No Room For Vacant Dwellings

RJ Aquino's opinion piece as published by the Georgia Straight:
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Out-of-control housing costs, chronic transit issues and far too many marginalized communities and voices: For all its natural beauty and advantages, Vancouver has become a stressful place to live, work and take care of your family.
city.jpgDespite the near-zero vacancy rate in Vancouver, up to one quarter of dwelling units are unoccupied. There are many reasons why a home may be empty: some are vacation units, others are second homes, and others are properties awaiting permitting for redevelopment; some are speculative investment properties, condos and houses that are thought of as commodities, rather than a social good.

It doesn’t matter where the owners come from: some speculative investors are Vancouver residents, while others are buyers from other parts of Canada and around the world. What matters is the effect on our city, and what we choose to do about it.

 No matter the reasons for all these empty dwellings, our housing market and neighbourhoods are distorted. Housing is unaffordable for residents who cannot live near jobs and amenities. It also has a negative impact on the local economy, as businesses suffer in neighbourhoods that should be much more vibrant. Rather than streets populated with children playing, people out gardening, and families and friends out in their communities, we have - in some neighbourhoods - empty streets.

 City Council is reportedly looking to hire a consultant to investigate how many homes are empty, and why. It’s very late, but a necessary step: the true test of Council will be what they do with the data.

We believe that the City should establish an Empty Dwelling Levy that would double the effective property tax rate to disincentivize holding empty dwellings. Revenue generated from the Empty Dwelling Levy will be transferred to the Vancouver Housing Authority to develop new affordable housing. Similar policies exist or are being developed in cities throughout the world.

Critics will claim that it’s too difficult to assess whether a home is empty, and that there are sometimes good reasons for a home to be empty. Of course it isn’t simple, but this is a challenge that we need to undertake. Too much is at stake: the vibrancy and livability of our city means that working people, families, seniors, and marginalized people need places to live that they can afford.

There may be thousands of units already here, just waiting. We’d like them to be occupied.

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Investing in all our kids: Together, let`s strengthen our public schools

Once again, the Vancouver school Board faces an unwelcome rite of spring: a budget shortfall of over 8.5 million dollars. For well over a decade, BC’s school boards have struggled to comply with ever shrinking provincial government funding. So the VSB, like the rest of the province’s school boards, will be forced to make cuts. Kids, staff and programs will suffer. Again. 

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Curiously, more money for education seems to be available. The 2015 provincial budget added more funding to the private school pot, and also appointed a private education advocate.  Along with Premier Christy Clark, Minister of Education Peter Fassbender is increasingly a supporter of private education. Although cuts to education are presented as fiscally responsible and one part of the pursuit of a balanced budget, the underfunding of education appears to be ideological.   

Despite the government’s advances towards privatization, most British Columbians, and Vancouverites, believe that excellent public education is a priority and are fighting to preserve it. As the VSB’s budget shrinks, the pressure on Vancouver Parent Advisory Committees, which now act almost exclusively as fundraising bodies, increases.  Books, breakfasts, computers, theatre and gym equipment, playgrounds, musical instruments, the list goes on. Corporations, interested in advertising tools and consumer recruitment, donate these resources to needy schools; even then, over 40 schools in Vancouver are at high risk of collapsing in an earthquake, kids are coming to school hungry, and programs like music, physical education, special education, art, and French are stripped. 

All this because the province refuses to pay. School Board Chair Christopher Richardson promised to advocate for more provincial funding while increasing fundraising and major donations, but kids should not have to rely either on the kindness of strangers or the donations of big corporations to stock their public schools. We believe that any action that promotes or encourages private charity will undermine any advocacy for more provincial funding. What’s more, our most needy children need justice, not the stigma, inconsistency and potential humiliation of having to accept charity. 

Ceasing the province’s attempts to privatize the system, and securing full and stable provincial funding for public schools and a provincial poverty reduction plan are necessities. At this point, they are also long-term goals.  How might they be achieved?

Education activists, parents and families need to build a movement to bring about changes to save, and strengthen, the public school system. We can start by getting involved in our children’s school PACs, joining the fundraising conversation (see the recent Tyee online article), attending VSB public meetings, writing letters and emails, joining the advocacy groups FACE (Families Against Cuts in Education) and PPEN (Protect Public Education Now), both active on Facebook, and of course, we invite you to join in the OneCity discussion to help us define our education work.

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OneCity calls on Vancouver voters to 'hold their noses' and vote YES in the Transit Referendum

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Vote YES for a better transportation system: a clear and obvious answer – but what a MESS!

Metro Vancouver needs a better transportation system. We need the money to fund that system. "By voting yes, we play a part in addressing climate change, economic development, individual health and equality," says, RJ Aquino, former council candidate for OneCity.

A yes vote could ensure 70% of Metro Vancouver residents live within 5 minutes of a fast and frequent transit line. A yes vote could make it possible for drivers to save 15 – 20 minutes per day on the region’s most congested roads. A yes vote could maintain our current carbon footprint even with an additional 1 million people in the region. A yes vote could increase the movement of goods and services, creating jobs and expanding our economy. Finally, a yes vote could save about 400 lives and prevent about 8000 serious injuries.

So, we in OneCity will vote ‘Yes” on the referendum and we encourage our supporters and friends to do the same.

But what a mess.

First, why in the world is there a referendum at all?  When we built a new Port Mann Bridge we didn’t have a referendum.  When we replaced the roof at BC Place we didn’t hold a referendum.  Why a referendum for public transit?  Why a sales tax to pay for improvements when we know sales taxes are regressive?  They affect most those who can least afford to pay.  

Every level of government bears responsibility for the fiscal mess transit is in.  The Federal Conservatives have off-loaded and starved cities’ basic urban infrastructure, maintenance and improvements budgets. While Canadian cities are important economic engines and talent-laden creative crucibles, the federal government continues to de-invest in them.

The Provincial Liberals had a chance to take leadership on this issue. Knowing that better transportation is needed and that it will benefit everyone in the province, they could have funded transportation improvements avoiding a costly referendum. Instead, they chose to download their public policy responsibilities onto resource poor Metro Vancouver.

To make matters worse, the BC Liberals took a democratically accountable Translink governance structure and turned it into an undemocratic, opaque, financially bloated and wasteful organization. Instead of a clear vote for a better transportation system, voters are distracted by Translink’s lack of legitimacy and effectiveness.

Vision Vancouver and the Mayors’ Council are also to blame. They’ve failed to provide an appropriate and cost-effective transportation plan. Instead, they propose an expensive subway that’s more about developers’ plans for West Broadway than the desperate need for affordable and efficient public transit across the whole city.

Buses are at capacity and pass-ups are common. And transit accessibility is a critical issue for Vancouver residents. But the planned Broadway subway line does little to address this issue.

A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would cost about $410 million. The $3 billion budgeted for the Broadway subway (and nobody believes it could possibly be built for that amount) would build 7 to 9 BRT lines, blanketing Vancouver with a network of efficient, fast and convenient rapid buses to service the whole city, not just the Broadway corridor.

Despite all of this, we’re going to vote ‘YES’, because to defeat the referendum is to go backward on public transit.  A ‘NO’ vote won’t make Translink more democratic or more efficient.  A ‘NO’ vote won’t increase transit service across the city.  A ‘NO’ vote won’t force the federal and provincial governments to fund transit.  A ‘NO’ vote won’t fix the flaws in the Mayors’ plan.

We’re going to hold our noses and vote yes – and then we in OneCity will work as hard as we can to make sure public transit is a priority, that it’s affordable and accessible and that it meets the needs of the people of Vancouver.

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OneCity Continues Push for Campaign Finance Reform

VANCOUVER — Fresh from its first municipal election campaign, the OneCity team today continued its call for campaign finance reform in a written submission to British Columbia’s Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits. OneCity is putting forward a series of specific recommendations to overhaul what is clearly a broken system, beginning with strict limits on donations and spending for municipal political parties and candidates.

The ability to raise funds through donations and for parties and third-party groups to spend money on advertising should not be determining factors in any election. That is why OneCity is calling for individual donations during the civic election period to be limited to $250, and for strict spending limits for parties, candidates and third-party organizations. If and only if those limits are enforced for donations and spending, OneCity supports the complete removal of corporate and union donations.

OneCity is also calling for political parties to disclose all non-campaign period donations and to do so annually. Municipal political parties are currently only required to publicly report campaign-period donations, leaving three-plus years to stockpile unreported “dark money” and contributing to a lack of transparency and growing cynicism among residents.

OneCity’s first candidate for City Council, RJ Aquino, received 30,050 votes in the Nov. 15 election. The party’s full submission to the Special Committee is available here: http://www.onecityvancouver.ca/campaign_finance

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