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Candidates offer unsatisfactory responses to Vancouver housing issues

More than 50 per cent of detached properties in the City of Vancouver were assessed at $1-million or greater on July 1, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In a city where anxiety about affordable housing and homelessness runs higher than for any other issue, voters are caught between a muted response from one major party and a controversial status quo from the other.

And COPE's Meena Wong, the candidate who has been most vocal about housing issues, hasn't yet nailed down some problematic details.

The Non-Partisan Association's Kirk LaPointe, who unveiled his party's platform Tuesday as advance voting started, has largely avoided specifics on those two key issues as he challenges Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson for his job.

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Instead, he focused during his announcement on creating affordability by cutting city taxes and attracting higher-paying jobs to the city.

The Vision Vancouver council has "become addicted to development charges that raise the cost of new development projects," Mr. LaPointe said. "Imagine, driving up housing costs while they talk about affordable housing."

When it comes to specific solutions, he has in the past talked largely about solving affordability and homelessness problems by restarting what he calls a genuine conversation with voters.

Pressed for a more definitive final message on those issues Tuesday, he told reporters to read the party's platform and declined to elaborate.

Mr. Robertson, meanwhile, has promised to keep doing mostly more of what he's been doing the past three years, although with some refinements.

Vision has been giving developers density bonuses in return for building apartments that are guaranteed as rentals but at market rates, as well as pouring city money from development fees into subsidized-housing projects.

Councillor Raymond Louie says Vision is looking at ways to enforce lower rental rates in agreements with developers as it encourages them to build another 4,000 units in the next four years.

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But Vision's efforts of the past two terms have been vilified by many because of the low number of apartments created that rent for below-market rates and the tradeoffs it has made with developers.

And COPE's Ms. Wong has outlined a comprehensive housing strategy that calls for extremely aggressive action.

Included in the 98-page proposal and her explanations of it: $80-million a year on spending for new subsidized housing; a registry that would keep tabs on vacant properties and charge owners an extra fee for their unoccupied premises; a new regime for city permits where landlords would only get permission to renovate their apartments if they promised to rent them back to the original tenants at the same price.

Ms. Wong, pressed for answers at a Globe editorial board meeting on how these ambitious and complicated programs would work, acknowledged that some would be complicated, such as enforcement of the vacancy tax.

She also pointed to many other cities, especially Hong Kong, as examples of how local governments can take strong action, and said that London has successfully imposed a vacancy tax.

In fact, London doesn't have its own vacancy tax, but the British government did authorize local councils in 2013 to levy a 50-per-cent tax surcharge on houses that have been empty more than two years, which several councils, in London and elsewhere, have done.

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Earlier this year, it also announced a tax surcharge on properties worth more than £500,000 (About $910,000 Canadian) that are owned by corporations.

In Vancouver, housing costs, along with a fear that offshore investors are outbidding locals for real estate, have been a preoccupation in the city since the early 1990s.

Homelessness became a concern in the early 2000s, after changes to housing and welfare policy under the then-new B.C. Liberal government produced a massive spike in the numbers of people sleeping outside or in shelters.

But those two issues have soared to new heights in public consciousness the past couple of years, as Vision's promises to tackle those issues collided with skyrocketing house prices on the west side, complaints that the city was being bought up by foreign investors who were leaving their properties empty, and stubbornly intractable homelessness numbers.

Mr. Roberton has promised to continue fighting hard to end homelessness and create a new supply of rental and family housing.

Mr. LaPointe has focused, instead, on attacking the mayor's party for the way it has rewarded developers, approved projects in the face of community objections and failed to meet its promises of ending street homelessness or building truly affordable housing.

Frances Bula is a freelance writer.

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About the Authors
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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