There’s no question that the City of Vancouver’s civic election will pivot on two factors: affordability and accessibility.
People need affordable places to live. And if they can’t afford to live in Vancouver, they must be able to get in and out of the city. In his work on skyrocketing housing costs, ‘Duke of Data’ Andy Yan has demonstrated that wages have not kept pace.
That’s why the discussion of who will enter council chambers in the fall — and who will lead as mayor — is so important.
Will they be people who look at the best practices of infill housing and the missing middle? Will they be people who will separate the important role of city manager from political staff? Will they look at the background of the staff, and direct their activity and actions on the basis of the strength of their experience and knowledge base?
Over the past ten years, the City of Vancouver has seen a pivotal change — not just with the housing situation, but in how city hall is managed.
Vancouver experienced great success with their city manager model, where the position provided a constant hand on the wheel at city hall, despite political changes. This has meant that policy previously approved by other councils could be directed and implemented.
The current mayor and council changed that. City Manager Judy Rogers was abruptly fired, and Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver councillors brought in their own hired guns. While both of their subsequent hires are seasoned performers, neither of them had the experience of working in nor understanding city hall, the way a steady line of predecessors did, like Fritz Bowers and Ken Dobell (through Engineering), as well as Rogers herself (through the Equal Employment Opportunities Office). Previous city managers innately understood the departments, their functions, and even knew most of the staff by name. That changed with the Vision dominance of council.
The upshot? The City of Vancouver now functions like any other American city. The City Manager is tied to the political well-being of the mayor and party in power, and will change each election.
Another change — informed staff were also no longer allowed to speak to the media on issues with which they had some expertise (or perhaps more accurately, great expertise), with the current council developing their very own media centre and hiring quite a lot of communications staff .
In 2017, Global News reported that since the current council came into office, “...thirty-three communications workers have been hired, including 12 managers and coordinators, and seven public engagement officers. Twenty-one of them are costing the taxpayers $2.3 million.” There was, at the time, an additional 12 temporary communications staff, but their salaries were not available.
There’s no question that times have changed, media has changed, and thus there is a need for communications staff. But in the last ten years, Vancouverites have largely heard from councillors or media handlers, and direct links between the public and the city staff has been constrained.
Meanwhile, developers are now talking about how Development Cost Levies (DCLs) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) should be cut so that more housing can be built more cheaply. They miss the point — these two charges provide items such as engineering infrastructure, park space, libraries, social and non-profit housing, childcare facilities and other public amenities. And there is no voice from City of Vancouver experienced staff to outline why these charges are so important.
Coriolis Consulting has produced a detailed report on CACs, pointing out that these charges are not the cause of rising house prices, but “have paid for amenities that otherwise would have been funded by property taxes, and in some cases have created affordable housing units.”
Those are the type of issues that need to be addressed by City staff and resolved. And for a new Mayor and Council to address affordability and accessibility head on, they need to take the muzzle off.
It will also be important for the new incoming leadership to manage from within, find out how city policies have worked and shaped the city, and learn from what has worked well.
The City of Vancouver had previously been perceived as a place of innovation in terms of policy and implementation of best practices for development, with a strong and informed staff. It’s time to bring them back.