Advance voting for Vancouver’s 2014 Civic Election is now open. If you didn’t know about the election, you are probably not alone. If my newsfeed is any indication, Vancouverites know way more about Toronto’s mayoral candidates and recent election than our own. This is not a new phenomenon. In Vancouver’s last civic election, voter turnout was abysmally low at 34.6%.[i] That is even worse than the turnout for our last provincial and federal elections at 58%[ii] and 61.1%[iii] respectively.
I suspect one of the reasons for civic election apathy is the view that City Council doesn’t have a lot of power over the issues that Vancouverites care about. Or maybe it’s because our candidates have never appeared on Jimmy Kimmel. Either way, while it is true that city powers are limited and city funds are lower than other levels of government, City Council is capable of making a significant contribution to issues such as affordable housing, poverty reduction and ending violence against women. In my view, these issues are important enough to warrant a short trip to one of the 120 voting locations across Vancouver.
To dispel the myth that city politics don’t matter and to inspire you all to vote, I thought I’d do your homework for you and highlight four issues you should care about in this civic election. The rankings that follow are my opinion only, based on my review of the parties’ platforms. My only interest in this election is as a concerned citizen.
Issue #1: Affordable Housing
By all accounts, the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver is a serious problem. The Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation (“CMHC”) defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs less than 30% of a household’s income. CMHC statistics from 2006 estimate that 43% of tenants in Vancouver spend more than 30% of their total income on rent. Even more worrying is the fact that 22% of tenants in Vancouver spend more than 50% of their total income on rent, putting them at imminent risk of homelessness.[iv]
For many low income tenants, including tenants on income assistance, subsidized housing is the only way they can afford safe and secure housing. However, in June 2006, it was estimated that 11,000 people were on waiting lists for subsidized housing across BC. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not uncommon for people to wait more than three years.[v]
What about home ownership? Well, for most of us, that is out of the question. An urban planning think tank says Metro Vancouver has the second-highest housing prices in the world when compared to local incomes. The average house price in Metro Vancouver is $630,300. This would require 80% of the average household income to service the mortgage.[vi]
So what do the parties have to say about this serious problem?
Best Position: One City
One City’s candidate, RJ Aquino, is calling for a 20 Over 5 housing policy to combat the out-of-control cost of living in Vancouver. This policy would require 20% of living spaces in all new developments over 5 units across the city to be reserved for low and middle income people. This policy would bring at least 20% of new living spaces under the affordable housing threshold of no more than 30% of household income.
One City also proposes to curb rampant speculation in Vancouver with a Flipping Levy that would tax speculative profit when properties are bought and then sold in a short period of time. The revenue generated by the Flipping Levy would be transferred to the Vancouver Housing Authority to create new living spaces for low and middle income people.
One City also tackles the problem of “renovictions” where landlords use renovations as a means to displace existing tenants and charge a higher rental rate. One City proposes that existing tenants be given a right to return to the rental unit after renovations are complete.
Finally, One City advocates for the city to actively enforce the Building Maintenance and Safety By-law to protect renters from poorly maintained buildings, especially Single Room Occupancy (“SRO”) hotels that are being severely neglected.[vii]
Runner Up: COPE
In my view, the second best affordable housing platform comes from COPE. COPE makes concrete promises in terms of replenishing the affordable housing stock. COPE proposes to build 800 units of city-run social housing per year, including 400 units inside the Downtown Eastside to replace SROs. COPE also proposes to create a Municipal Rent Control By-law to bring down rents across Vancouver.[viii]
Issue #2: Poverty Reduction
If you read my earlier post about welfare rates, you will already know that BC is the worst province in Canada when it comes to major measures of poverty. BC has an overall provincial poverty rate of 15.6%, the highest rate in Canada. Our child poverty rate is 18.6%. We have had the worst child poverty rate for 10 of the last 11 years. We also have the most unequal distribution of income among rich and poor families with children and a shocking rate of poverty for children living in single mother-led families at 49.8%.[ix] Our provincial government may be refusing to deal with this serious issue, but that doesn’t mean our municipal government has to.
Here is what the parties have to say about poverty reduction.
Best Position: Vision
In this election, Vision’s platform focusses less on promises for the future and more on achievements from the last six years. The implication, I suppose, is that if they are elected, we can expect more of the same.
In terms of poverty reduction, Vision has contributed a fair amount over the last six years. They created the Vancouver Rent Bank which provides short-term loans to low-income renters at risk of being evicted. They expanded Vancouver’s Homeless Outreach Team to be city-wide, providing more services to vulnerable residents and connecting them to housing. They secured funding for 1,500 new units of low-income affordable housing, with 600 units opening in 2014. And by opening new winter low-barrier shelters, they’ve helped almost 500 people move from shelters into permanent housing since 2009.
If elected, Vision will invest $400,000 a year to directly reduce child hunger by doubling the Vancouver School Board’s Breakfast Program to a reach of 1,300 kids per day.[x] Not bad.
Runner Up: Green
The Green Party proposes to tackle the root causes of poverty and homelessness with a comprehensive poverty reduction policy. As part of this policy, the Green Party proposes to expand partnerships with VanCity, the Vancouver Foundation and other institutions to increase year-round social enterprise jobs for those with employment barriers. The Green Party would also strongly advocate with senior governments to increase funding to build new social and supportive housing, increase addiction treatment, health and mental health programs for the homeless and hard-to-house and increase welfare and social assistance rates.
The Green Party also proposes that Vancouver adopt a Living Wage policy requiring all companies contracted or subcontracted to provide services on city property to pay their employees a living wage.[xi]
Issue # 3: Violence Against Women
None of the parties explicitly include violence against women as a heading for platform promises. This is disappointing considering that one half of all Canadian women will experience at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.[xii] Nonetheless, it is an area I care deeply about and one often overlooked in politics. So, I scoured each party’s platform to find any mention of policies related to addressing violence against women. There wasn’t much, but this is what I came up with.
Best Position: COPE
COPE is the only party in this civic election to explicitly discuss violence against women. This is surprising, especially in light of current events. COPE proposes the reallocation of police resources to ensure full and proper investigation of complaints of male violence against women in keeping with the full recommendations of the Murdered and Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry. COPE promises to support community infrastructure and organizations that help individuals address systemic violence in their communities without sole recourse to police and state authorities.
COPE also proposes requiring the Vancouver Police Department to engage in regular and frequent mandatory training sessions on current and historic colonial violence in Vancouver, particularly addressing misogyny and racism. COPE would ensure that police explicitly rely upon and incorporate learning from local grassroots organizations recognized as front-line experts in violence against women, including transgender women.[xiii]
Runner Up: Vision
Runner up in this category was not difficult to choose as Vision is the only other party that includes in its platform any promises related to ending violence against women. Vision notes that it has implemented all recommendations from the Murdered and Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry including changes to city by-laws for the safety of sex trade workers, enhanced support for exiting and a $40,000 grant to help expand the WISH drop-in centre. In the last six years, Vision also collaborated with the YWCA to build 52 units of housing designated for low-income women and children.[xiv]
Issue #4: Child Care
BC is currently facing a child care crisis defined by a number of key factors including too few spaces, high fees and low wages. In 2010, BC had only 97,170 regulated child care spaces to serve 570,900 children. In 2012, median full-time monthly child care fees in BC were $1047 for infants, $907 for toddlers and $761 for preschool age children. By contrast, the median fees across Canada were $761 for infants, $696 for toddlers and $674 for preschool age children.[xv]
Here is what the parties have to say about child care.
Best Position: Green/One City
This was another category that was easy to judge based on the dearth of relevant platform promises. The winners are the Green Party and One City, both of whom advocate for a $10 a day child care plan. The only difference is One City proposes a pilot project in one Vancouver neighbourhood. The pilot, they suggest, will allow Vancouver to gather data about demand, assess up-front costs and track the impact of the $10 a day plan for families currently facing a child care crisis.[xvi] The Green Party advocates for a city-wide $10 a day plan.[xvii]
Runner Up: Vision
Vision gets the runner up consolation prize as the only other party to mention child care in its platform. Although not as attractive as the $10 a day plan, Vision’s promise of 1000 new child care spaces by 2018 is not nothing.[xviii]
A Note about the NPA
You may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the party currently #2 in the polls, the NPA. This is not an oversight. The NPA, it would seem, is not overly concerned with the issues discussed above. A review of their website reveals priorities including reducing traffic congestion, easing parking restrictions, promoting economic growth, increasing government transparency and opposing a garbage incinerator in Vancouver. The NPA does have a few progressive policies including a child nutrition plan and increased housing for seniors, but they are nowhere near as developed as the policies of the other parties. Reviewing the NPA platform I am struck by how much it targets middle and upper class residents to the exclusion of our most marginalized residents. In my view, this is a serious gap in the NPA’s policies that must not be ignored.[xix]
“The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.”- attributed to Mahatma Gandhi
I, for one, will not be voting for a government that ignores the people in greatest need.
Get Out and Vote!
The civic election is on Saturday, November 15, 2014. This year voting is less of a hassle because you can vote at any of the nearly 120 voting locations across Vancouver. You can find the nearest voting station here: http://vancouver.ca/your-government/2014-municipal-election.aspx
Going to be away on the 15th? No problem, you can vote at any of the 8 advance voting stations from 8am to 8pm between November 4 and 12 (excluding Remembrance Day).
So please, get out there and make your voice heard.
[v] http://www.chumirethicsfoundation.ca/files/pdf/SHELTER.pdf; http://www.tenants.bc.ca/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Final%20HRSDC%20Report.pdf