancouver mayoral candidate Wai Young

Mixed messages

And so, in many cities throughout the Lower Mainland, where half of the province’s population lives, the how-do-I-figure-out-who-to-vote-for municipal elections will be even more confusing this year. In Vancouver, there were eight mayoral candidates—two of them independents—more than 40 council candidates and nine political parties fighting for air as of late August, as municipal revolutionaries on the right and left saw that the big, traditional parties were seriously wounded.

Departing Mayor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver, after 10 years in power, are under attack from almost everyone about almost everything: blocked storm drains, bike lanes, traffic congestion, too much development, not enough affordable housing, the failure to prevent global capital from sweeping over the city—you name it. But the NPA is also seen as part of the status quo system that has led to Vancouver’s current problems. And both of those former giants, which used to raise millions for election campaigns, are now on a starvation diet with new rules that prohibit corporate or union donations, as well as any personal donations over $1,200.

Things aren’t better elsewhere in this time of change. In Surrey, the party brought together by Dianne Watts that ruled that municipality unchecked for a decade is hobbled by the same new fundraising reality, and it has fractured. There are at least three serious would-be mayors in the running. In Delta, the City and District of North Vancouver, Maple Ridge, Port Coquitlam and more, new seedlings are moving into the clear-cut territory where old-growth mayors have departed. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan is facing a serious challenger. In Richmond, simmering rage over empty homes and McMansions on farmland is fuelling opposition movements to perpetual Mayor Malcolm Brodie.

The question for all of them: How can they sell themselves to a public increasingly anxious about the rising cost of everything, along with the sense that their cities are under threat? And what will be the message that appeals the most when it comes to solving one of the region’s most difficult problems—housing?

Will the successful message be “Tax the rich”? Will it be “Ban housing investors, particularly those from offshore”? Will it be “Housing is very complex, and I will look for solutions on multiple fronts”? Will it be “We need to listen to residents more about their ideas and what they’re willing to accept”? Will it be “Let’s change our tax system to capture big gains in land value”? Or will it be “Just build a lot more and we can solve this”?

For Vancouver voters seeking the traditional right-left game theory to guide them, that’s gone. There’s no unity among the parties considered to be on the left, or among those on the presumed right, about those messages. Instead, there’s a divide between the centrist moderates and the cultural revolutionaries on both sides, the “It’s complicated” thinkers and the “This group is to blame and we’ll go after them” believers.

Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Ken Sim

Business case

The conventional wisdom in voting is that Vancouver (and, to some extent, other B.C. cities) swings the opposite way from the provincial government. But it’s unclear if that dynamic still holds. If it does, that should give the biggest boost to Ken Sim, mayoral candidate for the city’s decades-old centre-right party, the NPA. Sim, who grew up in south Vancouver, is campaigning the traditional NPA way, although adapted to his soft-spoken personality and his extensive business experience starting up Nurse Next Door Home Care Services and Rosemary Rocksalt Bagels.

At a back table in his bagel outlet on Main Street, after Sim has conferred briefly with an employee, he sits down for a lengthy talk. He wants to apply his business skills to managing the city. Initiate a financial review. Do an examination of workflow issues. “People don’t fail; systems fail,” he says, declining to pin the blame for city problems on any specific person. “We need to fix the system.”

Sim thinks increasing housing in Vancouver can help solve environmental pressures. “When you have density, you take cars off the road.” But he says there must be better consultation. He’s interested in hearing from the public to get a big-picture feel for how the city should evolve, he explains. But he’s not going to spend a year figuring out what to do: “In business, if we took a year to develop a plan, we’d be out of business.”

When it comes to detailed policies, he and his team are still doing the research, Sim says. But, he adds, “when you step back, there’s been a lot done on the [housing] demand side”—Airbnb regulations, taxes on empty properties. So his team’s discussions are mostly about supply. Finally, he’s not rabidly opposed to bike lanes, but he uses some of the language of bike lane opponents. “Are we really better off having congested roads and cars idling?”

Sim and his party are far from secure in a win, though. Not only are they seen as too much a part of the old order, but several other parties stand to drain their vote. Not just those definitely of the right, like former Conservative MP Wai Young’s Coalition Vancouver, or the breakaway Yes Vancouver, formed out of irate ex-NPAers. But also the new Pro-Vancouver, started by financial planner David Chen, whose candidates and platform are a mix of vaguely leftish ideas and militant anti–foreign money, anti-Airbnb activists who think the NPA is a lost cause after not choosing one of their own, Glen Chernen, as a mayoral candidate or even as a councillor. Or the Green Party, which leans more toward the populist end of the spectrum. The newly revived Vancouver First could peel away still a few more.

Independent mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart

The left field

But Sim could win, in spite of that and the NPA’s gift for alienating its own supporters in various decisions about who can run for the party, depending on how the leftish side splits. In the mayoral race, those voters have to decide between two independent candidates, Shauna Sylvester and Kennedy Stewart. Their council choices include not just Vision Vancouver and COPE but also the Green Party, the OneCity party and even, for some, ProVancouver.

How leftish voters will choose is a mystery. Vision Vancouver Ian Campbell might have been a contender, as he benefited from the backing of the Vision machine, which, despite being declared dead on Twitter, is still a going concern. The party has paid and experienced staff, and it knows how to campaign. There is a bloc of core supporters of unknown size who continue to believe in the Vision approach: green city, more density everywhere (with new tools to push developers to create cheaper rental housing and more family-sized units) and bike lanes for all.

Campbell was an unknown to many, though. His main claim to name recognition for most was that he’s a Squamish chief. And in the second week of September, Campbell dropped out of the race, leaving the left side of the field clear for Stewart and Sylvester. 

Sylvester picked up some of Campbell’s supporters, with her numbers rising in late September to about 17-percent support from voters polled by Mario Canseco’s Research Co. But it appears that many in the fractured left-wing world swung toward Stewart. He was at 36 percent in the same poll, favoured by those who may feel they know him and what he’s likely to do.

Stewart has been been involved in municipal politics since 1996 and was part of the Jack Layton wave of NDP MPs when elected in Burnaby in 2011. And he’s been endorsed by the Vancouver and District Labour Council. Although that’s irrelevant for many voters, it’s enough to give him an edge among the politically alert. That means something in a tight race split multiple ways.

Stewart has been doggedly pitching himself to the left as someone who will fight for improvements to the kind of housing private developers build, for more money from other levels of government for housing the private market can’t do and for more ethical controls on city hall activities to help regain public confidence. “The market is not working for the vast majority of our population” is one of his repeated messages. But Stewart gets knocked repeatedly by the radical reformers for not having kicked Burnaby Mayor Corrigan’s butt publicly about apartment demolitions. That pegs him as too much of a collaborator for Vancouver’s crusaders against real estate capitalism.

Independents’ day?

In the end, the real face of city councils in the region may not have anything to do with choices about mayors. In Vancouver, the poster child for extreme electoral trends, there’s not just a wave of candidates from new parties but also a wave of credible council contenders who are choosing to run with no parties. Sarah Blyth, the woman who set up drug overdose prevention tents in the Downtown Eastside, has abandoned her one-time party, Vision, to run on her own. Rob McDowell, a staunch pillar of the NPA for years, is also running as an independent. So are housing advocate Adrian Crook and former Musqueam band councillor Wade Grant, both of whom had originally been recruited by Yes Vancouver’s Bremner as potential candidates.

Voters looking for change may well choose a mix from among the big parties, the small parties and the independents, with the result that there will be no majority group on council. How revolutionary that group is will depend on just how angry people are—and about what. The election will be a litmus test of what issue is emotional enough to drive a committed throng of voters to the polls: their feeling that foreigners have distorted the housing market, their desperate hope that lots of new supply (especially in West Side neighbourhoods) will solve the problem, their annoyance about bike lanes, their irritation over unmowed boulevards, their desire to throw all current bums out.

Metro Vancouver residents have tended to vote for moderates, mayors and councils who work diligently at incremental changes—a significant contrast to Toronto, which has produced more than one belligerent populist suburban mayor. But this time around, people are more frantic than ever about how the region is evolving.

Says pollster Canseco, who’s tracking the sentiments of the people who will be voting, “There’s definitely the sense from residents that things are out of control.”