Gregor Robertson on the record

Third in a three-part series with mayoral candidates

Mayor Gregor Robertson is seeking a third term at city hall.

To achieve his goal, the Vision Vancouver mayor has to beat a cast of challengers, including the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe and COPE’s Meena Wong.

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Last Thursday, Robertson joined the Courier for one hour in a livestream broadcast at Creekside Community Centre, where he answered questions about his re-election bid.

The full interview can be viewed at vancourier.com. Here is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Courier: Why are you seeking a third term?
Gregor Robertson: Things definitely don’t happen overnight in government, and it’s really important to have a steady experienced team able to work on a body of work for a consistent period of time. We had several one-term mayors prior to myself and the Vision team coming in. Not a lot got accomplished and we ended up having to clean up a lot of messes in our first couple of years. I see real potential in continuing the work for this next term, on affordable housing in particular. We’re just starting to move the needle, getting rental housing built and making progress on homelessness. It’s very difficult dealing with affordability and challenges like homelessness in the Downtown Eastside. But we have to stay very much focused on those and completing the work to get going on the Broadway subway.

I want to go back to 2008 when you first ran for mayor. In several mayoral debates, you mentioned that you wanted to become mayor of this city to improve lives for people in this city. After six years the question is: “Whose lives have been improved under a Vision Vancouver administration? Is it the poor? Is it the middle class? Is it the rich?
The goal is, that across the board it’s a better city for all people, and that we achieve more equity and more opportunity regardless of your income, your background. And that’s really, I think, at the core of Vancouver’s values. It’s being inclusive and creating opportunity for everyone. So we’ve certainly made an enormous difference in the lives of the most vulnerable. There’s still people suffering.

There’s no doubt about that. But we’re closing in on 1,000 people moving from the street into shelters and housing, which is a huge improvement from prior years when it was going the other way. The biggest challenge will continue to be the low and middle income and making sure people on middle incomes can actually live in Vancouver, which is why our focus on rental housing and childcare and transit are critical.

We’ve seen young people who have decent jobs leaving because they can’t afford to stay here. We’ve seen people, when they start families, have to move out because they can’t afford a larger space. So those are the pieces we need to focus on.

You’ve promised to end street homelessness by 2015. But if I understand correctly, the next homeless count is not done until March 2015. So we won’t really know if you’ve ended street homelessness by maybe April or May of next year, when the results are released.
What will be a good indicator this winter is whether there is some capacity in our shelter system and housing units that continue to come available. The last count last March was about 538 people on the street.

We’ve opened a couple of hundred units up since then of social housing. We’ve got over 400 more units opening up in the next two months, and we’ve got shelter capacity opening as well. So on paper, anyway, it looks like enough capacity is opening between now and the end of the year that everyone should have an opportunity to move inside. We won’t know for sure if all that space is taken up. There may still be some people outside. Some may be choosing to do that. But if there are people still outside who have nowhere to go, then we’ve got a problem there.

I know that the media and the public are going to come to you Jan. 1 and say, “So have we ended street homelessness?” And what are you going to tell them?
Ideally we’re saying, yes. We’ve got space in the system now. There’s space in our shelters. Anyone who wants to come inside can. And our outreach teams are doing the good work on the street and making sure that everyone has the opportunity and the connection to get inside. We just have to keep going on this full tilt. My goal is to go flat out to the end of the year, see if we can get everyone in with all the housing and shelter space opening. And at that point, we just continue. There’s no slowing down on this. As long as I’m mayor,

I’m going to keep pressing as hard as I can.

The city held a meeting Oct. 29 to talk to residents concerned about the opening of the former Kettle of Fish as a shelter and the Quality Inn on Howe Street as temporary housing. We had a reporter there and we understand that not all residents are happy about this. So what would you say to those residents?
I’d say to those residents it’s important that we get everyone in off the street. And in that neighbourhood there are homeless people. You see lots of young homeless people on Granville Street in recent months. That’s become a much bigger issue than it was even a couple of years ago — an influx of young people living on Granville and Davie Street again.

We have had shelters open in that neighbourhood over the last six years. We’ve had winter shelters that have been quite successful. We had initial problems the first year close by there, with two shelters that were right across an alley from each other. And we resolved that, closed one and dealt with the challenges there. But since that time, I think we’ve had good success with those shelters. The operator at the Howe Street housing project has had great success at Hastings [at Skeena] in the old hotel there that’s now social housing.

And they’ve worked very well with the neighbourhood. That was a very angry neighbourhood when we tried to open that, and now it’s worked out very well.

Are you confident that all the people who were camped out at the Oppenheimer Park tent city have found shelter or temporary or permanent housing?
There was a ton of work done by outreach workers over the several months that the tent camp was there. Their count was almost 150 people moved from the park into housing and shelter, which is good news for those people. We definitely saw some people move back into their SROs or apartments that they’d been living in previously.

Are you tracking everyone though? Is anybody left on the street?
The tracking is done by B.C. Housing primarily, and the city’s outreach workers complement that. They collaborate to keep track of everyone who’s outside on the street. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but there’s been a lot of progress in better tracking systems and identifying people that do need the support.

The bigger challenge is that there just isn’t enough housing, and we have two big B.C. Housing projects opening a couple of blocks from Oppenheimer Park in the months ahead. And it would have been nice if those had been open months ago as planned, and they would have taken in a lot of the people who were in the park. But those are still coming on stream.

Let’s shift and talk about affordable housing. Your government developed its own program to get rental housing built in Vancouver. It was known as STIR and is now called Rental 100. Out of those programs, some downtown studio apartments are renting for $1,400 per month. A lot of people would say, well, that’s not affordable.
The key piece is to create more rental supply. We’ve had huge constraints on the supply of rental housing, which has put vacancy at basically zero for many years now and driven the cost of the rents up in the process and pushed people out who just couldn’t find a place to rent.

So now we have brand new purpose-built rental housing. Lots of it does come in on the higher end of current rents because they’re brand new buildings. But it creates capacity. We’re one of the few cities that have taken this step to get incentives and rental housing built, and it’s working. A thousand units a year is the pace that we’re on now.

The program’s incentives include waiving thousands of dollars in fees for developers. Some say this program is a windfall for developers. What would you say to that?
I don’t describe it as a windfall. They get enough incentive to actually do the projects instead of doing condo developments, or instead of going and building in other cities. So our goal was to keep it lean. One of the biggest incentives is reducing the parking requirements in these buildings, and we want them close to transit where people won’t actually need to have a car necessarily.

And that means great savings in terms of building parkades. So that’s been a big piece of the incentive that works for everybody and is probably long overdue in Vancouver. The developers still, I think, would rather build condos in most cases. There’s more money to be made at that. But with that incentive, it’s just enough for them to opt for rental, and that creates value for the city. And it makes sure that we have people in middle incomes, can stay and live and work in the city.

Let’s talk about neighbourhoods. The city’s faced numerous lawsuits since you’ve become mayor from residents concerned about changes happening in their neighbourhood, such as the Point Grey bike lane. I can’t recall a government being taken to court as much. So what does that say about the way the city’s being run?
I think it says more about the political agenda of some of these people. Some of these cases are being thrown out of court, and the city is being awarded costs by the judge because they’re nuisance cases effectively. They’re very political. It looks like a political strategy that tangles the city up and makes everything look more controversial. I can’t comment on the contents of some of the cases that are in process right now. But I think we do work out a lot of these issues through very public processes.

But Vision has been criticized a lot by some residents who feel like you’re not consulting properly. They either feel the deal’s being done before it’s brought to residents for feedback, or when they do give feedback, they don’t feel it’s considered genuine. What would you say to those residents?
It’s all about continuing to improve the process. We have done a lot more engagement and consultation. We’ve improved the process in terms of early input from residents. We rely on the community plans that have been built in many different neighbourhoods for the guidelines for rezoning. So there will always be people who don’t want any change, who don’t want more density or rezoning. Who don’t like the look or, you know, the architecture. Who don’t like the impact of a project. And I respect that. People can certainly have that opinion.

When it comes to blaming the process, I think we have to be careful because we had a process in place for many years. Vision has come in and actually added to the process, tried to make it better and improve it. We still have people that are either blaming the process or just don’t like the outcome of the decision, and I respect their input. But as a council, we have to make decisions to deal with the whole city and the bigger challenges is we have to create more housing in certain parts of the city.

Sure, but there are groups such as the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, which has been formed by 25 resident groups. They don’t feel they’ve been listened to, and they want to influence planning and development. So what do you say to groups like that?
There is a lot of politics at work in that and people have different opinions about growth. Quite a few of the, I think, members and associations are not supportive of growth. Or they’re supportive of very little growth. Certainly not enough to deal with the pressure that we’re facing.

The only way to address affordability in Vancouver is to add density and to try and get savings through using city land or rezonings. We don’t really have a lot of choices here. I still believe that most people in Vancouver, the majority of people understand, we have to add more density and more housing, more business opportunities in the city. We try and do that as thoughtfully and carefully as we can, with an open process. And there’s always going to be some disagreement about that.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal. Your critics have said you are spending way too much time on an issue that’s out of your jurisdiction. So what do you say to those critics who say that the city doesn’t really have any power here to stop a pipeline or stop tankers from going up and down the inlet?
We don’t make the decision directly, but our voice is our power. And as the leaders of the city, it’s our responsibility to ensure the voices of Vancouver are heard in Ottawa. There is a federal government run process with the National Energy Board that recently approved the pipeline in the north, the Northern Gateway Enbridge pipeline proposal.

And then they’ve dramatically stripped back the public process for the Kinder Morgan hearings and shut out over half of the voices that were trying to intervene and be part of that hearing process. I am absolutely against the proposal and 340 more tankers every year in our waters. It’s an enormous threat to our economy and our environment. And I don’t see any benefit for Vancouver in this. I just see a ton of risk, and it doesn’t make sense to me.

There has been lots of talk recently about the Vision-led school board turning down a financial contribution from Chevron. What was Chevron looking for? As I understand it, there were no strings attached.
My understanding is that it was a program where if kids and their parents were buying more gas from Chevron, that more dollars would flow to their school and their classroom. And that that would actually be promoted within the classroom and some materials to actually talk about Chevron and oil and energy industry and what it does, that that becomes part of the package.

But there are actually incentives to raise money based on the kids getting their parents to buy gas at Chevron, which is a very direct intervention in our schools.
You’re saying there would be advertising in the classroom?

I don’t know about specific advertising and materials. All I know is that there is a direct connection of the funding to kids and families buying gas at Chevron.

Your push for a subway along the Broadway corridor. For the record, have you met with the province? Have you met with the feds? Who have you met with, and what have they told you? Is the money coming?
I’ve had one-on-one meetings. We’ve had team meetings with groups of mayors and ministers for years. I’m the chair of the Big City Mayors across Canada and meet with ministers in that capacity as well and championing the need for transit in cities across the country too.

And what are they telling you?
The provincial and federal governments have not been moving a lot of infrastructure dollars into cities in recent years. When we have a referendum from the province in a couple of months, we have to be doing everything in our power to make sure that referendum is approved, it passes and we get funding for transit, and we can get started on the Broadway subway and improve buses all over the region as well.

A park was supposed to be built more than 20 years ago on the big chunk of asphalt next to Science World. If elected, can you promise residents it will be built before you complete your next term?
I can’t promise it because of the legal constraints on it. The money that’s tied to the Concord development next door and the [Georgia and Dunsmuir] viaducts question, which also has significant financial commitments related. Until I know exactly what the cost benefit is for the city, I’m not willing to vote yay or nay on that. I think what we are going to see is a decision will be made early in the next term around the viaducts. And that will likely trigger change all around, with the Concord land and with the park next door.

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