Full text of Mayor Gregor’s “Housing Affordability” speech to Urban Land Institute (June 17, 2015)

Mayor Robertson in Council ChambersWhen a public official makes a private speech in an official capacity, we believe the public has a right to know what that official said, while being paid by the public dime.

On June 17, 2015, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson gave the key-note address to the Urban Land Institute on the topic of housing affordability. Below is the text of his speech.

Closely affiliated with the development industry — and some might say it is also a lobbying body —  the ULI describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit research and education organization connected to nearly 30,000 members worldwide,” and ULI British Columbia members include “developers, public officials, property owners, investors, financial institutions, architects, engineers, planners, brokers,appraisers, lawyers, accountants, academics and students.”

Before, during and after the speech, the Mayor’s Office was actively tweeting out sound bites, summarized later by his office in this Storify complilation:

https://storify.com/VanMayorsOffice/mayor-robertson-s-keynote-on

The event was sponsored by a prominent developer in the region, Bosa Properties. It cost $1,250 for a table of 10, and $155 for non-members.

Since housing affordability is one of the top civic issues of the decade, and has recently received heightened public attention thanks to the #donthave1million campaign by Vancouverites for Affordable Housing, we wondered what he really was saying, claiming, and promising.

CityHallWatch was interested in getting beyond the sound bites. Was this a non-partisan policy speech of an elected mayor representing the public interest? Or was it a political sales pitch by a mayor to the very constituency that had funded the largest share of his political party’s election campaigns in 2008, 2011, and 2014 — which totaled about $6 million, and an unreported amount outside of election years?  So shortly after he finished his speech, CityHallWatch tweeted, then wrote an e-mail, to the mayor and his office, asking for the full text of his speech. We never received a reply directly. But two days later, noticed that the text had quietly been posted online on Scribd. That was good. In fact, we also asked by Twitter if the mayor would declare a policy of making available to the public ALL of his speeches to ALL audiences from now on. After all, he is supposed to be working for the public, first and foremost. We have not yet received a reply.

But here, for the record, is the text of his speech, as posted on Scribd. What’s there? What’s missing? What is he taking credit for? Who is he blaming? You be the judge. There is lots of talk about providing no supply. Nothing, really, about global money and demand, and nothing about the lack of data on the housing market. 

Mayor Gregor Robertson
to the Urban Land Institute
June 17, 2015
Vancouver, BC
Check against delivery

It’s a pleasure to join you again. Thank you to Jennifer for that warm welcome

I’d like to first start by recognizing members of City Council and our City staff team here today….

And most of all, thank you to the Urban Land Institute for the invitation to speak with you today

The issues that ULI raises are so important during a time when our city and region are facing some big challenges, and some exciting opportunities. And there’s no shortage of either of them in Vancouver

First, the opportunities:

Our city is in a position of strength at a time when other governments are stuck in gridlock or uncertainty

Our economy is projected to be the strongest in Canada next year. The Conference Board of Canada says we’re bucking the national trend. We’re seeing record levels of new office space being built downtown, and securing long-term leases that represent a vote of confidence in the health of our city.

Three of Canada’s top tech start-ups potentially valued at $1 billion or more are in Vancouver: hootsuite, slack, and vision critical

We’re leading on the environment as the world turns to Paris and COP21 this December. Climate pollution is dropping in Vancouver, we’ve set the bold goal of shifting to 100% renewable energy, and now 50% of all trips in Vancouver are done by bike, on foot or by transit – 5 years ahead of schedule

We’re embracing the potential for visionary changes to our city, with a decision on the viaducts coming this fall, which could potentially open up public land to connect Chinatown with False Creek

And we’re doubling down on a culture of vibrancy, investing in festivals and culture, injecting energy into our street life and showcasing our diversity in neighbourhoods throughout Vancouver

These are opportunities that other cities can only dream of . and not a day goes by I don’t recognize how fortunate I am to serve the people of Vancouver at a time like this But we have our challenges, for sure

Like transportation, where we’ll soon hear the results of a plebiscite that I hope will unlock our region’s transit future, or could set us backwards. And I want to be clear that one way or another, a Broadway Subway WILL get built – and I want to recognize ULI’s leadership in bringing your expertise and insight towards the Broadway Corridor, and making a clear, coherent case for why a Subway makes sense.

[CHW note: Just to be clear, the plebiscite question did NOT include mention of a subway. Only “rapid transit.”]

We’ve made progress toward our goal of ending street homelessness . we’re not there yet, but we’re determined as ever to keep helping our most vulnerable

but there’s another big challenge for our city, one that cuts to the heart of the kind of community we want to be. And it’s the issue I want to talk about today: affordability.

If you look only at the aggregate numbers, our real estate situation is great. Plenty of shovels in the ground, plenty of jobs in construction, the value of people’s homes steadily increasing… it all looks rosy.

But you don’t have to look too closely to see the cracks . and the biggest one is affordability.

Back when I was a young North Vancouver boy, Kitsilano was still a working-class Greek neighbourhood.

Good luck finding a home in Kits that a working-class family could afford today.

That’s the shadow side of our long real estate boom. We’re pricing too many people out of living in our city, and creating a generational divide we cannot allow to continue

And when home ownership is the way that the middle class has of building wealth and financial security, I don’t have to tell you what that means for income inequality.

Now, this didn’t just happen overnight. Affordability in Vancouver has been a challenge for a long time.

And it’s easy to mistake a long-standing problem for an intractable one. To say this is just the market at work, for better and for worse.

Well, I don’t buy that.

After all, we shape the market forces at work in our cities in countless direct and indirect ways. At City Hall, with zoning, with neighbourhood planning, with our infrastructure choices, and at the senior levels of government, with our spending priorities and allocations, our tax incentives and regulations

A city where only the well-off can afford to live is not the Vancouver we want to build.

So I reject the idea that our lack of affordability is some gravitational constant of the marketplace. It may be a complex, pressing public policy issue, but we’re not powerless.

and together, we’re taking some bold steps to address it.

If there is one message I want to convey, it is this: City Hall is doing everything we can to get the housing built that meets the needs of our residents . and we will keep pursuing every option or idea to do so.

Put yourself in the shoes of a young professional, a few years out of university, currently renting in a basement suite, but hoping to move closer to downtown. And while she’s not expecting an ocean view, she’d love to find a decent place to rent that wasn’t built before the second world war.

We’re meeting that need. Our Rental 100 program has delivered almost 4,000 new units of rental homes: on Broadway, Cambie, Main Street, on Granville. More than half of all new rental being built in Metro Vancouver is taking place right here, in Vancouver. And at a time when our vacancy rate is just 0.5%, it’s absolutely necessary.

Or think about a young family a few years further along. They have two kids, expecting a third, and they need to move out of their condo tower into a bigger house, maybe in a neighbourhood like Douglas Park or Cedar Cottage.

But the amount of money they’d have to come up with to make the leap to a single-family house is a non-starter. And they start to wonder if they have to move to the suburbs or further.

We’re meeting that need: we’re upping our requirements for family housing, requiring more 3 bedrooms in rezonings, and exploring a Family Housing Rezoning Policy that would deliver more townhouses and duplexes near parks and schools, in single family areas.

We have staff looking at a pilot program for entry-level home ownership, where the City helps drive affordability for first-time buyers who live and work in Vancouver, making below a certain income.

And our new neighbourhood plans for places like Cambie Corridor and Marpole are shifting new development towards townhouses and duplexes. Ground-oriented housing for people who want to move out of their single family home but don’t want the tower.

All of these scenarios reflect the ways our housing market challenges different people, people of all ages and incomes, and yet they are linked. Which is why it is important to recognize that it is a mistake to pit one against the other.

There’s nothing entitled about wanting to stay in the city you grew up in, no matter how old or how much money you have.

I’ve only touched on some of the initiatives we’ve launched. There are many others . from leveraging city land through our Affordable Housing Agency to spur affordable housing developments, to the rent bank that’s helping to keep people from losing their homes when they’re in danger of missing a payment.

But there is only so much that Vancouver can do on its own. Partnerships are crucial at all levels of government. And supply alone will not solve our affordability challenges.

Now, I know that no big-city mayor has ever uttered the words “The province is giving us everything we need and more.”

And I’m not going to be the first. Far from it.

But I want to signal that while we’ve had a very productive relationship with the provincial government, our housing market has changed . and we need a new conversation that explores the next set of tools to create a fairer, more level playing field in the housing market. One that treats housing as first and foremost for homes, not as an investment commodity.

Let’s look at tools to discourage speculation on housing, particularly in pre-sales, which impact first-time buyers.

We’re seeing strong rises in land values year over year. When someone sells at the top end of the market, having them pay a bit more in property transfer tax is a fair way to generate funds that could help those who are struggling.

I was pleased to see the Premier say she recognizes the problem of affordability in Metro Vancouver, and that her government is studying options. Baby boomers and many people in my generation had the good fortune to enter the housing market at the beginning of a long, steady climb in housing prices.

All governments now have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation can share in the benefits of our successful economy, and have the opportunity to live and thrive right here in B.C.

The biggest gap we face, though, is with the federal government.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen Ottawa stepping back further and further from its responsibilities as a partner in housing.

Nation-wide, we’ve lost 850,000 affordable units in the last decade alone. That’s akin to a major city disappearing.

In Vancouver, we’re seeing Mr. Harper’s government liquidating their holdings in the Jericho lands and the RCMP lands – some of the most desirable real estate in the country.

I think it’s short-sighted to take these out of public hands.

Let’s not turn these public assets into an enclave for the wealthy. As Mayor, I’m committed to fighting for a mix of housing, with high standards for affordability and for family-friendly homes. Let’s raise the bar once more.

This is public land; surely there should be a stronger requirement for public benefit.

As the chair of the big-city mayors’ caucus, I’ve joined my counterparts from across the country to call on Prime Minister Harper to come back to the table . and for the other parties to commit to doing so

This is a national issue. Everything I said about the importance of housing to Vancouver’s economy holds true for the nation.

And in an election year, we’ll be holding every party and every leader to account, because our cities can’t withstand another four years of neglect. The path to a majority government in October runs through our cities.

And so far, I’ve been pleased that both the NDP’s Tom Mulcair and the Liberal’s Justin Trudeau have said they intend to run on bold urban agendas . with housing and transit front and centre

And I’m asking all of you today that if you care about your city, if you share the belief that our housing situation requires action from all levels of government, then you need to speak up as we head in to this election

Because the cost of housing isn’t a force of nature. It’s the result of choices that are made at city halls, in provincial legislatures and on Parliament Hill. It’s the result of business decisions and government decisions.

And the choice of whether to act, whether to change those decisions, is in our hands.

Make no mistake, that requires some courage. In Vancouver, when it comes to housing, all of the easy decisions have been made.

Acknowledging that unaffordable housing isn’t inevitable, that we can make Vancouver more affordable if we so choose . that means taking responsibility. All of us.

But let’s take that responsibility. Because that’s the hallmark of a mature, successful city . a city that aspires to global leadership: that we take on big challenges, big ideas and big responsibilities.

And there is no bigger challenge or responsibility that we face in our city than affordable housing

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today, and I look forward to your questions

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