The nightmare of SRO conditions can be solved in an instant

With income assistance rates frozen for over 10 years now, welfare recipients have a very small amount available for rent. With the province of BC providing a single person on welfare with only $610 a month, SRO landlords are very limited in what they can charge for rent. So they use the low rental revenue as a pretext for not being able to provide proper maintenance and upkeep. (If you don’t know what it’s really like inside an SRO, check out the recent excellent article in the Vancouver Sun by Denise Ryan here. It’s a nightmare!)

Here’s one major reason for the problem. The purchase price paid for SRO buildings is far too high. Once purchased, typically with a small down payment, the mortgage payments consume most, if not all, of the limited rental revenue. This leaves little, if any, money for much-needed maintenance and repairs.

The City of Vancouver could remedy this problem in an instant. It has the legal authority to perform all necessary maintenance and upkeep and put the costs on the SRO title as a charge. If the City were to start doing this on a regular basis, it would send what economists call a signal to the marketplace. Purchasers of SRO buildings would factor in the future cost of all necessary maintenance and upkeep costs, which would mean they would only be willing to pay a lower price. Purchasers would simply not be prepared to pay a price that would result in inevitable yearly losses.

With a lower purchase price, the mortgage taken out would be smaller and therefore the mortgage payments would also be smaller, leaving more money for maintenance and upkeep.

Don’t let it be said again by SRO owners that with SRO rents so low they don’t have money left over to pay for much-needed maintenance and upkeep. By paying too much for the SRO building in the first place, they are the authors of their own problem.

Posted in affordable housing, BC Liberals, British Columbia, City Hall, economy, equality, homelessness, National Housing Strategy, Planning, social justice, Vancouver, Vision Vancouver | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t shoot the messengers

Edward Snowden is a household name — he’s a whistleblower who so profoundly upset the very powerful that he was forced to flee his home country.

What we tend to forget is that in almost all bureaucracies and governments, big and small, there’s the need for anyone who sees wrongdoing in her or his workplace to speak out about it.

88_whistleblower-2Bureaucracies, even the best, by their very nature tend to create a party line. Critical thinking is not encouraged. In the long run, this can have a devastating impact on the vitality of the organization. More importantly, a “party line mentality” makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the proverbial whistleblower to speak out. This is unfortunately the case even when it is not only in the best interests of the bureaucracy or organization in question, it’s also in the best interests of those being served, including society as a whole.

CBC Radio’s Ideas recently did a program on this topic. Called “Don’t Shoot the Messenger”, you can find it here.

All of the above brings me to Vancouver City Councillor Adriane Carr’s recent whistleblower protection motion. Before we take a moment to look at its details, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that all of Vancouver’s citizens are better served when each and every person working for the City of Vancouver can speak out and speak up without any fear of retribution.

Ironically, an environment that protects whistleblowers actually reduces the likelihood and need for it as those tempted to abuse power will think twice before doing since they know that their colleagues will not be fearful of speaking out.

Councillor Carr’s motion asks for a review of whistleblower protection for city staff with an eye to provide things like independent investigations of any alleged wrongdoings; guaranteed anonymity if a whistleblower chooses to be anonymous; and protection for whistleblowers from reprisals.

Her motion arose after recent an investigative news report of a controversial land swap deal involving the city losing out on $65-million worth of land and the city waiving development cost levies.

I was hoping support for this motion would be a slam dunk, but unfortunately the Vision-majority Council voted to refer it back to staff, which could mean delaying it up to several years. Let’s keep out fingers crossed that it will ultimately receive the total support of Council that it deserves and is not dealt with in a partisan manner.

Posted in British Columbia, civil disobedience, Green Party, Vancouver | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Hanging by a thread


[Photo Alex Brogan CC Attribution 3.0 Unported]

Wow! What a night it was! And it ain’t over yet!

I’ve witnessed many election night roller coasters but nothing quite like last night.

I went to sleep last night dreaming of proportional representation, big money out of politics (union and business donations alike), no Kinder Morgan pipeline, no Site C dam, and no Massey bridge.

I woke up, and after hearing the latest news, I’m not quite so euphoric. When I went to bed the Liberals were at 42 seats — 2 seats shy of a majority and tied with the NDP, also at 42 seats, with the Greens holding 3. However, in the middle of the night Vancouver-False Creek flipped from NDP to Liberal, moving the Liberals from 42 seats up to 43 and the NDP down to 41.

All is not lost, however, as even with 41 seats the NDP could command a majority of the legislation assembly if John Horgan can work out an arrangement with Andrew Weaver and the Greens (41 + 3 = 44 seats, which is a majority). It gets slightly worse, however, as the riding of Courtenay-Comox is in the in NDP column but hanging by the thinnest thread — just 9 votes!

The absentee ballots in this riding have yet to be counted and will include all votes from the local military base, CFB Comox. The Liberal candidate, Jim Benninger, is a former base commander. If the absentee votes break ever so slightly in favour of Benninger, the Liberals will move up one more from 43 to 44 seats, and we will be facing another Liberal term.

Fingers crossed that last night’s dream comes true and today’s worries are exaggerated. Only time will tell.

Posted in BC Liberals, British Columbia, Elections - British Columbia, Green Party, Liberal Party, NDP, proportional representation | Leave a comment

When orange is the new green

Yellow Blue Colours Colour Dandelion Green OrangeWe’re just over halfway through the provincial election campaign and the outcome is more uncertain than any previous election — more uncertain because we are no longer talking about just two parties. Let me explain.

Since the collapse in 1972 of the provincial Liberal and Conservative parties in the aftermath of the Dave Barrett NDP election victory, election campaigns in BC have focused on only two parties — the left-of-centre NDP and one incarnation or another of the free enterprise vote, either the Socreds (Social Credit Party) or the current iteration of the BC “Liberals”. In this election we now have a third viable option: BC’s Green Party.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Andrew Weaver and the provincial Greens have any chance of winning the election. For that matter, they certainly will not even form the official opposition. However, if the NDP win the election capturing more seats than the Liberals but lose a number of their current seats on Vancouver Island, where the Greens are currently polling ahead of both the NDP and the Liberals, then we may very well end up with the dream scenario I blogged about April 19 — an NDP minority with the Greens holding a balance of power!

In Europe, most, if not all of the Green parties run in coalition with left-of-centre parties — a so-called red/green alliance. From my point of view this would be ideal. The NDP could certainly be moved to a more progressive position on a number of environmental issues. The Green Party could certainly be moved to a more progressive position on a number of labour issues. An NDP/Green coalition — an orange/green alliance — might just result in the best of both worlds.

Today, Germany stands at the forefront of nations moving from conventional carbon-based energy to renewable energy. Analysts from all points of the political spectrum give the German Green Party credit for this. At the same time, speaking from a personal perspective, I have not always been happy with the foreign policy decisions of the German Green Party.

If we had proportional representation in BC we could predict with some sense of confidence that this election will produce the first ever NDP minority with the Greens holding the balance of power. As we don’t have pro rep, it’s impossible to predict. That makes voting more important than ever, so be sure your voice is heard May 9. (For information on how and where to vote, go to Elections BC.)

In the meantime, what we do know is this: The likelihood of an orange/green coalition government in Victoria is growing stronger by the day!

Posted in Elections - British Columbia, Green Party, Liberal Party, NDP, People Power, proportional representation, Vancouver | Leave a comment

Double or nothing: Garbage collection vs. city councillors?

City council salaries are in the news again!

The Vancouver Courier’s Mike Howell, in one of his recent 12th and Cambie columns, notes that all city councillors but one are earning more than $100,000 per year, and that’s before any additional remuneration they collect, say, for chairing other committees such as ones tied to Metro Vancouver. This reminds me of a number of interesting conversations that have occurred over the years about the work of a city councillor.

Many years ago when my hero, Harry Rankin, was on city council, the topic of councillor salaries came up for debate. Council was once again deciding whether or not to award itself a pay raise — clearly a conflict of interest if there ever was one. Those debating in favour of the pay raise argued that the time it was taking city councillors to carry out their duties had doubled and, therefore, a commensurate pay raise was more than appropriate.

Harry Rankin would have none of it. To start, he was recognized by folks from all parts of the political spectrum as being by far the most efficient member of council. He had no difficulty staying on top of all of his council duties along with his very busy law practice.


Our garbage collection workers make half the salary of city councillors, but who could we manage without longer? [Photo: qousqous CC by 2.0]

Harry’s take was to ask his fellow council members how long a factory owner would keep his workers when they admitted it was taking them twice as long to complete their jobs. Workers who suggested they had become half as efficient, he argued, wouldn’t be awarded a pay raise — they would be fired! As I’m sure you can guess, the councillors of the day awarded themselves a hefty pay raise anyway, but Harry’s argument has always stayed with me.

Readers of this blog who know anything about my politics will be surprised to learn of my compliments to former NPA Mayor Gordon Campbell. During his administration he decided it was time to put an end, once and for all, to city councillors regularly deciding how large their pay raise should be.

In fact, he decided they should not have a say at all in setting their pay rates. Instead, it should be equivalent to the amount earned by the average person employed at the City of Vancouver as measured by Statistics Canada. Such an egalitarian idea coming from such a right-wing mayor! Campbell’s proposal was approved by council, with Councillor Rankin’s strong support.

I was pleased that for many post-Campbell years, this egalitarian approach was followed by successive city councils.

When I was on council, partway through my second term (2002-05), COPE had a comfortable majority with the mayor and 8 of the 10 councillors belonging to the party. Some of the then-COPE councillors, who subsequently left COPE and formed Vision Vancouver, were terribly dissatisfied with the salary they were earning. One day a new and notably small pay raise kicked in for City Hall staff, including the secretarial support staff for city council.

I can still recall (with a smile) the discussion I had with Councillor Tim Stevenson. He was quite upset that his secretary was getting this small raise and yet he was, as he stated, “significantly underpaid”.

I asked him what his choice would be if we raised the salary of city council secretaries to match that of councillors: Would he become a secretary or remain a city councillor? He looked bewildered and replied, why a city councillor of course! Who would ever want to be a secretary!?

I didn’t respond but the question stands: Why should any position that rewards those who hold it with power and prestige also receive more and more money at the behest of those who hold that position?

I’m sad to say that just a few years ago council finally did away with former Mayor Campbell’s egalitarian approach, replacing it with a system for salaries allegedly based on comparisons with other cities and adjusted for population size, budgets and more.

Before signing off, I’ll leave you with one more thought about council salaries, this one from my significant other, Penny Parry. She asked me the other day how long Vancouver would be able to manage without garbage collection workers, and how long it could manage without Tim Stevenson and the Vision Vancouver majority on city council. It reminded me that councillors are paid roughly double the amount paid to the people who collect our garbage every week.


Posted in COPE, equality, fiscal responsibility, Harry Rankin, Vancouver, Vision Vancouver | 1 Comment

The power of Green

Will it finally happen? An NDP minority with the Green Party holding the balance of power in BC?

Last week the writ was dropped and the provincial election is, finally, formally underway. What makes this election possibly unique in our history is the fact that the NDP and the Liberals are in a statistical dead heat coupled with the polling of the Greens province-wide and in particular on Vancouver Island. (The approval rating of BC Green leader Andrew Weaver tops the premier’s while NDP leader John Horgan tops them both.)

What this means, bottom line, is that the Greens need win only a very small number of seats and they will hold the balance of power if the NDP and Liberals end up tied. From my point of view, an NDP minority with the Greens holding the balance of power would be a perfect outcome. Let me explain.

An NDP minority government with Greens holding the balance of power would finally put an end to the economically and environmentally disastrous Site C Dam project. Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada (CC by 2.0).

Four years ago, the NDP reluctantly took a position in opposition to Kinder Morgan largely as a result of pressure from the Green Party. Today, the Greens are the only party firmly opposed to BC Hydro’s Site C Dam. It’s no secret that the NDP caucus is divided on this issue. An NDP minority with the Greens holding the balance of power would certainly put an end to this fiasco.

Perhaps the Vancouver Park Board is another indicator of how a Green minority can influence the entire elected body. As you may know, the park board is made up of seven park commissioners, only two of them Green. Vancouver Aquarium’s imprisonment of whales and other cetaceans has been a controversial issue for decades. It divided the park board when I was a park commissioner in the early ’90s. Recently, the board voted unanimously to bring cetaceans in captivity to a halt. All Vision Vancouver and NPA commissioners voted with the Greens in favour of this very positive motion. This would not have been possible without the bridge-building of Stuart Mackinnon and Michael Wiebe. (Wiebe is also now park board chair, thanks to both NPA and Vision support.)

At the federal level we can observe the bridge-building record of Elizabeth May, and we’ve already seen the positive impact Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has had in the provincial legislature.

If you want a more productive and environmentally progressive BC government you will be doing like me — keeping your fingers crossed for an NDP minority with Andrew Weaver and more Green members in the legislature holding the balance of power.

Election Day is Tuesday May 9, 2017. Elections BC information on where/when/how to vote is here:

2017 Provincial General Election

Posted in BC Liberals, British Columbia, Elections - British Columbia, Green Party, Liberal Party, NDP, NPA, Site C Dam, sustainability, Vancouver, Vancouver Park Board, Vision Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Justice can prevail against all odds

In 2004 my partner Penny and I travelled to El Salvador as guests of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, one of two of the country’s major political parties). We toured this tiny Central American country for two weeks visiting many tiny municipal councils, environmental advocacy organizations, human rights organizations, women’s groups and disability groups. It was a real eye opener and a profound experience — we definitely got a crash course in El Salvadorian history.

For decades, almost all of the land in El Salvador, including all of its agricultural land, was owned literally by just a handful of very wealthy families. The population as a whole was extremely poor and the government, in the pockets of the rich, made certain that any effort at even modest wealth redistribution or land reform was quashed immediately, sometimes brutally.

By the 1970s, five tiny rebel groups were fighting to overthrow the government. They were well intentioned but no match for the brutal El Salvadorian military. Eventually, each of the five groups approached Cuba for assistance. This resulted in Fidel Castro inviting the leaders of the five rebel groups to Havana where he insisted they join forces under one umbrella as a pre-condition for Cuban support. The FMLN was born.

By the 1980s, the FMLN was on the verge of victory but US President Ronald Reagan massively increased military support to the El Salvadorian military. At one point the only nation in the world receiving more military support from Washington than El Salvador was Israel.

Into this volatile mix came the appointment of a new archbishop. The pope at the time very deliberately selected a conservative for this position — Archbishop Óscar Romero, who fit the bill perfectly. He was a lifelong conservative who had demonstrated little if any support for the public yearning for social justice. Archbishop Romero moved comfortably within ruling class circles and did not believe the church should meddle in societal conflict.

Once appointed archbishop, however, the archbishop underwent a philosophical transformation. He witnessed the assassination of many priests for the “crime” of working with parishioners to try and improve the lives of ordinary citizens. His sermons became more and more outspoken. And then it happened — Archbishop Romero delivered a sermon in which he pleaded with El Salvadorian soldiers to disobey orders to kill the innocent. He was then no longer acceptable to the powers of the day and the order was given to have him assassinated. The archbishop’s murder on March 24, 1980 was one of the most notorious crimes in modern history.

The nation erupted into full-blown civil war with neither side able to achieve a decisive military victory. Finally, an internationally brokered peace accord ushered in democratic elections. Today, the FMLN forms the democratically elected government.

The perpetrators of the assassination subsequently fled to the US. All efforts to hold them legally accountable failed. The defence was that the perpetrators could not be held accountable in American courts for crimes committed outside of America.

Then along came a young and idealistic lawyer, Matt Eisenbrandt. He and a number of like-minded lawyers had stumbled across an obscure American law — the Alien Torts Act, which specifically permits legal action in the United States even if the criminal act has been committed outside the country. The perpetrators were successfully sued and significant judgements were claimed against them.

My friend the political activist and author, Tom Sandborn, and I are incredibly honoured to be hosting Matt Eisenbrandt’s book launch Assassination of a Saint Monday, April 3, 7:00 p.m. at St. James Community Square, 3214 W. 10th in Vancouver.

In these times when the sky is filled with so many black clouds it’s so important we remind ourselves that justice can and will prevail against all odds. I urge you to join us for what will no doubt be an evening to remember. See you April 3.

Lawyer and author Matt Eisenbrandt will be in Vancouver April 3rd at St. James Community Square, talking about his book on the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador and its aftermath.

Posted in civil disobedience, cuba, events, justice system, law, People Power, social justice, solidarity, US politics, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Uber — Both good and bad news

On Tuesday the province gave Uber the green light to begin operating in BC.

If you see the world through the eyes of a consumer, this is great news. If you see the world through the eyes of a worker, this is definitely bad news.

Most of us, in Metro Vancouver at least, have had occasion to complain about the length of time we’ve had to wait for a taxi. The addition of Uber will definitely help resolve this. From a consumer point of view, the news gets even better. Uber is at the cutting edge of harnessing technology to improve the consumer experience. When is the last time you Googled customer reviews of the individual taxi driver dispatched to pick you up? Exactly — you never have, because you can’t. But Uber uses technology that literally puts the passenger in the driver’s seat.

This is all a plus for customers, but in a consumer-driven society the needs of workers are often left behind. In the case of the taxi industry, this is particularly so.

Let me tell you just a little bit about the working conditions of your taxi driver. No minimum wage. No statutory holidays or benefits. No benefits at all. No protection under the Employment Standards Act. No overtime pay, no matter how many hours worked in a shift. Ditto no matter how many hours worked in a week. No official coffee or lunch breaks. Your typical taxi driver works a 12-hour day 6 days a week and brings home very little money.

Our transportation choices affect our fellow workers — BC’s decision to allow Uber jeopardises thousands of taxi driver jobs, and Uber employment is not a sustainable alternative. Instead of a race to the bottom for people who drive us from Point A to Point B, the provincial government needs to listen to Vancouver Taxi Association’s pleas for improvements for the industry that will make taxis more convenient and accessible. [Photo by Alan Turkus (CC BY 2.0)]

If the above were not bad enough, many taxi drivers are forced to purchase their job. Let me explain. Taxi licences are bought and sold. The price of the licence increases as the unemployment rate increases and the number of people looking for work goes up.

Unemployed people desperate for a job look for ways to buy one so, if they can, they might put a mortgage against their home to secure the money required. The sad part is you then have unemployed people going further into debt to buy a taxi licence.

With Uber on the horizon, taxi drivers have been trying their best to work with government to create a solution that benefits consumers but also doesn’t make the situation even worse for taxi drivers. Their fear has been that if Uber is given the opportunity to flood the market, the worth of taxi licences will plummet. Drivers who have mortgaged their home will now be “under water”. What irony! Minimum wage workers now losing their biggest, and often their only asset — their home.

I get frustrated, as we all do, when I can’t get a taxi in a timely manner. However, the inconvenience I experience pales in comparison with the devastating harm about to be inflicted on literally thousands of taxi drivers province-wide by an insensitive and heartless provincial government that has totally ignored every recommendation made by the Vancouver Taxi Association.

The next time you take a taxi, take off your consumer “glasses” and try to see things through the eyes of your taxi driver.

Posted in British Columbia, taxi, transportation, Vancouver | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A positive new direction for HandyDART

As co-chair of the HandyDART Riders’ Alliance, since last October I’ve been sitting on a task force set up by TransLink. Our mandate is to advise TransLink on HandyDART issues. The creation of this task force and the appointment of many individuals from the HandyDART community to it is another indicator of the positive working relationship that’s developed between TransLink and the HandyDART community since the arrival about a year ago of Kevin Desmond as TransLink’s new CEO.

For many years, up to and including 2016, HandyDART service levels have remained constant. Now, as part of the first phase of TransLink’s new plan, HandyDART service levels will finally be increased. TransLink has committed to raise HandyDART service levels by 15% during Phase 1, which runs three years, 2017-19 inclusive. This compares very favourably with the 10% increase in service levels for conventional public transit during the same period.

For once, HandyDART service levels will be increasing faster than the rest of the system. This is definitely needed as demand for HandyDART services is also increasing. Demographic changes already underway will mean a very significant increase in the number of seniors living in Metro Vancouver over the next decade. Also, more and more people with mobility restrictions are entering the workforce. And the increased accessibility of the built environment means more and more of these same people need services like HandyDART since they finally can access things like stores and malls that were formerly out of reach.

On Friday, February 10, I’ll be joining TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond at a press conference at the Scott Road SkyTrain station to announce this positive news.

The HandyDART Riders’ Alliance recognizes the fact that while the 15% increase is very good news, it’s only a down payment on what is needed. If TransLink is to address the ongoing, significant increase in HandyDART demand and make up for years of neglect, HandyDART service levels must be significantly increased again in Phase 2.

One of the ideas the task force is considering recommending to TransLink is a no-trip-turndown policy. This means as long as a HandyDART user calls in a minimum number of days in advance, his/her trip request would be accommodated even if it means putting more HandyDART buses on the road. The fact that such a policy is even being considered is another good sign of the progress being made due to the new partnership between TransLink and the HandyDART community.

Posted in accessibility, equality, events, HandyDART, social justice, TransLink, transportation, Vancouver | Tagged , , | Comments Off on A positive new direction for HandyDART

Inspiration in the face of oppression

As I have watched with horror over the last week or so south of the border, I am not just outraged — I’m also inspired!

There’s no denying the fact that President Trump is a racist, a misogynist and an outright liar. Nor can there be any denying that he is narcissistic. His executive orders issued in a flurry over the last week or so are counter to all the values I hold. Why, then, am I inspired?

Two nights ago I watched Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’ independent global news show, Democracy Now!. They had extensive film footage of the demonstrations at airports that manifested almost instantaneously upon news of President Trump’s executive order banning entry by citizens and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations. These were not small demonstrations!

The American Civil Liberties Union jumped into the fray immediately. Membership applications to the ACLU spiked and donations soared. The rule of law was brought to bear. Judges issued orders overturning important aspects of Trump’s executive order. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired by Trump for refusing to defend the travel ban.

Corporate America, rarely a friend of progressive movements, spoke strongly against this anti-immigration order. Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees. Google, Nike, Airbnb, Lyft, Coca-Cola, Facebook and others all denounced Trump’s executive order and/or issued statements about the important contributions immigrants make. Trump’s first presidential approval ratings are the lowest of any president since Gallup started doing such surveys in 1953 when Eisenhower was president.

Senior Republican leaders, including senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have spoken strongly against President Trump’s immigration order. It’s unheard of for senior Republican senators to speak against their president.

I am strongly convinced that there is a silver lining to this very dark cloud.

A massive progressive movement is taking shape. I predict it will sweep Trump from office. He is a fool and a petty tyrant. The people are wise. Wisdom will prevail.

And in the aftermath, we will have the opportunity to construct a much more humane and democratic system than the one that brought this petty tyrant to power. One step backward, two steps forward — for the people are always inspiring.

Posted in feminism, People Power, social justice, Trumpism, US politics | Comments Off on Inspiration in the face of oppression