Adrienne Tanner is Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
If there is one thing that unites candidates for all office, everywhere, it is their enthusiasm to spend money from other levels of government. We’re seeing it now among those vying for seats on council in the Vancouver civic election.
Whether for transit lines or affordable housing, pronouncements are flying from candidates eager to promote grand expenditures. These sexy, blue-sky projects typically don’t involve the city having to raise taxes – or at least not by much – so they make popular talking points. But how realistic are these commitments?
It depends on the type of project. Vancouver’s housing crisis is the top campaign issue touted by every candidate running this time, and everyone agrees more affordable rental and social housing is a must.
The city, under Vision Vancouver assumed more responsibility for social housing. How successful it was is a matter of dispute, but Vision definitely shifted the old mindset that housing was not a civic file. All levels of government recognize the severity of Vancouver’s housing problems. So chances are good that anyone elected will be able to deliver on some social-housing promises, so long as they can play nice with higher levels of government.
B.C. is currently in a social-housing sweet spot. The provincial New Democrats have already funded 600 temporary modular housing units for homeless people in Vancouver. And the province is receptive to pitches for permanent housing projects as well.
The federal Liberals have also expressed a willingness to pitch in. A $40-billion National Housing Strategy announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau almost a year ago, committed to help cities halve the number of homeless people and build new housing over the next 10 years. Vancouver is in line for a good chunk of that money, although none has actually landed yet.
But while the commitments to social housing appear solid, the breathless announcements from some candidates about transit are not. Almost all the mayoral candidates, save the Non-Partisan Association’s (NPA) Ken Sim, have said they would like to extend the Broadway subway line all the way to the University of British Columbia, in one shot.
Well, yes, who wouldn’t? After all, that is the ultimate plan.
The problem is, funding for the entire line simply isn’t there. Earlier this year, the mayor’s council on regional transportation gained consensus and funding for a regional transportation plan that includes building the line only to Arbutus, well short of campus. Extending it all the way would cost an additional $3-billion, huge money the city doesn’t have. That has not stopped wannabe mayors and councillors from talking about it.
Mayoral candidate Shauna Sylvester says UBC and the Musqueam First Nation (which is one of the owners of the former Department of National Defence lands above Jericho Beach) are willing to contribute, which is probably true. But that much? And asking Ottawa or province for more will not fly with neighbouring municipalities such as North Vancouver, which always feels short-changed in the transit department.
If changes are demanded by Vancouver or Surrey – where some candidates are now wavering on that city’s light-rail project, it could destabilize the entire deal. Kennedy Stewart, another independent mayoral candidate, is also campaigning on his support for the entire line. But he concedes the best a Vancouver mayor can actually do is lobby upper levels of government for more cash to get it built.
Mr. Sim’s reluctance to wax eloquent about the UBC extension probably has more to do with politics than money. The NPA’s traditional West Side support base is twitchy about towers and density that will follow the train.
There is more federal and provincial money set to flow into Vancouver over the next few years than we have seen for some time. This will enable the next council – if its members aren’t complete dolts – to make meaningful headway on important big-ticket projects. But I predict the rail to UBC will not be among them. Nor will the All On Board campaign, which advocates for free transit for children and youth. It’s a great idea supported by Mr. Stewart and the left-of-centre parties COPE, Vision and OneCity. But again, finding the money to make it happen regionwide will take some doing.
It’s best not to get our hopes too high.