INTERVIEW | Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver’s Randy Helten
Sean Antrim, November 13, 2011
The Mainlander’s Sean Antrim sat down with their Mayoral candidate Randy Helten of Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) to talk about affordability, accountability, the arts, and Vancouver’s future. It is a tall order for a political party that does not receive corporate and developer donations to get candidates elected. NSV has been fighting an up-hill battle.
Sean Antrim: What amount of development do we need in Vancouver right now? And the reason that I’m asking this question is because many people, and the mainstream press, have criticized Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver as being NIMBY-based. A lot of journalists have been around for a while, and in the 1990s with Gordon Campbell, NIMBY-ism was quite a problem.
Randy Helten: To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows the answer. The people who know the answer are concealing the answer. Because the City has removed from public access numbers that show the current zoning capacity, it used to be up and available, but it’s gone now. My understanding is that Professor Patrick Condon at UBC has done some studies, and he’s saying that for construction within the current zoning, the capacity for additional population density is enough for decades into the future. Construction could happen without any rezoning, to fill all of the incoming population.
The City has these numbers, and in January of this year [COPE Councilor] Ellen Woodsworth put forward a motion that was passed, according to which the planning department was supposed to release the numbers of zoning capacity to council some time in February. It’s off the map. Despite repeated requests there’s been no response out of the planning department. So no one knows the answer publicly. The information is concealed. My suspicion is that for example if you take the West End, I think in the current zoning, without rezoning, we could accommodate another 5000 people or so, just a sense, because I know the areas that are zoned right now for six stories that are currently two stories. If you take the average of all that and you look at a long term thirty year plan or a hundred year plan and look at the land area in the West End and the long term population goals and have steady growth, not too extreme, not too rapid, the West End could accommodate several thousand more people.
Sean Antrim: That’s the way most cities do rezoning – blanket rezoning – which is doing an entire neighbourhood at a time. Why do you think we have so many spot rezonings in Vancouver?
Randy Helten: My understanding of the dynamics is that a spot rezoning allows exceptions to happen within the existing zoning. In many cases it offers huge returns to the owner of those specific spots. If you go to the old adage “follow the money” and look at who’s making campaign contributions to our elected officials, it makes sense. They’re making the campaign contributions, the officials get into power, and they have control over land use decisions. They’re supposed to regulate the land on behalf of the entire public and balance all the interests of all of the stakeholders. Both Vision and the NPA as organizations are incapable of avoiding undue influence from that private money, and that’s what we’re seeing as the results of their decisions.
Sean Antrim: Taking into consideration that one of the reasons Vancouver is so expensive is that developers are limiting supply, which is one argument why prices are so high, what are you going to do make Vancouver an affordable place to live?
Randy Helten: NSV [Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver] has developed points and policies that answer that question, so it’s hard to answer briefly. But the simplest answer is to take corporate influence of vested interests, who will profit from land use decisions, out of the political equation, and let our democratic system function the way it should. A final outcome with proper information in the public domain about the cost of land, the cost of development and the potential to construct without rezoning, will be more reasonable land prices, and more affordable housing. My answer is more based on principle and philosophy. When you get into the details, the day-to-day decisions that happen in committee meetings and at public hearings in City Hall would reflect that kind of philosophy based on a real democracy that is working. Where the officials are balancing all of the influence properly and with wisdom. Right now they are unable to do that.
For example, council just adopted a policy that allows houses to be demolished before the developer gets a development application. This means that some of the older houses in the city, which could still serve as dwelling for many decades if restored, and which could preserve heritage, the owners of the properties are being allowed to develop them before they’ve been reviewed and other options are examined. From our analysis at NSV, this was just opened up a few months ago. If Vision Vancouver had not done that, owners of existing houses would have to go through a bit more process before they could demolish a house. The older houses usually have lower rents. By demolishing older houses and building something brand new, the new houses are going to be selling at the top price the market can bear. A lot of these things go against housing affordability. That’s just one example.
Sean Antrim: Much of the affordable housing in Vancouver is social housing. That’s how we’ve tackled the affordability problem in the past. Only right before the Olympics, with the Olympic Village did we have the first turn away from social housing. What do you think about building social housing?
Randy Helten: This gets into creative financing and creative policy. If the system is not biased in favour of profits of the campaign contributors I think you’d get better answers. I understand that the City is Vancouver’s largest landowner. There’s a lot of land there. If some of that land was dedicated to affordable housing, not in the STIR definition of what affordability is, but in the common sense view of it being 30% or less of your income, and if the land were made available by the City on a long-term lease, that would take out a huge cost of the housing. The construction cost could in a large part be paid for through creative financing, including from the DCLs [Developmental Cost Levies] from other projects. The money from other sources through development could actually pay for the construction. You could end up with housing that is actually affordable. It could be built without profit as an investment, because it would be the City owning it. That’s one of many ways that affordable housing could be built.
Sean Antrim: COPE has proposed expanding the Vancouver Public Housing Authority, which basically means the City becoming a land developer which builds affordable housing. Is that something that you would be on side with?
Randy Helten: We need to have a much closer look at the COPE policy. I see that COPE has almost entirely adopted the Carnegie Community Action Project’s housing policy. We’ve just been very busy, but before the election I would like to have a look at that, and maybe we’ll endorse it too.
One thing about NSV is that we are not career politicians, and we are not partisan, and we’re not depending on large campaign contributions from those who will profit from council decisions. I think we may have made history by recommending that voters vote for people from other parties. We’re looking at the individuals and their track records and not at which party they belong to. The only problem with COPE is that they’ve made deal which has guaranteed that they’re going to be ineffective on council. They can raise the issues, but if they succeed, just like in the last three years when it comes down to voting its absolute power against everybody else.
Sean Antrim: What do you think about Vancouver as a “World Class City”? Is that a priority?
Randy Helten: As with George Orwell’s double speak, EcoDensity and Greenest City in the World, these can be interpreted in so many ways, as with the word “affordable”. It’s very dangerous to use the words your highly paid spin masters have given you to try to sway public opinion.
But Vancouver does have the potential to be world class in many ways. It has stunning natural beauty. Its location on the Pacific facing Asia and access point to North America, for business and for recreation and for international exchanges of culture, the fact that we have roughly the same proportion of ethnic representation as the whole world, makes it a fascinating city. The fact that we’re in a democratic, modern country, with high technology and peace, freedom of speech, although it’s being eroded by Vision Vancouver, gives us huge potential. What’s motivating me and others to act right now is especially is that it is probably the most critical election in our generation. The stuff that’s been put forth over the past couple of years will be implemented.
Sean Antrim: You’re talking about the Regional Growth Strategy?
Randy Helten: Yes, and the transit plan and the street and structures by-law. I think the letter of that by-law, if it was enforced under future regime, could put sever constraints on the freedom of speech.
Sean Antrim: There would certainly be no Occupy Vancouver.
Randy Helten: If people have to apply and pay a fee and it could be rejected without clear criteria or accountability over who’s making the decision, just think about the implications. Whoever’s in majority on council could impose some very tough controls on public freedom, under the current by-law.
So as a world class city, we have been given many gifts that make that possible, and there are also many dangers to that status.
Sean Antrim: Many of the programs proposed right now are to decrease construction costs. I’ve asked other candidates whether or not they would be interested in decreasing land costs. This would hurt the equity of a lot of landowners. Is that something you’d be willing to do? Are land prices too high in Vancouver, and they do have to go down?
Randy Helten: I think land prices are absolutely too high. This is a very sensitive topic, because it relates to people’s investments. It also relates to speculation, both from our own region, and Canada, and North America, and the World. I believe that Sandy Garossino is on to something when she talks about the role of speculation influencing land prices in Vancouver. We really think that good ideas can come from anywhere regardless of which party. Our City deserves to have a council that will listen to those ideas and not make decisions based on who’s paying their campaign costs.
We’ve found that over the last few years that there’s been an increase of control in the Mayor’s Office. Contract decisions are being made there without any public accountability. Is there competitive bidding being done? Are friends getting deals? There’s been an increase in concentration of the communications department. Even the Freedom of Information manager quit. A lot of this stuff that relates to decision making and could affect land prices and land policy is not getting out there. This touches to one of my core philosophies, that if you have a system of government that is accountable and transparent, you get the best result for everyone. But when you go from a system has systemic dysfunction like we have in the City of Vancouver and you want to make the transition to a transparent and accountable system, there could be some pain in the process. So it’s important to have a healthy transition phase. It has to be discussed carefully. Ultimately the good honest facts need to get out, but there does have to be a transition phase.
Sean Antrim: How should we be funding the arts in Vancouver? The BC Liberals are cutting the arts at the provincial level. The Conservative government is cutting the arts at the federal level. They’re downloading responsibilities on to the City. Do we fund the arts in Vancouver or do you put your foot down, and make it a political issue for the province?
Randy Helton: The arts, whether it’s performance or visual art, or music, is one of the highest forms of human existence. If all the other needs, such as housing, are taken care of, when everything else is done the highest aspiration is to be creative and express that.
I’m not an expert on all the legislation and jurisdiction, but I think the City could do a lot to encourage the arts. The key thing is offering space for the arts. A lot of what I say is based on my own direct experience over the last two years, on the ground. For example, St. John’s Church, is a very controversial development and has now been demolished under the STIR program. That building itself, even though it wasn’t recognized officially by the experts as a heritage site, was still a very precious building. It was designed as a church, so the worship area was acoustically quite nice. It had a really wonderful performance area. There were a lot of meeting rooms in it. It’s about 25,000 sq ft. The building itself was only 30 years old, and we saw it come down piece by piece. It was a very solid building. That space could have been refurbished and used as an art space. The cost of that whole property was just over three million dollars.
It think the City could somehow use creative financing and their influence on the large players to, when they end up on the market, ensure that those places don’t get torn down, but actually continue serving the public. It would have been really cool to have something like the East Vancouver Cultural Centre. The West End could use something like that. The City could be really creative and find spaces for the arts.
Sean Antrim: Why should people vote for Randy Helten on November 19th?
Randy Helten: Because I have the potential to turn this City around at the fork in the road in our society. It’s the most important election in our generation. I’m not a career politician.
Sean Antrim: You will be if you get elected!
Randy Helten: If I get elected, my intention would be to stay for one term, to get in there and get Vancouver and our society back on a better track. To change the culture at City Hall, and make it more transparent and accountable.
If we had the majority, and our colleagues working on council, I believe we could change things. Housing prices would become more affordable. We could solve the homelessness problem without partisan bickering. We would accept ideas from wherever they come from, and people would have more trust at City Hall. I also believe there would be much less time wasted and sacrificed by all of the stakeholders in our society. The developers would know the rules of the game, and they wouldn’t have to jump through hoops and make donations or lie to try to influence those who make decisions. Everybody would know the way things work, and accurate information would be out there. I think we could make this City work a lot better.