Monday, 30 December 2013


James Thurber recounted the  fable of the Little Girl and the Wolf.  One afternoon a  big wolf waited in the forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food for her grandmother.   When the little girl arrived at her grandmother's cottage, she saw that there was somebody in Grannies' bed with a nightcap and nightgown on.  Not taken in by the disguise, without a word, the little girl pulled out a Colt 45 and blew the Wolf’s head off.  

Moral:  It is not so easy to fool little girls  nowadays as it used to be.

Time passed. Wolves were driven out of town, forests were clear cut and affordable housing became  extinct.   

One day the Council asked the City Manager to restore the dwindled stock of affordable housing. 

The Manager said, "Sure. How affordable would you like it to be?"

Without blinking the Councillors  explained, “You know, Whatever.”

The Manager invited the developers to a costume ball and said, "The Council wants affordable rental housing.  Can you do this?"  

The Developers snapped back, “It Depends on a variety of factors including finishing, size,  fixtures, landscaping and such.”  

The Manager said, “Whatever?” 

The Developers explained, "Exactly."

A year later 1,917 rental units were completed.   

When a little girl in the West End  learned  that the rents were way higher than  current market rates,  she sued. She claimed that  "They had no right to delegate legislative powers to the Manager and the standards are inadequate. They have taken my money, handed it over to developers for these high priced chicken coups?"

Unlike the hapless wolf in the fable, the councilors, anticipated this reaction. "It is not about law," they opined. "It is all about spin."  They hired a battalion of professional  twitter persons.  “Tweet Like the wind,” exhorted the Mayor! 

And so they did. Here are the twinkling tweets the twitterers tweeted:
The @CityofVancouver is now 1,917 units above its target for new rental housing by the end of 2014:  #vanpoli #bcpoli
1. Mayor's Office ‏@VanMayorsOffice29 Dec “Making housing more affordable means residents & families can live closer to where they work" -@MayorGregor  #vanpoli
2. Quinlan ‏@KQ_VanCity26 Dec  Housing affordability, oil tankers, transit referendum: @MayorGregor year-end Q + A with @SunCivicLee  #vanpoli
3. lamontagne ‏@nlamontagne26 Dec In cities working to enable new cultures of walking/bicycling, police are often slowest to change.  #vanpoli #walkLA

Moral:  It remains to be seen whether it is any harder to fool little girls today than it was when James Thurber composed his fable. Whatever.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


The issue of how large a gift may appropriately be given to a politician by a developer periodically makes the news.

Small gifts can be as politically damaging as large ones. Mayor Jack Volrich accepted a Seiko watch from Japanese officials while he and other councilors were visiting Japan.  It was a ceremonial visit and gift. There was nothing wrong with it.  Besides,  Mayor Volrich did more than any local politician to bring  Expo 86 to Vancouver.

Did they call him "Expo Jack" after that? 

No. He was remembered as Seiko Jack. He and the NPA lost the next election to Mike Harcourt.

Relieving taxpayers of their burdens

Councilor Tim Stevenson has performed a splendid service by his willingness to test how far one can go in accepting gifts, even for the good cause of taking on homophobia in Russia. According to the CBC, a recent Council motion includes a mandate for Stevenson to travel to Russia and lobby the IOC to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights in the Olympic charter and ensure host cities have a pride house.

The CBC reported as follows: )

Funding for the trip is expected to come from private donations, including $50,000 that has already been donated by condo marketer Bob Rennie and hotelier Peter Wall, two major players in Vancouver. Critics have raised concerns the donations could influence future development decisions at city hall, but Mayor Robertson disagrees.

"The key thing [is] if people are willing to put money forward for initiatives, that's fantastic," said Robertson. "If it takes the burden away from taxpayers then that's good for all of us."

The initiative in this case - sending a councilor to the Olympics,  is different from giving money for  the Orpheum Theatre or for a park. The difference is recognized by the law.

The Vancouver Charter

Under Section 196 of the Vancouver Charter, the duties of office  include travel by a Councilor to represent the City abroad. He is entitled to claim expenses. Council has implemented this power under the Mayor and Council Members' Expenses Bylaw No. 8904.

Vancouver Charter s. 141 sets out the grounds upon which a councilor can be removed from office. One of the grounds is a violation of Vancouver Charter s. 145.7. That section states

“(1) a Council member must not, directly or indirectly, accept a fee, gift or personal benefit that is connected with the member's performance of the duties of office.

(2) Subsection 1 does not apply to (a) a gift or personal benefit that is received as an incident of the protocol or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office,

(3) A person who contravenes this section is disqualified from holding an office described in, and for the period established by, section 141 (2) [disqualification], unless the contravention was done inadvertently or because of an error in judgment made in good faith.

Thus, travelling to the Olympics would be connected to Councilor Stevenson’s performance of his duties of office. He would not be on a frolic of his own. As a result, he could fall victim to another current trend: To sue councilors and the City.

But there is more to it. A separate section, s 145.8 requires disclosure of the receipt of gifts that are incidents of protocol. If the gift is connected with the member’s performance of his duties, the section would not apply and would not be a defence.

The Petitioner would argue that interpreting sections 145.7 and 145.8 together, if a councilor, even indirectly, accepts a gift of an expense paid trip to Sochi; he has contravened the section and would be disqualified from holding office.

Councilor Stevenson has not concealed anything. In fact he indicated that if the Russians sent him to some gulag or other, he hoped his friends would send him Purdy’s chocolates. "I like the dark ones," he added.

The process for removing a councilor from office under these circumstances is by a simple application to a court for a declaration of disqualification. It must be brought within 45 days by 10 electors  under s. 142 of the Vancouver Charter.

Regardless of the law,  can it ever be right for a councilor to accept a substantial gift from a developer, whether or not the gift relates to the performance of his or her duties? A councilor's duties, in addition to visiting Russia and correcting that country's moral shortcomings, also include regulating developers. 

Even if the councilor agreed not to vote on any project that directly or indirectly affected the most well intentioned developer, the Councilor's  job is to vote on development regulations- not to abstain on the grounds of conflict of interest or perceived bias.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Frances Bula recently called the Affordable Housing report “the Strangest Report  (approved Tuesday) I’ve seen in a while.”

She is right. The report, to coin a phrase, uses statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post--- for support rather than illumination.

Ms. Bula noted that the rents — $1,440 for a studio and up to $2,500 for a three-bedroom — seemed not anywhere near affordable, which the city’s persistent critics have noted. But the numbers in the report on actual completed projects indicate that, of the projects built or planned so far, the actual rents are way above the proposed rents.

Here is what happened

The West End Neighbours  sued to set aside two bylaws, one of which they said illegally delegated the power to the City Manager to create affordable housing. She set up quite a system. The Developer would submit an application for a building and estimate the proposed monthly rents. For example, the developer estimated that the proposed average rents for the 400 ft2 units at 1142 Granville Street would be approximately $960 a month. The Manager considered these rents consistent with the 
Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program, and the program’s successor, Secured Market Rental Housing PolicyRental 100.

The May 3, 2010 Staff report,  on the apparent assumption that the rents would be as proposed, states at pg. 7:

"The developer estimates that the units will rent on average for $960 a month. Given the finishing, unit size and design features in this location, staff find the rent levels proposed for this project to be consistent with STIR program and the City Manager has determined that there is a measure of affordability for this housing".

Some measure!  Some affordability!

Since the average rent downtown for a bachelor unit is about $1,047 per month, the rent may appear to have some "measure of affordability.” There was, however, a Catch 22. Once the project was completed, the rents for furnished 400 ft2 units were actually $1,495 per month.

The link below shows shows the hugely subsidized tiny unit in all its sartorial splendour.

Somehow or other the City Manager’s office failed to require the developer to stick with the proposed rents. This was simply not regulated. So, after getting a generous density bonus and having his or her Development Costs Charges and Amenity Contributions waived, he would rent the units for whatever he wanted. “Affordability” was ultimately not a requirement or even a factor.

The Councilors decided to set standards for affordability themselves and take away the City Manager's discretion thus agreeing to one of the orders sought in WEN's judicial review application. 

They seemed to think that the whole Judicial Review Application was a mere technicality. They hoped that Council  could take whatever developments the the Manager had approved, apply her standards and enact all of it as a bylaw. They expected nothing would change. 

Staff therefore came up with numbers that they thought would confirm the wisdom of the Manager’s determination that the rent was affordable.

When they produced their report, they discovered that they screwed up. It is not clear from their public comments that they really understand to this day what they did. The actual rents were not as proposed and approved by the City Manager as being affordable.   That is why the City has now set the maximum average rents at the present exorbitant figures. They have to set them high to legitimize previous approvals and current in stream proposals.

The shocking fact is that the City has been approving these developments, from the start without any regard to ultimate affordability. As WEN  (West End Neighbours) suspected, Council rezoned the properties, provided density bonuses and waived applicable levies on the theory that by so doing they were lowering the cost of housing. They did it for nothing. The City and tax payers are out of pocket. 

There are many morals to the story, one of which is, "Never believe your own lies." Another is that the spoils system of government with a politicized bureaucracy may be American as apple pie but can produce absolutely terrible government. On this point have a look at today's Vancouver Province Newspaper explaining why a civil service must be apolitical.

Don’t blame the developers. Presumably acting fully within their contractual rights, they saw to it that fools and our money were soon parted. It was the Council, not the developers,  that broke the law when it improperly delegated their responsibility to the Manager, contrary to the express requirements of the Vancouver Charter.

When Councilor Louie, the Chairman of the Finance Committee, was interviewed by Frances Bula, he noted that he found it difficult to explain.

I bet he did.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'        
Lewis Carol, Alice in Wonderland

Vancouver City Council had given the City Manager the extraordinary power to make the word unaffordable mean affordable. Depending on her feelings on the subject, she could in effect bypass zoning bylaws and subsidize developers to develop  rental housing at or above market rates.

The system was straight out of Alice in Wonderland, so an Association of 
West End Neighbours sued City Hall.  The Judicial Review application did not have to go to court. Council could no longer hide behind the Manager’s skirts. It revealed the standards that they thought should be applied. 

The scheme was even crazier than when Councilor Jang announced that everyone knows that 'affordable means - what else- affordable.' As it turns out affordable means anything but.

“Developers charging a rental of $1440 to $2743 for market housing deserve a subsidy? On what planet is that affordable ? ”

Depending on the perversity of one's sense of humour, it gets funnier.

Councilor Raymond Louie is quoted in the Globe and Mail by Francis Bula.  He told her today that 
the units being created through the incentive program, despite the fact that they are initially expensive,  will become more affordable as they age. 

On that theory, the Taj Mahal and the Palace at Versailles could be justified as long term affordable housing projects. In fact what Marie Antoinette actually said before King Louie's and her own beheading was, " Let them live in Versailles and eat cake."

Stay tuned.