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British Columbia Andrew Wilkinson doesn’t understand that renting isn’t just a stage for Vancouverites

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson answers questions during a press conference following the budget speech from the legislative assembly at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Feb. 19, 2019.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

I am quite sure when provincial Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson described for his legislature colleagues what it means to be a renter, he did not set out to insult more than half of Vancouverites who rent. He described renting as a “fun” and “kind of a wacky time of life,” a stage that people go through, “a rite of passage.” I’m sure for Mr. Wilkinson, a Rhodes scholar who rented while he was going through university, a journey which for him culminated in both a medical and law degree, this was entirely true.

Mr. Wilkinson is an intelligent, well-spoken, white man who graduated with all the qualifications guaranteed to launch him to the top of the heap. Just one of his degrees makes you highly employable in professions that pay well above average. Even at today’s inflated housing prices, being a doctor or lawyer is almost certainly a ticket to home ownership.

What is so troubling about Mr. Wilkinson’s remarks is his seeming inability to recognize his own privilege and understand that his experiences are not shared by most people. Judging by some reaction elicited by the remarks, renters certainly felt they reflected a lack of empathy for a large swath of people Mr. Wilkinson seeks to persuade to vote Liberal in the next provincial election.

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This is a man who wants to be premier of B.C., who presumably keeps up on the news. He was a cabinet minister during the #donthave1million protests of 2015, when land values in Vancouver were spiking. Spearheaded by young Vancouverites with decent jobs, they reflected the angst of a generation who grew up dreaming of home ownership and saw their chances soaring out of reach.

He would know that vacancy rates in some of the province’s largest cities including Vancouver and Surrey still hover at about 1 per cent, putting renters at a huge disadvantage. Rents continue to climb: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports that average apartment rent in Metro Vancouver rose by 6.2 per cent last year.

He would have heard about renovictions, a term for the process of renovating older apartment buildings to eject long-time tenants whose rents have been kept down by rent regulation. If he followed the last civic election, he would have noted Vancouver’s ruling party, Vision Vancouver, was wiped out in large part because it was perceived as having failed to adequately address the city’s affordability woes. In neighbouring Burnaby, former mayor Derek Corrigan was ousted in part for his refusal to rein in the demolition of old, affordable apartment buildings to make way for condominiums or new rental buildings charging much higher rents.

He would watch as Vancouver’s new city council is taking some steps to address the plight of renters, who decades ago were largely ignored by councils that pandered almost exclusively to property tax-paying homeowners. Since October, Vancouver and New Westminster have both tightened the rules around renovictions: In Vancouver, renters pushed out during renovations must now be offered their old suites back at the same rents they were paying before.

This is all happening because for most people in Vancouver, being a renter is not a phase. It is the only way they can afford to live and work in the city they love.

When pressed, Mr. Wilkinson grudgingly apologized to those who might have taken his remarks the wrong way. He told the CBC’s Stephen Quinn, “Now, if people have misunderstood those remarks as talking about the fate of people throughout our society – I’m sorry. That’s the kind of thing that leads to misunderstandings.” To my ear, it was the kind of apology that blames the listener for misunderstanding – not much of an apology at all.

Not all successful politicians have the common touch. Gordon Campbell was considered somewhat aloof, yet was elected three times as mayor of Vancouver and another three times as premier of B.C. Certainly, he lacked the populist appeal of his successors, Christy Clark and John Horgan. But being a second-rate baby-hugger is completely different from implying a good chunk of the population is stuck in a phase that they really ought to leave behind. Renters are here to stay, and the best Mr. Wilkinson can hope for is that they have short memories.

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Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

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