Empty home tax: All sizzle, no steak


The mayor’s empty home tax is not well considered, and it will not ensure more affordable housing for Vancouver renters. Image by Jon Feinstein (CC BY 2.0)

At long last Mayor Robertson has announced a tax to encourage owners of empty residential properties in Vancouver to put these on the rental market. This would be great news if the plan had been well thought out and actually had the impact it was expected to have.

But as has been the case with so many of Mayor Robertson’s housing / homelessness announcements in the past, this plan is not well considered, nor will it deliver a measurable impact.

The mayor’s tax, announced today, is only aimed at property owners who leave their property empty year-round. And while this is just the initial framework (public consultations will be held later), it looks like there are already way too many exceptions. If the homeowner is a snowbird and leaves the property empty six months of the year then the mayor’s proposed tax does not apply. If this hypothetical snowbird really enjoys vacationing all around the world and lives in his or her Vancouver residence only one month a year, the tax does not apply. City hall staff have also suggested that some owners be exempted, such as those in condos that don’t allow rentals or those doing renos.

We also don’t know whether the tax will apply to online marketplaces like Airbnb. The mayor also announced today that later this fall regulations are going to be put in place to control Airbnb. However, here’s the catch: Will today’s tax be waived if the homeowner puts the property on Airbnb and complies with the upcoming regulations?

While I commend the mayor for finally trying to regulate Airbnb, I would be very concerned if a homeowner who rents his or her property out a few times a year to Airbnb, but leaves it vacant the rest of the year, is exempted from today’s tax just because she or he is complying with the new Airbnb regs.

The takeaway is this. We won’t know until the fall Airbnb regs come out, at the earliest, whether or not they’ve even got this part right.

The mayor also announced today that all monies generated by this new tax would be reinvested in affordable housing. As readers of this blog are well aware of, Vision Vancouver very cynically redefined affordable housing quite some time ago. It used to be that the City of Vancouver used the long-standing definition of affordable housing, which was geared to income whereby the renter would pay no more than one-third of their income in rent. This is no longer the definition used by the city — market rentals are now considered to be affordable housing.

It’s so unfortunate that Mayor Robertson has developed a track record of using the housing crisis as a vehicle to campaign on rather than actually solving the problem. His latest announcement is yet another example of that.

Great headlines over the last few days leading up to today’s announcement. Great headlines from today’s announcement. But, sadly, the announcement itself is all sizzle and no steak. Renters will be no better off tomorrow with this tax in place than they were yesterday without it.

Posted in affordable housing, homelessness, social justice, Vancouver, Vision Vancouver | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Our chance at real electoral reform

Vote for COPE Independents!Do you feel that your vote counts?

You’re not the only one who wonders. The harsh reality is that with our outdated, old-fashioned “first-past-the-post” electoral system, most votes don’t count.

Let me explain, using our last federal election as an example. The federal Green Party received approximately 4% of the vote nationwide. Yet, that translated to only one MP, or 0.0032% of parliament. So if you voted Green in the last federal election, your vote fell well short of the power it should have had.

In a system that respected the value of your vote, a party that received 4% of the nation’s vote would also receive a corresponding 4% of representation in parliament.

Now take a look for a moment at what happened to the federal Liberal party in the last election. They received 40% of the popular vote, but were allocated 60% of our parliament’s seats, with 184 Liberal MPs.

A proportional representation system would not only fix the problem outlined above but, as icing on the cake, it would also have a profoundly positive effect on how our MPs work with one another. Under our current system, which almost always results in a majority parliament, there’s very little, if any, incentive for the governing party to listen to or consider the views of other parties.

I think it’s fair to say that our current federal government under Justin Trudeau has, in fact, been much more open to the views and input of MPs from other parties — something very rare. Typically, this is not the case because the majority party doesn’t need the support of MPs from other parties even if it received far less than the majority of votes. (Majority parties rarely, if ever, receive a majority of votes.)

A pro rep electoral system would almost certainly not give any one party a majority of seats in our parliament. This would actually be a positive. It would create a collaborative approach within parliament, where the views of all MPs were important in the crafting of legislation that governs us all. A good idea that attracted the support of parties across political lines would now have a much better chance of being passed into law.

Canada is one of the only western democracies that still uses the antiquated “first-past-the-post” system. Most western European nations use one form or another of pro rep.

The challenge for pro rep advocates here in Canada is to not allow ourselves to be divided amongst the myriad different “flavours” of pro rep. Each flavour or variant has its strengths and weaknesses, but I’m sad to say that too often in the past the pro rep community has allowed itself to get bogged down in internecine squabbles over which flavour to support.

Let’s put our differences aside and get behind the concept as a whole. That’s the only way we’re going to see meaningful electoral reform.

• • •

You can have your say about proportional representation. As they promised, the federal Liberals have set up an all-party electoral reform committee to hear what Canadians have to say, now through mid-October. I will be hosting a dialogue session to gather input, so I welcome your thoughts and views on this important topic. Please send them to me at timlouis~AT~timlouislaw~DOT~com.

Posted in Canadian politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Have a super summer!


My partner Penny and I catching some sunshine in Vancouver.

I’m off now on my annual August stay-cation. So I thought I’d use this sign-off blog to talk a bit about some of the amazing attractions Vancouver has to offer, proving that you don’t need to go away to have a fabulous vacation. We are truly, incredibly fortunate to live in this city with all its wonderful attractions.

Every year my partner Penny and I take advantage of our staycation to visit the Museum of Anthropology. This experience never fails to amaze, and I always leave in awe of the richness of other cultures.

During out staycation, Penny and I also make sure to spend an entire uninterrupted day down at Granville Island. It’s hard to imagine that not that many years ago this was an industrial mess located on a large sandbar. It took someone with vision — then-MP for Vancouver Centre, Ron Basford — to realize the beautiful potential of this site. Local food, magicians, entertainers, crafts, culture, a view of False Creek — who could ask for more?

A walk around the entire Stanley Park seawall is another highlight. It’s many hours in duration if you’re a slowpoke like me, with the constantly changing panorama unfolding before you as you do the circumnavigation, plus there’s all the sea life at your feet.

One of Vancouver’s hidden secrets is Southlands, south of Marine Drive. Until I visited this neighbourhood a few years ago I had no idea that the countryside exists on such a large scale within our city. Southlands, with no buildings over two storeys (and those are barns), and an absence of sidewalks but plenty of horses, is truly idyllic. Just wandering for an afternoon with Southlands Nursery as a stop-off is a dream come true.

Believe it or not, my partner Penny and I just finished putting together our August staycation schedule, and the above are just a few of the more than 30 experiences we have planned.

Have a great summer, too. Connect with you all in the fall!

Posted in Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Massey Tunnel boondoggle — A case of rule by fiat

The provincial government appears hell-bent on proceeding with the proposed $3.5-billion, 10-lane toll bridge to replace the existing, often-congested Massey Tunnel. This project is quite understandable to the many commuters who must use the tunnel every day to get to and from work, and spend enormous amounts of time sitting in traffic jams. Massey Tunnel is simply no longer capable of accommodating daily traffic volumes.

Donkey’s years ago I travelled through the tunnel every day. I grew up in the Boundary Bay area and went to school in Vancouver, so my mother would drive me through the tunnel every day. Traffic congestion was not a problem at all — there were never long jam-ups. How times have changed!

massey conceptual boondoggle

Artist’s conception of Christy Clark’s solution to the congested Massey Tunnel. Everyone knows that you can’t build your way out of congestion…except the Premier.

At first blush, the proposed solution makes sense — where there is congestion simply expand the congested bottleneck. Frustrated drivers and many others intuitively conclude that the most sensible solution is to solve the problem by making room for more vehicles.

Unfortunately, this “solution” has never solved the problem in the long term. As soon as road networks are expanded to accommodate a growing volume of traffic, the volume increases even further in response to the new uncongested reality. In a short time we’re right back to where we started — in a traffic jam.

Traffic planners around the world have learned this lesson and now are unanimous that the only long-term solution to traffic congestion is to deal with the root cause of the problem. Everyone gets it. Let me correct that — everyone except our premier gets it.

The real solution to the Massey Tunnel congestion would address the root cause of the problem — too many single occupancy vehicles going through the tunnel. The upside is there are so many creative, very inexpensive solutions available — ones that would eliminate the need for this multi-billion-dollar boondoggle.

If we’re going to toll things, how about a toll on the existing tunnel? After all, when it was first constructed there was a toll to pay for it. The new toll could be 24/7, or it could be in effect during rush hour only. It could be revenue-neutral in the sense that none of the money generated would go back to general revenue in Victoria, but could be used instead to subsidize or eliminate bus fares for folks taking public transit south of the Fraser River.

How about taking that one step further and having a toll on the tunnel that would gradually be ratcheted until we achieve success? Success would mean no more congestion due to the fact that a high enough ratio of vehicles now had at least one passenger. The more passengers you have, the less your toll would be. Car-sharing alone could easily eliminate congestion.

How about bus rapid transit? Transit experts around the world now recognize that we can get the same impact from bus rapid transit that we can from light rail. BRT or bus rapid transit is essentially LRT on rubber — a dedicated right-of-way for buses with no red lights and, ideally, prepaid boarding.

If the premier is absolutely adamant about proceeding with this ill-conceived project could she not, at the very least, include a dedicated lane on the new bridge that would be reserved for bus rapid transit?

It is so sad that when we wanted to modestly increase TransLink’s revenue, all of which was to be used to very significantly improve public transit region-wide, we had to have a referendum. However, if the premier wants to spend billions of dollars on a boondoggle all that is required is her signature — by fiat.

Posted in Vancouver | 1 Comment

Climate change — it’s everywhere

Today I think I finally connected the dots.

Up till now, I hadn’t fully grasped just how many day-to-day reorderings are directly related to global warming. Not just the extreme weather events that become headlines but, perhaps even more importantly, so many smaller, local changes are directly related to the climate crisis.

Scientists now report that British Columbia’s native cold-water mussels are at risk as the oceans’ acidity and temperatures continue to increase due to climate change. The connective fibres that enable these creatures to stick to rocks are being weakened by these changing conditions. If oceans acidify and temperatures continue to worsen, as predicted, our native cold-water mussels will disappear.

Burns Bog, once again, has burned. Human activities along with our ever-hotter, drier conditions (April and May were much drier than normal this year) are lowering water levels in the bog. The irony here is that when Burns Bog burns, like it did earlier this month and back in 2005, a huge amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere — much more than with a regular forest fire because peatland bogs are the planet’s biggest carbon sinks.

One of the positive local changes in response to the growing climate crisis is the Mobi bikeshare program, currently rolling out in Vancouver.

One of the positive local changes in response to the growing climate crisis is the Mobi bikeshare program, currently rolling out in Vancouver.

But all is not bad news.

One change related to global warming is actually welcome news — the launch of Vancouver’s new bike share program, Mobi. This allows folks to ride from Point A to Point B without taking the bike home. Instead, you leave it at your destination for the next person to use. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this initiative will help continue the significant increase in bike trips we’ve witnessed in our city. My dream for the future is a Vancouver where cars take a backseat and bike trips are as high as they are in many European jurisdictions.

So it isn’t just the kind of extreme events like the Fort McMurray fire that should bring the climate crisis home to us. It’s the many small, local, immediate changes that we need to recognize and take steps to deal with — from jumping on a bike instead of hopping in a vehicle, to voting for the strong leaders who will do the right thing.

Posted in British Columbia, climate change, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A silver lining to Victoria’s tent city

Many of us concerned about the crisis of homelessness have watched with interest as homeless people in Victoria started living on the lawn in front of the courthouse last year. As their numbers grew, so did the pressure on the provincial government to offer meaningful solutions — not just overnight shelters but real accommodations.

Victoria's tent city has forced the provincial government to start addressing homelessness in a meaningful way.

Victoria’s tent city has forced the provincial government to start addressing homelessness in a meaningful way. Image Murray Bush – Flux Photo

In April, the provincial government went to court to get an injunction removing these homeless individuals from the courthouse lawn. But the homeless folks were represented by legal counsel who presented very credible evidence that an injunction would place the people in grave danger given the fact they literally had nowhere to go. The court accepted this argument, and therefore rejected the province’s injunction application.

The court’s decision created an earthquake — the provincial government had finally been exposed!

The good news here is that decision resulted in the provincial government finally deciding to allocate significant funds to address at least some of the need for low income housing in Victoria. They purchased a former facility for seniors, which should provide about 140 units of housing, enough for those on the courthouse lawn. (By comparison, the latest count in Victoria, one done in 2014, showed about 1,200 visibly homeless people.)

The province went back to court a second time, and the court released its decision the other day, this time ordering the tent city dispersed. But the judge also ordered that any such dispersion not take effect until the new housing facility was up and running.

What we have witnessed in Victoria is a victory for those fighting for a home for all. It’s also proof that sometimes the best way to get results is to put pressure where pressure belongs. I have no doubts that the provincial government would never have responded but for the creation of the tent city.

Victoria’s Tent City. Photo Murray Bush – Flux Photo

My congratulations to all of the homeless individuals and their advocates who, despite the challenges, managed to achieve this decisive victory over one of the most heartless provincial governments ever.


Posted in affordable housing, BC Liberals, British Columbia, equality, homelessness, National Housing Strategy, social justice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Stopping “free” trade or starting racism?

brexit-1486647_1280Is Britain’s decision to exit the EU good news or bad for progressives in Canada and the rest of the world?

Those of us on the left have long opposed so-called free trade agreements. We fought the good fight against Brian Mulroney’s NAFTA and we are opposed, with good reason, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently on the table. Some people are therefore suggesting that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and the subsequent withdrawal from European trade agreements means the tide is turning in our favour. I fundamentally disagree.

I’m sad to say that the prime motivator for the leave campaign in Britain was not a critical analysis of trade agreements. Instead, it was based on racism, xenophobia, nationalism and a host of other very negative factors.

I do believe, however, there’s a big lesson for us progressives to learn from the British referendum. We must be ever-vigilant within our movement to absolutely prevent the kind of opposition to corporate trade agreements that’s founded on gaining oxygen from the ugly head of racism that, unfortunately, lurks just below the surface in some corners of the anti-corporate trade movement.

You see, we have a very strong argument to make against corporate trade agreements — these so-called free trade agreements — in that they are much more in the vein of corporate bills of rights than free trade. These agreements are built in such a way they remove and/or eliminate the ability of governments to make use of health, safety, and environmental regulations. So they’re not really about free trade per se — that is, lowering or eliminating tariffs — but rather clearing away the health, safety and environmental regulations we’ve fought so long and so hard to achieve.

Let’s not ever allow the ugly head of nationalistic, racist policies to hijack our very principled and intellectually sound movement.

Posted in Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

As TransLink turns a page

Those of you familiar with the HandyDART file will be aware of the fact that a few years ago TransLink awarded this very important contract to a for-profit, privately owned American company based in Dallas, Texas. Users and workers have been complaining about the quality of service ever since.


HandyDART has been an essential and safe wheelchair-accessible mode of transport in BC since 1981.

A group I’m with, the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, has been lobbying TransLink for quite some time to take a fresh, hard look at the pros and cons of HandyDART service being contracted out. TransLink does not contract out any of its other operations. It operates them through wholly owned subsidiaries — Coast Mountain Bus Company operates the SeaBus and almost all of the region’s buses; British Columbia Rapid Transit Company operates two of the three SkyTrain lines and the West Coast Express. HandyDART should be in-house as well.

A month ago I made a presentation to the TransLink board. It included three proposals:

  1. TransLink conduct something called a public sector comparator. This is when government conducts an analysis to determine whether or not a particular service is best contracted out.
  2. If HandyDART is put out to tender again, that TransLink’s procurement department amend the RFP (Request for Proposal) to make it a requirement that bidders indicate in their bid how, if awarded the contract, they will ensure meaningful and substantive input from the users and workers.
  3. That if TransLink insists on putting this service out to tender again when the current contract ends, that TransLink create a wholly owned HandyDART subsidiary and that this subsidiary submit a bid to TransLink’s procurement department.

Recently, I was very pleased to receive a totally unsolicited call from TransLink’s new CEO, Kevin Desmond. He asked if we might meet, which I was very pleased to agree to. The meeting, which took place in his office, lasted an hour and it very quickly became clear to me that TransLink’s new hire is a breath of fresh air.

Mr. Desmond has an open mind. He listened carefully and took notes throughout our meeting. Just a few days later he phoned and let me know that he had agreed to points 1 and 2 I outlined above. He also proposed the creation of a TransLink-appointed committee that would include representatives from the HandyDART community. This committee would oversee points 1 and 2.

I am returning to meet with the TransLink board Thursday, June 23. This time I won’t be asking. I will be complimenting!

By the way, if you want to know more about the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, here’s the website, their Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in accessibility, British Columbia, equality, HandyDART, Transit, TransLink, transportation, Vancouver | Tagged , | Comments Off on As TransLink turns a page

When “disability” disappears and everyone is valued

A lot has been said in recent days, both pro and con, about the federal government’s bill on assisted dying. Just over a year ago the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Criminal Code provision prohibiting assisted dying was unconstitutional and gave the federal government one year to amend the law.

For what its worth, here’s my two cents worth on the effort to address the Supreme Court’s decision. I say the bill goes too far — much too far — in one particular regard.

Let me be clear. There’s no denying that many people suffering a variety of grievous medical conditions have the right to assisted dying, if that is their wish. But many of the people I’ve heard interviewed who want the right to assisted dying are living with neuromuscular conditions such as Lou Gehrig’s disease or MS. They apparently hold a strong belief that life is so difficult death is preferable. This is in stark contrast with someone like Stephen Hawking, who just gets on with his life.

So the question has to be asked: Must neuromuscular conditions have a negative impact on quality of life, or is the variable the amount of assistance available to that individual?

Morning levée ceremonies where nobility were dressed by their servants were not considered demeaning.

Assistance with daily living is a matter of perspective. For example, morning levée ceremonies where nobility were dressed by their servants were not considered demeaning.

Let me try illustrate my point here by addressing one of the chief complaints of those individuals in the media over the last few years claiming that the need to rely on others to assist with daily living, such as getting dressed or going to the washroom, is demeaning. So demeaning, in fact, it’s part of the reason death is preferred. Just 100 years ago or so European royalty would never think of “lowering themselves” by donning their own clothes — they had helpers to do it. So isn’t it really more about the way we reframe such needs?

Another chief concern of those with certain neuromuscular conditions demanding the right to assisted dying is “the burden” they place on family members. In these situations is the best fix really death? Surely a better solution is for society to step up to the plate and provide the support needed so these individuals aren’t an undue burden on anyone.

May I go one step further? There are a lot of first-rate studies with about the return to work of injured workers. When the injured worker genuinely believes she or he is needed back in the workplace by their co-workers and employer, there is a much faster and more successful rate of return to work.

Rather than offering assisted dying, perhaps a better and more humane response would be a requirement, provided the right supports are in place, that these individuals obtain employment! Before you dismiss the suggestion that the Sue Rodriguez’s of the world are capable of working or otherwise participating in their community, even as a volunteer, as being outlandish and over the top let me remind you of the fellow I referred to earlier — Stephen Hawking.

I have never talked with him so this is only conjecture, but from watching his interviews and learning about the film documenting his life I can’t understand what would prevent others in a similar situation from working as long as they had the necessary support. After all, don’t we agree that everyone has a skill or talent that would benefit their neighbourhood or community, rather than eliminating this person and thereby losing this unique attribute? Why not create an expectation along with better supports that would allow them to work or contribute?

If a gay youth becomes depressed because of the homophobia he or she experiences, we don’t offer assisted dying. We fight the root cause of the problem — homophobia. Likewise with people who experience racism. Yet when people with certain conditions who see their “disability” more than their capability, and become depressed due to a lack of support, the solution we offer is not adequate home health care and assistance, but instead assisted dying. This doesn’t make sense!

At the very least I hope I’ve succeeded in provoking you a bit today.

I look forward to the day when so-called disability has disappeared — not because everybody is now suddenly physically the same, but because everybody is considered so important and worthy that the necessary supports are in place to make it not just an option that they work or contribute, but a requirement.

Posted in Canadian politics, equality, justice system, law | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on When “disability” disappears and everyone is valued

Empty homeless promises now painfully true

Tuesday the numbers from the annual homeless count were released. The headlines say it all: “Record number of homeless on Vancouver streets“.

For those of us who genuinely believe there is absolutely no excuse for homelessness in any society, let alone a society as rich as ours, the numbers were not just bad, they were terrible. The count is now the highest ever.

Vancouver tent city, Oppenheimer Park in 2014. Homelessness numbers have only increased under Vision rule -- they are now the highest in Vancouver's history, despite Gregor Robertson's campaign promises to end homelessness.

Vancouver tent city, Oppenheimer Park in 2014. Homelessness numbers have only increased under Vision rule — they are now the highest in Vancouver’s history, despite Gregor Robertson’s campaign promises to end homelessness. Photo by kennymc

What makes this story especially infuriating for me is the fact that Mayor Gregor Robertson, when first running for mayor in 2008, campaigned on a promise to not just reduce homelessness in Vancouver, but eliminate it.

I suspected at the time that his promise was meaningless. But I kept my fingers crossed that I was wrong.

I still remember bumping into him at a fundraiser during the election campaign. It quickly became apparent that my worst fears were accurate. Gregor Robertson had nothing but meaningless and utterly vague responses to the few simple questions I put to him: “Over what period of time would you eliminate homelessness?” Answer: Banal generalities. “What steps will you take at the municipal level to eliminate homelessness?” Answer: Not one specific idea. “How will you measure your success in achieving this goal?” Answer: Nothing but a vintage Gregor Robertson smiley face.

I left that encounter demoralized and despondent. Bad enough that Gregor Robertson was attempting to get elected mayor of Canada’s 3rd largest city on the backs of the homeless. Even worse, by all appearances he was acting dishonestly.

The mayor went on to win the election and matters have only gotten worse.

In 2011 Mayor Gregor Robertson was reelected. Again, he ran on a platform that included a commitment to end homelessness. Mid-term his team of experts — not homelessness experts, but reframing experts — came up with a brilliant idea! The goal would no longer be to end homelessness but to end street homelessness. This would mean that if a person found a cot or foamie to sleep on overnight in a homeless shelter — where people are kicked out at dawn every morning, only to aimlessly wander the streets all day — they would no longer be considered homeless.

In 2014 the man who would singlehandedly do what no other mayor has ever done before — end homelessness — was once again re-elected.

If the mayor had done nothing but implement the following policy, I suggest that homelessness as we know it today would be largely, if not totally, eliminated: Require developers building developments over a certain size to make 1/4 of all units affordable units, where “affordable” is defined as 1/3 of a person’s income.

Posted in affordable housing, City Hall, homelessness, social justice, Vancouver, Vision Vancouver | Tagged | 1 Comment