April 17, 2015

The myth of affordable housing through higher density in Vancouver

Stephen Quinn, host of Vancouver's number one afternoon drive radio program, except possibly when the Canucks are playing, writes in today's Globe and Mail and provides a commentary on the affordability created by higher density in the hedge city that is Vancouver. 

Stephen Quinn remembers, and so do I. His column is reprinted below.

Remember EcoDensity™? I do.

It was June, 2006, when Vancouver mayor – now (seldom seen) B.C. Liberal MLA – Sam Sullivan introduced the brand to Vancouver and the entire planet as the city played host to the World Urban Forum.

Despite the gloss of the hot-off-the-press brochure, critics accused him of rebranding an idea already in practice: Increasing density would reduce the city’s environmental footprint with the secondary benefit of making housing more affordable.

At the time, I questioned Mr. Sullivan on the second point. Density in the downtown core had virtually doubled over the previous two decades and condos were not getting any cheaper. In fact, each new development represented a significant jump in price.

“Don’t you know anything about economics?” I recall him asking me rhetorically.

“Supply and demand, m’boy, supply and demand. We build more supply and the prices come down,” he said, stretching out his suspenders with his thumbs and chomping on a cigar. Okay, there were no suspenders or cigar, but his answer did conjure up grainy black-and-white images of W.C. Fields, sans top hat. Also, I’m pretty sure he didn’t call me “m’boy.”

The point is that selling density as a means to affordability in this city is nothing new.

But it’s a myth, and an especially cruel one to wave in front of well-educated young people hopeful that one day they’ll be able to afford the sort of housing in which they might be able to raise a family in Vancouver.

And yet, it persists.

This week, council approved the third phase of the Cambie Corridor Planning Program.

This phase will see the city rezone the areas between the new developments currently under construction and the lower-density single-family homes in the neighbourhood – think townhouses and row houses in a sort of transition zone between the buildings on main arteries and single-family homes.

Once again, the foggy mirage of affordability appears in the latest report: “Phase 3 provides an opportunity to increase housing options and improve affordability by broadening the range of housing choices that will help young families put down roots and stay in Vancouver.”

Susan Haid, the city’s assistant director of housing for Vancouver South, also talked about affordability when I spoke with her about the plan this week. “Affordability is something that we’re really going to explore; a range of options through the planning process,” she said.

That’s where the townhouses and row houses and other options come in.

Yes, there are opportunities for “lock off suites” that would allow an owner to rent a portion of their townhouse, and opportunities for low and mid-rise apartments.

But as for the definition of affordable, Ms. Haid conceded the city was talking about what she called “relative affordability.”

“Affordable compared to a single family house in the area may be a desirable option for some families,” she said.

We’ve seen block after block of townhouses and row houses spring up along Oak Street and Granville Street in the past few years as a result of rezoning along those busy roads. A quick scan of listings shows a 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom townhouse in the 6,100 block of Oak going for $870,000. That’s not in a quieter “transition zone” – it’s on six lanes of rush-hour traffic. Two blocks up the street is a similar but slightly larger two-bedroom row house listed for $1.18-million.

From there the prices only go up. (And don’t forget the strata fees.)

As for low-rise apartments, I found a lovely, 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom suite in a new building on Cambie going for $780,000.

By whose definition are those affordable to a young family putting down roots?

Before you venture an answer, remember that we’re talking about “relative affordability.”

So with the law of supply and demand apparently suspended, and with so many market drivers beyond the city’s control, let’s just admit that the myth of affordable housing in the Cambie corridor is exactly that – a myth. We can talk about “providing opportunities” and “broadening the range of housing choices,” but in the end, the real estate market in Vancouver is what it is.

Let’s stop pretending the city can do anything to make housing more affordable for anyone. And let’s not bite when reports to council dangle vague references to affordability in front of us.

Here’s what it has done to us: when I told a young colleague this week about the 1,100-square-foot apartment on Cambie listed for $780,000, her response said it all.

“$780,000? For a two-bedroom?” she said. “That’s a deal!”

Relatively speaking, I guess it is.

Yes, Stephen, in this city, it is. But that doesn't make it right.

Published online April 17, 2015 by the Globe and Mail. Published in the paper on April 18, 2015.

April 15, 2015

The most likely coalition? It's already Harper and Trudeau.

The recent headlines about the Liberal leader considering a coalition with the NDP, but not while Tom Mulcair is the New Democratic Party leader, was interesting in what it says about the inexperienced politician that is Justin Trudeau. Or about the fact that his Liberal Pary has precious little in common with the NDP.

Many of us, including John Ibbitson, writing in the Globe and Mail, wondered why in the world Trudeau would even consider a coalition with the NDP. Historically the Liberals have always found more common ground with the Tories, than they ever did with the social democratic party, and certainly, as Ibbitson points out in Wednesday's column, they seem to be in lock step with Harper on the current issues of the day. Indeed, it's difficult to tell the two parties apart.

The Liberals support Bill C-51, the crazed Conservative anti-terrorism legislation that the NDP opposes.

The Liberals are behind the Canadian military training mission to Ukraine. The NDP says the mission must first be approved by the House of Commons. You would have thought they might agree on that one.

Taxes? Surely the Liberals and New Democrats must agree on increasing taxes to the rich? Then again... The Liberals would retain virtually all the Conservative tax measures, save for a small income-splitting tax cut. Only the NDP would actually raise corporate taxes. Canada is notoriously generous to its corporations when compared to other industrial economies.

When it comes to environmental concerns, Mr Trudeau is happy to let the provinces take on climate change and global warming, as does Mr Harper. Mr Mulcair is committed to compulsory Canadian standards to reduce carbon emissions. But wait, there's even more: Mr Trudeau backs the Keystone XL pipeline and supports the further development of the oil sands, which sounds just like the current Prime Minister. Tom Mulcair opposes Keystone and speaks honestly about a "Dutch disease" of oil dependency in our country.

On Quebec, both the Conservatives and the Liberals find common cause in backing the Clarity Act, while New Democrats endorse the Sherbrooke Declaration, which makes it easier for Quebec to separate, if ever that comes up again.

The NDP has proposed a national child care program. The Conservatives would rather provide direct payments to parents. The Liberals, not surprisingly perhaps, given their record on the issue, are completely silent.

Ideologically, a minority Conservative government might work with the Liberals on a day to day basis. Perhaps the same might be true for a minority Liberal government.

For his part, and in trying to appeal to the 60 percent of Canadians who oppose the present government, Mr Mulcair repeats that he is willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the Conservatives, including forming some sort of coalition with the Liberals, but Mr Trudeau refuses.

Increasingly, as the election approaches, Mr Harper will warn Canadians that anything less than a Conservative majority will lead to a coalition of the NDP and Liberals. The reality could be a much different thing entirely.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

April 08, 2015

Dear Indiana... and nineteen other states

Facing tremendous economic damage and mounting public pressure from business interests and citizens alike, Indiana Governor Mike Pence recently signed legislation limiting the damage the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has done to its reputation and economy. His new legislation falls short of providing a proper solution. The measure fails to ensure that the RFRA won’t be used to undermine the full scope of Indiana's existing non-discrimination laws, and does not add LGBT non-discrimination protections to the state’s civil rights laws. Bigotry will continue to be legal in Indiana. 

Indiana isn't alone in its lunacy couched in religious freedom. There are nineteen other states to avoid when travelling to the Excited States of America.

All this from a country that celebrates a person's right, indeed, a state's right, to display a flag with historical ties to slavery. This too from a country that continues to support the apartheid state of Israel, mainly because of the money being spent on both sides of the political divide, though increasingly on the fanatical right.

At the same time, this nation finds itself in lockstep with the madness that is Saudi Arabia. Mind you Saudi does seem to have the oil the Excited States desire, and why buy oil from your closest, and most democratic neighbour, when you can buy oil from a nation that publicly beheads people, locks up women for driving cars and stones them to death for looking at someone the wrong way. Oh, and yes, the Saudis do buy about $60 billion worth of military equipment from the Excited States every year, and they probably wouldn't be thrilled to serve gays either, just like the folks in Indiana.

Yes, all this nuttiness from a country that allows its police departments to use asset forfeiture laws to shakedown innocent, law abiding citizens and tourists; that seems to allow its police to shoot first, and possibly explain later. Or not. A nation, in league with the likes of Afghanistan, that can't even begin to control the sale of guns within its own territory.

No Toto, it isn't just Indiana, or even Kansas. Indiana is just the favourite of the current news cycle. There are at least nineteen other states, including Kansas, to consider when travelling south of the border. Or not.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

April 06, 2015

Lunar Eclipse

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

At a Lunar Eclipse by Thomas Hardy

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

April 05, 2015

Let's abolish the Senate

Ah, yes. The Canadian Senate. A chamber of second thought, sober or otherwise. Not elected by citizens, not representative of regions nor citizens, and certainly not effective in any manner. It's difficult to know just what the role of a body such as this might be in a democratic federation such as ours.

Senator Nancy Ruth, noted feminist and philanthropist, dropped her last name several years ago as a statement against the patriarchy. All good things indeed. She will now be remembered as the cold fancy-cheese Senator. Nancy Ruth complained about being served cold Camembert and broken crackers while flying first-class. She has to fly first class and have a better breakfast. At our expense of course.

Nancy Ruth is from the Jackman family, three generations of whom have controlled one of Canada's largest financial companies, Empire Life. She sold off her shares in the company in 1980, at the age of 38, because, as she told then reporter Stephen Brunt, "I was tired of working for a living, to be blunt about it." She devoted herself to genuinely good causes and was rewarded in 2005 by the conservative Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin with an appointment to the Senate. That's about three months of actual work every year, with some party fund raising events to be added of course, and a whack of expenses to be paid by taxpayers. All at a starting pay rate of  $138,000.

Her case is minor compared to some of our senators. A number seem to be severely challenged when it comes to claiming expenses. Legal. Illegal. It' all rather confusing to most of them.

For all of us, the cold camebert story sums up what is wrong with our Senate. Unelected, unaccountable and out-of-touch senators cost our country almost $100 million every year.

It's time to get rid of the lot of them. Unless, of course, someone wants to appoint me.                                                      Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray

March 30, 2015

Do you really want to defeat Harper?

If you are like me... you want to see a change in government in Canada. Under our system it's possible, in fact, likely, that a government is formed without a plurality of votes across the country. How we vote against the governing party does make a difference.

The election of 2011 was an incredible achievement for Canada's social democrats: official opposition and the chance to provide real change in Ottawa in 2015.


Come October, British Columbia will be crucial in defeating Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. All the polls since the beginning of the year show a three-way race. The most recent polls indicate a decline for the Conservatives and the Liberals and growing strength for New Democrats.

2015-03-24   26.315.727.427.5EKOS

British Columbians can't afford to split the centre-left vote between Liberals and New Democrats, and voting Green is really just helping the Conservatives. Moving from second place to first place in a number of BC ridings can be done ~ if we don't waste our votes on the Liberals or the Greens.

We can make a difference. Find out the stakes in your riding. Contact a constituency office. Get involved. It is up to us.

By Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.