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Has Vancouver become a better place under Mayor Gregor Robertson?

The 54-year-old mayor discusses his 10 years in office and says he may return to politics one day
Mayor Gregor Robertson, seen here in January on his way to a news conference to announce he was retiring, says he may return to politics one day. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Is life better today for the average Vancouverite than it was in 2008?

It’s a question the Courier put to Mayor Gregor Robertson this week as he spends his final days in office before he retires from 10 years on the job. His answer might offend some readers, others will likely agree with his words.

As he looked back on his three terms at city hall, Robertson acknowledged the job of mayor makes him a target for criticism—that when housing becomes out of reach for renters and potential buyers, or people continue to die on the streets from opioid poisonings, the finger gets wagged in his direction.

But, as he often explains and did again from his office Thursday, the provincial and federal governments have a big part to play in how cities function and how their involvement—or lack of it—affects the well-being of residents.

The city doesn’t regulate the real estate market, the city isn’t directly responsible for housing or health care. The city doesn’t fund Skytrain extensions or subways to the University of B.C.

The mayor pointed out those distinctions in answering a series of questions, most of which were related to the crises of affordable housing and homelessness. He also talked about his choices for the person who will replace him in the Oct. 20 election.

But back to that first question: Is life better today for the average Vancouverite?

Robertson provided a long answer. It’s been condensed and edited, as have the majority of his responses below.

Here’s the first part:

Is it better? In many respects, the city has become more liveable. Our economy has led the country the past five years in growth and diversity. That’s created huge opportunities and improved wages. We’ve seen good gains on transportation—big improvements with transit, walking and biking. I’m really proud of Vancouver’s success story of hitting over 50 per cent walk, bike and transit in 2015—five years ahead of schedule. We’ve got to keep advancing that with the Broadway subway and bus and bike investments to keep supporting that shift.

The second part:

Overall, we’re considered a world-leading city. We’ve joined the top cities, not just in liveability, but also economically and in innovation. I’d say that innovation extends to inclusion. Our work on refugees, LGBTQ2 and reconciliation with Indigenous people has been ground breaking in Vancouver. Even though we struggle with affordability, I think overall we’re really focused on inclusion and deepening community in Vancouver. I’m really proud of that work and hopeful for the city going forward because we can’t take our relative harmony for granted. Studies on isolation and the problems many cities have with racism and homophobia and discrimination are troubling and we need to continue being a beacon.

But in 2018, the city has the highest homeless population it’s had since counts began more than a decade ago. Rental rates are at an all-time high and home ownership is out of reach for people who earn a good living. Do you take any responsibility for this?

These are global problems, sharply focused on Vancouver over this past decade. So, largely—no [I don’t take responsibility]. We can’t control global capital. That’s up to the federal government. We don’t regulate the real estate industry and the speculation and flipping, which are provincial responsibilities. On the supply side, we’ve created record amounts of overall housing, rental housing, social and supportive housing in 10 years. I feel like we’ve done everything we could do. I take responsibility for not successfully forcing provincial and federal governments to contribute to protecting affordable housing and investing in more. It clearly wasn’t a priority for the [Stephen] Harper or [Christy] Clark governments. As a city, under my leadership, we didn’t break through that block. So I have to take responsibility for not figuring out the puzzle. But we faced a perfect storm—the city hardest hit by global capital and economic boom and small land base. That made it virtually impossible to prevent these challenges without big intervention from provincial and federal governments. Vancouver’s been the hardest hit in Canada, but we’ve also been in the lead with the empty homes tax, regulating Airbnb and investing in community housing through city land. We also opened the rent bank, created a renters’ database. We’ve been trailblazers and setting a fierce pace, but it hasn’t kept up with the impacts.

What do you say to a person in Vancouver who is one paycheque away from not being able to afford rent, or the people who have given up on finding affordable housing and left the city?

It’s been tough for people on low and fixed incomes, with the rents escalating. Everyone who owns a home in Vancouver hit the jackpot in the last decade, and that’s half the population. But renters on tight budgets have faced real difficulties, and that’s why we’ve pulled out all stops to get more rental housing and fight for renters in so many ways. The new B.C. government has stepped in to address ‘renovictions’ and rent control. And the rental-only zoning gives us a new tool at the city to create more affordable rental housing. It’s tough for those who couldn’t stick it out in waiting for more rental supply. I believe we’ve turned the corner on the vacancy rate. With the empty homes tax and Airbnb regulations, that supply is bouncing back up. We’ll know more about that with the next CMHC [vacancy rate] numbers in November.

You’ve mentioned this myth about people leaving the city?

Vancouver has had the biggest influx of young people of any city in Canada, according to Census data. But the myth persists that young people are leaving. Our economy wouldn’t be booming as it is unless young people weren’t pouring into the city at a record pace, and that’s what’s happening. We tend to hear the stories, and know the people who are leaving. But we don’t yet know all the people coming into the city who are growing our population and job base. And we don’t celebrate that much, either. Generally, we focus on the loss of people who we wish could stay.

Critics have said that under your administration you gave developers free reign to build expensive housing, which contributed to the affordable housing crisis. What do you say to that?

It’s ridiculous to assert that. The numbers are very clear—we’ve built more rental housing than any city in the country. Last year, over half of the rental housing we approved was for people on low to middle incomes. Ten years ago, rental housing was five per cent of the housing supply being approved at city hall. We broke through 25 per cent a few years ago, and now we’re at two-thirds this year. So we’ve made huge progress on adjusting the mix, and ensuring there’s the right supply of housing for people who live and work in Vancouver. That’s been our goal. It’s taken years to shift that with the development industry and the community. Most other cities make it far easier for developers, when you look at the cost and contributions we require in Vancouver and the relentless push for more affordable and rental in the mix. We’re in a league of our own. Until recently, we’ve been creating half of the rental supply in Metro Vancouver. We need the whole region working in concert to address affordability. Some communities like Burnaby have gone in the wrong direction, and have been losing rental housing at high rates.

Do you regret promising to end “street homelessness” by 2015?

No, I believe that being committed to ending homelessness is a core commitment for the city going forward. We have to work as hard as we can on that, and continue challenging our provincial and federal partners to support that goal. We’ve made progress. The last numbers I saw, to the end of 2017, the city had housed 4,799 people since 2010.

Those were all homeless people, including people in shelters?

Yes, those are people that our homeless outreach staff has gotten into housing, which he haven’t publicized or made a big deal out of. But the street homeless count is below what it was in 2008 by a couple hundred. The overall homeless count, including shelters and people living in cars and couch surfers is up, and dramatically up throughout the province. We’ve seen homelessness skyrocket across B.C. and down the West Coast far beyond what Vancouver’s experienced—because we’ve housed thousands of people. But because we haven’t achieved the ultimate goal of eliminating homelessness, we’re judged against that. But I don’t regret setting an audacious goal and going full tilt to solve it. We’ve done more than any other city in Canada on social and supportive housing. That’s what counts, and this needs to remain a core goal of the city.

Why did you wait until the end of your term to rezone most of the city to allow duplexes? Why didn’t your administration do this 10 years ago when you were first elected?

When we came in in 2008, we worked hard on laneway homes and added the opportunity for about 65,000 laneway homes across the city. That was a first in Canada to create more supply in our low density neighbourhoods. Between secondary suites and laneway homes, we’re seeing over a thousand rental homes created every year. There’s been a progression of actions to add density in all neighbourhoods, and the duplex zoning has been the latest move. It was only four years ago that I had to apologize to Vancouver voters for pushing too hard and moving too fast with housing and development and transportation changes. How times change. A couple years later, and I haven’t done enough or gone fast enough to address the [affordable housing] challenge.

The concern from some city councillors and the public was more about a lack of consultation, not the idea of allowing duplexes…

We just went through several years of extensive consultation on our 10-year housing plan that includes duplexes as a next step. The city has done more engagement and consultation in the past decade than its entire history before that. The neighbourhood plans we did were exhaustive and took years of consultation. The housing plan, greenest city plan, the healthy city strategy were all massive consultations. I hope the next council continues that pattern of ensuring we deeply engage community. We hear every day from young people and families that they need housing, and to stop talking and start approving. That’s the tone that shifted in public hearings starting two years ago. It’s a very different debate now than it was five years ago.

Who are you picking to become the next mayor? I assume you’re sticking with what Vision Vancouver has said—that the party may endorse either independent mayoral candidates Shauna Sylvester, or Kennedy Stewart?

Yeah. I think both Shauna and Kennedy are great candidates and very capable of being mayor. It’s been a spirited [mayoral] race with so many competing, but they’ve definitely stood out.

Once you decide which mayoral candidate you’re voting for, do you plan to endorse that candidate?

No I don’t. It’s interesting. I was speaking with [former New York City mayor] Mike Bloomberg a few weeks ago about that. He said he never comments on his predecessor, or successor as a rule. I thought that’s a handy rule going forward. I might have said something about my predecessor [Sam Sullivan] when campaigning in 2008. But it will be a challenge to keep silent, particularly if things go sideways. I’m hopeful that doesn’t happen.

So what’s next for you? Are you done with politics?

I’m taking a break, doing a sabbatical through the winter and deciding what’s next when I have a clear head after my break. I’m ready for a break from political life.

A break, but will you return to politics? You live in the West End, there’s a federal election next year, Vancouver-Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry may not run again…

Sounds like too soon right now. I’m ready to change gears. I’ve loved being mayor. Politics and government are the most engaging career I could imagine. But it’s been a long haul —14 years of politics [including time as NDP MLA]. So I’m looking forward to a break from it. But I may come back to it some day. I don’t know. It depends on what the world looks like then.

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