I sat down with Bill Tieleman, a well-known local political strategist, at a hip Kits eatery during Dine Out Vancouver in January. Our conversation was far-reaching, fueled by a glass or two of wine, Tieleman’s second love, after progressive politics.
What do you see as the two biggest issues facing the City of Vancouver?
Vancouver has two main issues, both are very inter-related. The first is the different aspects of affordability in the city itself. The second is dealing with poverty and low incomes. Both are very connected and are challenges that face Vancouver and the whole Lower Mainland. Affordability and housing prices go across the board. If you look at cities like Geneva and Hong Kong, there is a limited group of people who lives there. Public policy steps need to be taken because most of us don’t want to live where there is just fine dining and expensive shops.
The other challenge is that our city has these increasing land values. These make it impossible for young people to be independent and impossible to have a city with a wide range of diverse and interesting people. People working in Vancouver, like servers and cooks, are forced to live far away from their jobs. Vancouver is becoming an “executive city”.
What can be done about affordability? There is a limited amount of “Vancouver” available.
That’s right and that’s why we are seeing a disparate amount of people’s income taken up by rent and housing. People might be shocked by me saying this, but former Mayor Sam Sullivan was right to talk about density – that’s the only way Vancouver can maintain diversity and affordability.
Poverty is related to affordability, but not 100%. We have a real continuum of poverty in Vancouver. This starts with the true homeless, sleeping on the streets or accessing shelters. Our food bank use is overflowing. We also have couch surfers, occasional shelter users and those who are living in inappropriate or substandard housing.
Why is density the answer, from your perspective?
Well, density is part of the answer but the other piece of the puzzle is increasing the level of home ownership. Vancouver has a disproportionate level of renters and this just isn’t healthy for the economy. There is nothing wrong with renting, but people would much rather own their home than rent their home. And that is a very positive idea – and it can happen if we expand the supply with greater density.
It isn’t realistic to have single family dwellings with 50 foot wide yards all over Vancouver. That was very 1950s and 1960s and those days are gone.
So what can we do instead of the single family home dream?
There are lots of options. Row housing and infill housing are both good. Other places like Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal have secondary suites but we have bizarre circumstances here that have not allowed secondary suites to be viable. If people want the big home and big yard, they are going to have to move to Surrey and Abbotsford.
Given your support of density, why do you think Sam Sullivan got a hard ride on the topic?
It is really difficult politically for anyone of any stripe to encourage change by a non-inclusive approach. Once you inject partisanships into public policy, it is doomed to failure. The “green shift” of Dion was another example of this approach. The real challenge is to find consensus on important and divisive public policy – that is where success can be found.
Changing gears a bit, what could be done to improve the economic climate in Vancouver for small and medium business?
In our current recessionary reality, I’d like to see tax incentives for small businesses that are working to increase employment. If people have jobs, then they pay taxes.
There are really limited public policy tools that government can employ right now. Infrastructure spending, which can be very good, is one. Lots of effort is spent to cut taxes in public policy, but why not incent employment? People will then contribute through taxes and continue to consume goods and services.
For example, if a small business like a restaurant, already has twelve employees, why not an incentive or tax break to when they hire the thirteenth? This is mutually beneficial for business and society, and we’re not subsidizing businesses for no real return. Taxpayers should get a share – in this case, more revenue. Direct subsidies and unconditional grants to corporations and business need to end, unless government is getting a piece of the action.
Do you mean nationalizing in exchange for tax payer support, like we are seeing in British banks?
Yes. If the bank or company is going to collapse anyway, that there is no choice but to take an ownership role. You have to keep in mind that even Stephen Harper, the most ideological prime minister ever, now understands that running a deficit is a necessity to keep the economy growing. Lots of right wing notions are fine until they hit reality.
What does the new mayor and council need to keep in mind through the early stages of their mandate?
They need to keep in mind that homelessness is the biggest issue for Vancouverites and that Gregor’s approach was the reason he won. Vancouver doesn’t want more plans.
People want general decency in the approach to the issue – no more petty politics. No one wants to see people sleeping under bridges. People of all political backgrounds really want solutions to the problem.
The Olympics are a great opportunity for the city. I supported and voted for them, and still strongly support them. We do need to see governments be more upfront with taxpayers about the real costs, expenses and do a better job of explaining the benefits.
Are the Olympics a poison pill for Robertson?
The Olympics will be an enormous success and Mayor Robertson will be in front of the world far more than the Prime Minister and the Premier. Except for the Olympic Village issue, the City of Vancouver will not be held accountable for the cost overruns.
Look, I’ve worked on every campaign Gregor has been involved in, from his first nomination for MLA against Judy Darcy. He won that one. He ran for MLA against Viriginia Greene and beat her in Gary Collins’ old riding of Vancouver Fairview. He beat Raymond Louie for the Vision Vancouver nomination. He can perform, even when he is underestimated.
In your opinion, what aspect of Vancouver is head and shoulders above the rest?
It’s the old real estate adage: location, location, location. No other city in the world can boast the physical attractiveness, people, and diversity. It is an unbeatable combination. We have everyone from tough longshoreman to recent immigrants opening restaurants to surfers to a vibrant arts community. Why would anyone live anywhere else? I’ve tried to leave and I keep coming back!