Heavy

Hey folks. This is a difficult time for many in our community, but I wanted to say a very few words here. I don’t have much to add to the conversation going on, there are more powerful and important voices than mine right now – you and I are both better off listening to them and taking this time to learn and reflect on what those voices are telling us.

The City of New Westminster has moved our flags to half-mast for 215 hours to show respect to those lost and those grieving, and to raise community awareness. As a municipal government, we also need to listen and learn at this time.

I have heard there are couple of grassroots memorial sites being set up in New West, as in other communities across Canada. Children’s shoes are being placed at the Cenotaph at City Hall, and teddy bears at Hyack Square. Please respect these memorials and add to them if you feel inclined.

What we know for certain is that the Kamloops gravesite is not an isolated event or location. These schools crossed the nation, and the number of children who didn’t come home is uncounted, but certainly in the thousands. Our own City has a unique history in the colonization of Western Canada, and the horrific impacts of this are not only historic, they continue in real tangible ways today. This is here and now, not ancient history.

The City of New Westminster is committed to our reconciliation journey. If progress is slow, or not as visible to the public, it is because we are mindful of the relationship building we must do first, the preliminary steps in our framework are to assure we include and engage with indigenous people and organizations in honest and respectful ways. We are also doing a significant amount of learning, as Council members and as Staff, so we can be more truthful and direct in our actions as they roll out. Like many things, the meetings are delayed by COVID, but the work is happening, at the Task Force level and with all of Council.

We will not just remember and mark this event, we will act and are acting. I sincerely hope the community will come along with us, and that they will push us when we need a push, so we can face the challenge ahead. We will be such a stronger, more just, and more resilient community for having done this work.

In the meantime, listen, learn, and open your mind and heart to the difficult ideas and emotions ahead. This story by the Record has a really great list of resources if you want to learn more, or want to know how you can do more.

Tired

It’s exhausting.

I just don’t know how to talk about this, especially in a family friendly way. Swears are all I got left. Not the kind you yell out, but the kind you just mumble. We are all waiting to get “around the corner”, the “light at the end of the tunnel”, or whatever metaphor you want for being done with the bad news. So we can start working on building things instead of rushing to fill newly dug holes, start getting healthier instead of staunching the flow of bad shit. But the bad shit keeps on coming. It can be crushing. Our tear supply runs low. Damn.

I don’t know if it is confirmation bias or something systemic, but fire seems to be a thing of modern New West, not just the legend of our past. Maybe it’s the cost of having so much 100-year old infrastructure that was preserved due mostly to decades of neglect, but still doesn’t quite have the value in it to fully modernize. Or the remnants of our pioneer spirit that emphasizes tacking on the new instead of maintaining the old. Or maybe it’s just a run of bad luck. Like the last one and the one before, this one hits hard, and will change us.

Like many people in New West, I have my personal stories about these spaces. The Pho place became our go-to for soup-like weather (like Monday was, strangely enough) when they replaced the reliable old-school pasta place that was there for so many years no-one remembers a time before. Watching the slow migration of the décor from Mediterranean to Vietnamese became part of the charm of the place, but the Hue-style spicy soup is what brought me in, and the staff are such nice people. We were rooting for them to survive the lockdowns.

I’m not a renowned denizen of night clubs, but even I had a couple of memorable nights at the serial-name-changed night club, some best-not-related (Happy Birthday, Jeremy!), but I think the night dancing with the Pattullo Bridge costume and losing a vote to a dead Kennedy will be one of the legends of my life.

And then there is the Heritage Grill, and yeah I am giving it the extra emphasis. So many plans were schemed in that back room with the sketchy AV system – more than a few of them implemented. So many New Westies met their cohort for the first time in that space, so much music (most of it good!). For all its quirks and foibles, that corner of Columbia and Church was a place where community was built. The owner, Paul, took a risk on opening a small live music spot 16 years ago when most thought Columbia Street wasn’t ready for this kind of thing. He then went about making New West ready for it, by making the space welcoming to artists, musicians, and any organization wanting to do something different in the community.This is how I will remember the Heritage. The backroom filled to capacity at a funraising (fundraising?) event for a political cause the folks in the room will remember fondly.

The Heritage Grill became a hub for the Pride community, for the environmental community, and a few political careers were launched there. The $10 Burger and Beer fundraiser was the easiest way for a small organization to raise a little seed funding, and start a movement. Paul was so generous in giving space to the community, I’m glad to see the community is finding a way to give back to him. Help if you can.

Addendum: Hey, I’m not a tattoo guy. I’m apparently the last person on earth to not have ink in their skin. But I recognize that a tattoo artist also creates a community around their work, and the loss of this business also impacts our residents, our downtown and the people who put their passion and skill into a business. It just wasn’t top of my mind while writing this up, as it was not a business I had a personal contact with. No slight intended. Also, two other Funding Campaigns have been set up to support the owners of Happy Buddha and Pho Pho You to help them get through this time. Thanks Rosie for pointing these out to me!  

We feel the loss, those of us who received so much from these community businesses over the years, but I can’t imagine the loss being felt by those whose dream was building that business. Now, of all times, after a year of holding on by their fingernails, the tree branch is taken away. Overnight. Right when re-opening was on the horizon. Shit.

It’s too early to suggest what this means for Downtown. The loss of a 100 year old building and vibrant community-supporting businesses is tough. Another gap in the streetscape scares me just as much. The prospect that this site may sit empty for a decade or more, like the last fire site downtown where the owners appear to have no motivation to bring the streetscape back into active use, or the empty lot at the corner of 8th and Columbia where the owners have apparently lost interest in activating their approved plans, or the decrepit and effectively abandoned property at 4th and Columbia… There is a momentum here we clearly need to shift, only I don’t know how we shift it. That is the conversation we need to have if we hope for Columbia Street to be the community-supporting street many of us want to see. Does this fire push is back another step, or is it motivation to push us forward?

I guess we’ll see.

But for now, there are people to thank. The fire department once again spent an exhausting weekend making the city safe, dealing with stresses and dangers the rest of us can’t know. As has become practice for major events, the fire services of our neighbouring communities came out to provide assistance, and we owe those communities our gratitude. The Police were there to support them, managing traffic, keeping the public safe, and no doubt had to deal with both the curious and the devastated, and as always did so with professionalism. City engineering crews had to deal with drainage not designed to deal with this level of water or debris, and set to work assuring utility services are still useable by neighbouring properties. Electrical crews have to find a work-around to the loss of distribution line and transformers, and hope to get the local neighbourhood back up and running before Tuesday when everyone expects their life back to normal. In an event like this, there are so many people who need to do unexpected work on a long weekend – stuff that is definitely not in their workplan, and certainly not something they booked off work Friday afternoon figuring they would be doing. The very least the rest of us can do is see that the work isn’t thankless. Thank you all.

And then it’s over to us. The community, the BIA, the businesses downtown, the owners of property, and us folks in City Hall. Today the Province announced the restart plan version 2, we need to get those vaccines in our arms and show a couple more weeks of diligence and that light at the end of the tunnel will be upon us. Maybe the restart is the good news we have been waiting for. I know we’ve all been working as much as we can – emotional labour especially – over the last year. Now we get to do the other stuff, and see what we can build. So take a deep breath, mutter out a few curses, take time to think about all we have lost, and get to work building something memorable.

Assessments 2021

Assessments are here. For those who own homes, this means a letter arrived in the mail telling you what the assessed value of your property was on July 1, 2019. It also tells you what the assessed value was over the previous three years. Some people are very upset to find their property has gone up in value, which means their property taxes are going up. Others are very upset that their assessed value has gone down, and their investment is losing value. At least, that is what I glean from Social Media, but maybe I need to get out more.

I have written before about the relationship between property assessment and property taxes, and about how the assessment process works, so this will be a bit of an update/summary of those posts. A bit of redundancy, but with new numbers.

First off, your assessment does impact your property taxes, but not as directly as you may think. The City has not passed a 2021 budget, so I do not yet know what the 2021 Property Tax rates will be, but in our last discussions, we seemed to be settling towards something like a 4.9% increase over 2020. I will round that up to 5.0% for the purposes of this discussion as long as we can all agree that is speculative and the numbers may change between now and when you get the bill.

That 5% means the amount of revenue the City will receive in property taxes from existing taxpayers will go up 5%, but it does not mean the cheque you write in July will necessarily be 5% higher than the one you wrote in 2020. First off, it only impacts the portion of property taxes that the City gets to keep. Last year, your residential Property Tax Bill looked like this:

So 58% of your property tax goes to the City, 35% to the provincial government through the School Tax, and about 7% to other agencies regulated by the provincial government. Everything else I talk about below here relates only to that to-the-City portion of the tax bill. To find out how the School Tax is set or how the BC Assessment Authority spends it’s 1%, you need to go to someone else’s blog. All this to say if the City put your municipal property taxes up by 5%, the amount of money you pay only goes up about 2.9% (that is, 5% of 58%).

If you look at your Property Assessment letter, you will note that the average change in property values in the City of New Westminster was a 3% increase. Because the City calculates its property tax rate based on this average value, a 5% increase will be based on this value. If your house went up in value by the average, then a 5% tax increase means the municipal portion of your property tax bill will go up 5%. The relationship between these two numbers is linear, so to calculate your potential increase, subtract the average value increase from your own value increase, and add the 5% increase the City is proposing:

My assessment (1940 SFD on a 5,300sqft lot in the Brow) actually went down by 11% since last year. So my Municipal taxes would go down by (-11)-(3)+5=  –9%.

My friend in Sapperton (1920 SFD on a 4,000sqft lot) saw her assessment go up by 20% over last year, so her Municipal taxes would go up by (20)-(3)+5= 22%.  Yikes.

Assessment is a dark science, and every year there are weird local effects of property values in one neighbourhood going up or down relative to others, and it is not always clear what the causes of these changes are. A recent example is the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park which was either going to cause housing prices to go through the roof and make the neighbourhood forever inaccessible to young families, or was going to crater the value of the houses dooming young families to inescapable debt, again depending on which Social Media account you followed. The reality is, it had little perceptible effect when compared to similar properties in Glenbrook North or the West End over the last 5 years. The market is bigger than one neighbourhood.

Properties actually sell “above assessed value” or “below assessed value”, a metric that is often used as an indicator of a market trend, since assessments are always at least 6 months old. However, it is important to remember that, in aggregate, things just don’t shift as much as they do in one-off conditions. If the person up your street who spent $50,000 on a new kitchen sells their house, they are likely to get more than the neighbour who has a black mold farm in the basement, even though both houses may look the same from the outside. Assessments are approximations of how the “typical” or median house of the size, age, and lot dimensions in your neighbourhood should be valued, not an evaluation of your wainscoting. Individual results may vary.

If you think your increase or decrease this year is unfair, there is a process to appeal your assessment, but you can’t dawdle. Local governments have to know the official assessed values by April so we can set our tax rates and get those cheery bills into the mail, so the Assessment Authority has to provide official numbers by the end of March. Therefore you only have until February 1st to file an appeal, but if you think you might want to do so, you should contact BC Assessment immediately and get the details about what you need in order to make that appeal. The important part is that the onus is on you to provide evidence that the appeal is wrong, not vice versa.

Goodbye 2020

It’s the time to do year-in-review stuff, but I honestly have been struggling to get this written.

2020 was a year when many of us realized we are lucky, and/or privileged in ways we never considered. I got through 2020 with a secure job (well, two, and one more secure than the other), and a partner whose job was similarly transferrable to the dining room table. We also have a secure dining room in which to put that table. Our family and friends are for the most part well, though we do miss time with them. This year, the most basic seems too much to ask for.

Here in our community, there are many families impacted directly by the COVID crisis and the poisoned drug supply crisis. The pernicious effects of inequality and homelessness were made worse this year as the ability for already-strained supports to do their work met breaking points. It was a year punctuated by loss: some personal, some community-wide and far-reaching like the Timber Wharf at Pier Park. Businesses and not-for-profits are struggling, and many will not be here after this has passed. For good reason, I am sensitive to griping about my own not being able to do a year-end trip or celebrate my Dad’s Birthday-ending-in-zero with my family. In the big scheme, I am really lucky.

This was a difficult year to be on City Council, for reasons both obvious and obscure. The thing I love most about the Council job is the big vision work: the long-term planning and policy stuff that is so important to how the City is shaped over years and decades. This was the first work put aside this year when everything changed. So much of this year we were flying blind – doing things that we had to make up as we were going along. New West being a well-organized City, we had a Pandemic Response Plan that had been put together presumably after the SARS situation almost 20 years ago. It had accumulated some dust, but it at least gave staff a framework to hang new response plans on, and we were fortunate to have it. But from that part forward, it was all new.

Some of our larger visions / strategic plans / campaign promises had to take a back seat in the all-important second year of the term. Not forever, but just while staff had a chance to understand the impacts of the emerging Pandemic and its impact on City operations. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was Council’s decision to pause for a few months the procurement process on the replacement for the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre. Caution shown earlier in the year and the foresight of the Federal and Provincial governments to provide critical financial support directly to local governments facing revenue holes (to the tune of $6 Million for New Westminster) meant that we got out of 2020 in decent financial condition. We are not out of the woods yet, and our revenue is likely to continue to be down through to the end of 2021, but we are OK for now.

That said, I think Council was pretty unified in recognizing our priorities before the Pandemic were still priorities through the Pandemic: addressing as best we can the homelessness, childcare, and engagement gaps in the City, and integrating Climate Action into everything we do as a City so we can hit 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets. There was no time to take our foot off the gas on these pressing issues, and we managed to keep them moving. Still I fear limited desire in senior governments to help us on these ongoing issues in the year ahead. Crisis breeds austerity in the upside-down economics of neoliberalism, and that will, I think, be the real test for us as a society in 2021.

On the positive side, I am incredibly proud of the work that staff did this year. Thrown into unfamiliar territory and re-writing work plans while managing their own anxieties about health, their family, their finances, or the state of the freaking world, they found ways to get the work of the City done. The water flowed, the sewer worked, the trash went away, trees were planted, fires were put out and people in need were supported by first responders. Staff also found creative new ways to support those made vulnerable in our community, and to help businesses navigate their biggest challenges. Staff shone especially in managing the most uncertain of all budgets, in finding better ways to conduct public engagement, and in reporting out on that engagement. These efforts made it easier for Council to ground our decisions in a time of so much uncertainty. Staff have a lot of good work to look back on and be proud of in this difficult year, so if you have a chance this holiday, thank a muni worker in your life, they rarely get acknowledgement, and this year more than ever, deserve it.

So the City came through the first half of the Pandemic well, but the route was never easy. For Council, the change in how we made decisions, the uncertainty of an unfamiliar path, and even the shift to remote meetings made it a more difficult year to find consensus. In one sense, I missed spending unstructured time with my Council colleagues this year, the meeting at events or at committee meetings or just over City Hall lunches. It was in those times we found our common goals or were able to sense how others were feeling, push ideas or address push back. Instead, I found I was irritated by Council more this year than I remember previously (I suspect a few of them feel the same way about me, but that’s their story to tell), and at times frustrated by the process. I was too fast in finding the fault and too slow to see the progress. All to say, it was not fun year. But that’s not the goal, I guess.

Now I have a real week off, no travel planned, and time to kill. I have a few projects, and @MsNWimby has a few more she would love to see me get done. I have a few books to read that I hope will give me some inspiration. Looking back, even without the Pandemic it was an eventful and challenging year. Loss seemed to be the theme. It doesn’t help that I’m 50+ now and can no longer fake the side of the hill I am on. So I am trying to think more about 2021 and the work we have ahead. I’m going to take some strength from the resilience this amazing City showed in the shitty year behind us, and look to the brighter days ahead. I hope your 2021 shines bright.

Year of the Beard

I’ve been taking a serious year-end break. I took a couple of weeks off work, got out of town just after the last Council meeting. I’m taking a social media break as well, though I do hazard a short lurk once in a while to assure myself #NewWest still exists. I brought a few City documents on the road with me, and I am spending a bit of down time reading capital budget stuff (January is coming on soon!)but it’s been nice to turn most things off for a bit, ride my bike, sit on a beach, and chill with @MsNWimby.

That said, the week between Christmas and the New Year is ripe for these “year in review” things, so here goes mine. 2019 was a strange and interesting year, and I have a hard time summing my 2019 up.

One big change for me personally in 2019 is a change in my work/life balance. I went back to more regular “work” outside of Council. When elected in 2014, I was working full time. After almost two years of increasingly strained attempts at making it work, I had to be honest that I was not giving the attention or energy my 40-a-week professional job deserved, and decided to quit. For the balance of my first Council term I was doing a bit of consulting work, but nowhere near full time. Being honest about the effort and time I could put in with this council work (and my volunteer work with the CEA, CSAP, and LMLGA), I had found a couple of clients that offered the right level or workload, though I think @MsNWimby would have liked a more equitable contribution to household expenses.

In early 2019, I had an opportunity to take a real job working in my field that was half time – a solid 20 hours a week at a proper professional wage. It is work I am very familiar with so the learning curve was easy to get past, and I was able to provide value right up front. The employer is super flexible, and we have a great relationship around planning a work load for the weeks ahead, so I can assure scheduling conflicts are avoided. It all seems very “millennial” in work conditions, but it is working for everyone, and I am staying connected in my field. It has been a fun team to get to know as well, and the work is really interesting. so all’s good!

I also spent a bit of time in 2019 volunteering on the local federal election campaign. This was mostly a good news story – Peter Julian is an easy Member of Parliament to support, he had a great team working for him, and it is fun to knock on doors and make phone calls when you are stumping for such a popular guy!

The disappointment side of the 2019 Federal Election, personally, is a regret that I didn’t spend more time over in Coquitlam/Port Moody helping Bonita Zarrillo’s campaign. I have known Bonita from local government stuff for a few years, and was really excited to hear she was going to represent the NDP in Fin Donnelly’s riding. She is passionate, smart, caring, and hardworking, and she loves her home in the Tri Cities. In the end, she lost a squeaker to a parachuted-in ultra-conservative who failed to meaningfully campaign when she arrived. To see such a brilliant local leader lose to a party-issue hack form central casting is sad. To me a Member of Parliament is representative of your community in Ottawa, not a representative of the Party in your community. I feel disappointment that I didn’t have the foresight to invest more of my volunteer time to help Bonita, when she just needed a few hundred votes to get over the top. Sorry Bonita, but I am glad we are still working together in Local Government in the Lower Mainland.

In the local political realm, New West Council had probably the most quietly challenging year I have ever experienced. From my seat, it seemed there were very few big splashes, yet we pushed some really bold stuff forward. I have felt a tremendous amount of personal growth in how I approach the work, and the organization’s growth in some of the functional changes we are making at City Hall and in Council Chambers. We are making the organization more efficient and effective, though some of this is a bit out of sight for all but the vigilant council-watcher. This is alongside the real progress and growth reflected across the organization on files like climate and reconciliation. I think our Strategic Plan is (perhaps) too aggressive in wanting to achieve much more in a short time period than will be easy for a City our size. That said, I can’t disagree with the bold vision created, and hope we can continue to build the political will to be the most progressive and forward-looking local government in the province, if not in Canada. The shift represented by our Council and Staff’s embrace of aggressive climate actions is an encouraging example of progress that can be made when we are all on the same page, and I’m glad this community is still pushing us forward on that front.

In looking back at the direction we are forging, I find myself using words like “aggressive” and “bold”. Still, it feels like we are being given the clear political push from the public to get this work done. The community is telling us they can be just as bold as this Council, and perhaps through us providing transparency and a clear set of underlying values and vision, I am more confident in our ability to make this progress.

It is a bit funny, but you sometimes need to go outside to see how good things are inside. Our Council has ways of disagreeing – even new ways different than the last Council –and can drive each other nuts with our 7 different ways of approaching solutions, but if our paddles sometimes cross, we are all at least rowing the same direction. It is mostly at regional or provincial conferences where our cohort reminds us that New West is functional and punching way above its weight in the local government actions, and we do it while avoiding so much of the hijinks afflicting other less-functional Councils around the region. They get headlines, we get work done. That is a good feeling.

2019 had challenges, but I think the year ahead will be more challenging. We are deep into Capital Budget discussions right now, and are asking for the public’s help in setting those priorities. Translating an aggressive capital plan into a sustainable operational budget is the hard work part. We will be having some conversations not just about the things we want to do, but our vision for the 5 years ahead is going to have to include some conversations about what we are not going to do, or are going to stop doing. And New Westminster is not as good at letting things go as we are at starting new things (and by that I mean Council, City Staff, and the Public!). These conversations will be at times hard, but worth while. I’m looking forward to the work!

With all of this going on, I hardly had time to ride my bike for recreation, my blog here has been suffering from lack of attention (but blogs as a media are deader than dead, so who knows the future of this?), and my garden was a pretty dismal failure, except for all the tomatoes. I also found myself intentionally stepping back a bit from some things in 2019, mostly because of my new work & commuting schedule: fewer of those “I should make an appearance” events, and less patience for social media. I’m not sure what to make of my nascent impression that our local political challenges have become pettier, despite the good work we are doing (see above). I am not sure if that is a product of the changing social media landscape, or just the natural result of me settling in after five (5!) years of elected life. Or maybe I’m getting older.

Which brings the big personal news – I turned 50 in 2019. I’m not sure how that happened, but it just kinda snuck up on me and now I am looking down the second half of middle age. @MsNWimby threw a hell of a party, and I really haven’t taken the time to thank everyone who came out to celebrate. 50 makes you ornery, I guess. Or gives you a ready excuse to be so. Thank you for the great party, and for being a great support network for me and @MsNWimby.

Let me wrap my 2019 in review by thanking the wider network of great people in New West working to build this unique, progressive, compassionate community. There are so many people in this town who are doing so much to make it a great place to live. My Council colleagues are constantly challenging and surprising me, and the Mayor has really grown into a strong leader who earns more respect every day. There are true leaders in the School District, in the Arts community, in our BIAs and local businesses, in the many service agencies that make New West tick. Please keep up your good work, though it may feel you are fighting against the tide, your contributions are noticed and appreciated. If I have one resolution for 2020, it will be consciously spending less time worrying about the boo-birds on Facebook, and more time expressing gratitude to the many people around New West actually working every day to make this community so great. Happy New Year!

Renovictions

There was a meeting this week hosted by the Vancouver Tenants Union in my Brow of the Hill neighbourhood. It was to address the culminating “renoviction” crisis in this area, and to hear from people who may be facing renoviction. As I said in my previous post, this is the hardest question for me to address as a City Councillor, and this meeting was at times heartbreaking (see a good summary in the Record here). These are my neighbours (quite literally in one case), they are scared, and we heard a lot from them at this meeting.

The background to the meeting is the work that the Vancouver Tenants Union are doing around the region to provide support to people who are facing renoviction. They are one resource that can assist people in appealing eviction notices, in making sure tenants’ rights are protected to the letter of the law. They have been working mostly in Vancouver, but have also done some work in other areas in the Lower Mainland, and see New Westminster as a current “hot spot” for renovictions.

Whenever this issue of renoviction comes up, there is a common refrain that we need to give landlords the ability to maintain and renovate these lower-cost buildings, or they will quickly degrade into slums. We hear that many of these buildings are approaching end-of-life, and the increase in rent is necessary to fund the renovations to keep them standing. The VTU are presenting data that this is largely a red herring, and I am going to dig deep into one example they use. So grab a tea and comfy seat, this may go on a bit:

If you prefer TL;dnr versions: The current renoviction surge in New Westminster is mostly the result of investors extracting healthier returns for their portfolios by throwing low-income people out on the street. This is not an unfortunate result of unavoidable events – this is driven by greed for profits. And they aren’t even subtle about it.

The building-systems-reaching-end-of-life situation does occur. We get applications every couple of years for a building that fits this description. However, we are now seeing a huge increase in numbers, and dozens of buildings in New Westminster are now facing some form of renoviction, most owned by the same small group of land-flipping corporate entities. There is significant evidence that this is a profit-driven activity.

As a single case in point, the VTU provided me a copy of a sales brochure for a commercial property in New Westminster. I have done what I can to remove the actual address from this to protect the privacy of the current residents, but suffice it to say this is a ~40 year old three-story walk-up typical of New Westminster’s ample affordable rental stock. The real estate agent is offering this “renovators dream” for sale for $3.5 Million, which is $500k over assessed value. Here is a redacted image of page 2 of the brochure:

I would love to go through this pamphlet and pick out the numerous flaws in fact in here, (“The area has gone through a major resurgence with the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Hospital into condominiums” – The St. Mary’s site is currently an elementary school and public park), and speculative fiction about potential increases in suites, but making fun of sales-fluff seems seems pedantic, so I will concentrate on what we can glean from the prospectus. (highlights are mine:)

This shows 13 rental suites (one illegal, or “unauthorized” in the parlance of sales), with three of them vacant to “to help streamline the improvement program”. The other 10 are single-bedroom and renting for between $735 and $850 a month. This includes free parking and cable, and some landlord subsidy of the electrical (likely for common areas, heating, etc.). The building is netting $67,278 a year, which is a Cap Rate of 1.9% per year based on the $3.5M sale price. For some reason they are not renting out two legal suites in a market where rental vacancy is under 1%, but add that revenue, even if it meant a concurrent 20% increase in expenses and you can turn in an extra $16K, bringing the Cap Rate up to 2.3%. This is less than the expected return for a serious real estate investor, but in no way is this building losing money. As a bonus, the Residential Tenancy Act allows annual rent increases greater than inflation – these numbers will only get better over time.

Now shift over to the “Potential Rent” column. It shows an increase in rents ranging from 100% to 135%, renting the illegal suite, charging for parking, all of the electricity and cable, and all of the sudden your Cap Rate is a very attractive 6.6%. Note that nothing in this prospectus mentions the cost of significant renovation, and the sales pitch seem to suggest the building is in good shape, with recent heating and electrical upgrades. So the proposal is to more than double the rent and not increase costs at all. I guess I am mostly shocked that they have no shame just putting that right out there in the middle of a housing crisis.

The VTU have found a number of buildings in New Westminster in similar situations, and have been tracing the ownership of the corporate entities who are – and there is no finer point to make than this – making a healthy investment strategy out of throwing low-income and vulnerable people out on the street in the tightest real estate market in the country.

Arguably, there is nothing illegal going on here. People are allowed to buy buildings and make money renting them out. If this building needs significant upgrades (or, if the landlord just wants to do upgrades such that they require the suites to be vacant), they are totally within their rights to throw those people out, provided they give appropriate notice. It becomes legally grey if they just do superficial upgrades as an excuse to evict residents. However, there is currently nothing the City or the Province can do to prevent this activity from taking place, and when the decision is to turn a small profit into a bigger profit by making vulnerable people homeless, then we are into a question of morality, not law.

The City is working hard to identify these properties, as are the VTU. At this point, all we can do is try to contact the residents and assure they understand their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act and what supports exist for them if they are insecure in housing. The VTU is working to get people in these buildings organized, and help guide them through the appeal process that exists under the RTA if they feel they were unfairly evicted, but need all of the information and support they can get. The City has no power to refuse building permits in these cases, if the landlord even bothers to apply for a permit.

Ultimately, we need to change the regulations to protect these vulnerable people from predatory rent increases. This is most likely to come from the Provincial government. At UBCM last year, the City of New Westminster put forward a resolution (endorsed by the membership) that read:

be it resolved that UBCM urge the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act including, but not limited to, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to allow renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increases, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy;

Although some changes in the RTA were made in May to give renovicted tenants more notice and compensation, we are still short of where we need to be, and renovictions are an emergent crisis in New Westminster. I wish there was something we could do, because being in a meeting with 50 people feeling the stress and recognizing some of them may become homeless, after all of the work this City has done and investments this City has made to protect and enhance our affordable housing stock, only because of a lucrative investment opportunity being sold here, is enraging

Middle Aged Westminster

I am just back from Vacation, and I am still trying to understand where the Royal City New West Record newspaper is coming from when they emphasize an alleged clash between the “New” and “Old” communities in New Westminster as their Story of the Year. Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it seems to evoke the divisiveness of the Old Stock Canadians dog-whistle message quoted in the article’s lead, and I simply disagree with the premise.

To suggest that “younger folks and families” filling new condos are somehow different than families living in houses is not only a false dichotomy, it creates an impression that one is better or more important than the other, and that somehow people (especially, as continually suggested in the story, the City’s government) are picking sides. It belies the reality of how mixed and diverse our City is, and how much blending there is in those two alleged camps.

I’m a resident of Brow of the Hill, not born in New West, but feeling very connected to this community I live in a house across the street from numerous apartments built in the 60s and 70s, predominantly full of renters, some more connected to the community as I, some less. On one side of my house is a family of “younger folks” who moved in at the end of 2015 after a decade of living in Vancouver, although one of them grew up in Queens Park and graduated from NWSS – are they “Old” or “New” New West? What about the retired couple across from me, one of whom was born in the BC Interior (like me) but had a career working for the City of New Westminster? I have friends who live in a condo on the Quay that has a demographic not far from your typical retirement village, I know young families filing more-affordable single-family homes in Queesnborough, some second-generation Canadians who first learned English at Queen Elizabeth Elementary, others the children of families that built Queensborough generations ago. Who has the hubris to draw the line between “New” and “Old” New West within this mix? Why would we want to?

Because between “New” and “Old” New West is a huge and growing number of “Middle Age” New West, those who have been here for a few years, or a few decades, and despite having not been born here, they have put down roots and are making New Westminster home. And they are raising a new generation of New West. At the the suggestion of conflict, most would say we are all New Westminster, whether our grandfather was born here, or we arrived as a refugee last week.

Our success as a community will be found in supporting each other, and embracing the diversity of our community. As the great Jane Jacobs reminds us in her treatise on vibrant neighbourhoods and cities, a diversity of people, families, buildings and activities are what create an economically viable and culturally sustainable community. Only that will make us strong enough to withstand threats external or internal, and avoid the stagnation that too often follows on the heels of urbanization. Just as we cannot stop innovating, we cannot throw away what is established, we need to make them work together.

So if building a great community means accepting all types of people sharing and working together, and if the line between “New” and “Old” is so fuzzy, what is to be served by trying to insert arbitrary lines, creating arbitrary categories, and watching for reasons for them to fight?

This ambiguity extends to the idea that there is some sort of fundamental transition happening in New Westminster today, or that suddenly the town that time forgot is being trust into a new era. The reality is that (for lack of a better word) “change” has always defined New Westminster as much as stability. Over 150 years we have gone from a Quayqayt (“Resting Place”) on a pristine river to a Capital City on the edge of the colony. We were at times largest port on the west coast, the home of the pacific fishing fleet and a regional commercial centre. We were eventually outshone by an upstart western suburb, then gradually enveloped by its growing metropolis. Over time our commercial dominance waned, then our waterfront industry declined. Soon the Quayside led a new residential focus based on waterfront location and condo living, while our transportation spine went from streetcar to automobile to Skytrain. There were good times and bad, and most of the time there was a little of both. These changes were most often gradual, shifts were generational, as were the waves of new immigrants putting their cultural stamp on our community – English, Chinese, Punjabi, Filipino, Honduran, Somali, Syrian…

Through all those times, transitions, and shifts, which should we stamp as the optimum, the one we must not move away from? I know I can’t make that call, and it would suggest it is silly to try. Because over that time all of our strongly-held traditions have adapted – including the oft-cited example of May Day. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about a study that outlined many of these “transitions”, including the way May Day and the festivals around it have changed, sometimes back and forth, based on the economics and attitudes of the day. Most interesting to me was the part that talked about a new upstart group of young business leaders who came in 40 years ago and re-drew a bunch of traditions to modernize the City’s May festivals – the group that came to be known as the Hyack Festival Association.

I only use this as an example, and don’t want to dwell on it, for fear I am playing into the narrative that I don’t believe.

Far from suddenly transitioning to a New New Westminster, we are continuing to evolve. I love some of New Westminster’s “Old” traditions (the Anvil Battery Salute? Who can’t love that?) and am completely uninterested in some others. I also love some (not all!) of the “New” traditions being developed (PechaKucha Nights!) and hope they survive to the next generation. Of course, in between there have been many Traditions that have come and gone, and some in that intermediate stage between “Old” and “New”. Some people like the RC Musical Theatre, some like the Symphony, some like comedy at the Columbia and live music at the Heritage. I think the Royal City Curling Club is a 50-year cultural and sporting tradition in the City that not enough people appreciate, but to love it doesn’t take away from the legacy of the Salmonbellies. Why do we have to choose and put ourselves in camps?

We are all New Westminster. So let’s keep embracing the things we love, and not be afraid to try new flavours. Because it is the combination of “New” and “Old” that makes us special, not an alleged conflict between them.

…and that’s all I have to say about the Whitecaps.

Yes, I am busy these days and haven’t had the writing time I would like, but I thought it was appropriate for me to finish off the Whitecaps story here, to follow up on my earlier optimism turned into creeping suspicion. People on the doorstep are still talking about the issue, and I think there are lessons to be learned from this process that deserve a bit of a debrief.

I’m going to come right out and say I think Council made the right decision, and from listening to their comments at the meeting and in the press, they made it for the right reasons.

As many of us suspected, it came down to the money. A rushed estimate had the City adding more than $11 Million in capital improvements to Queens Park to accommodate the needs of the Whitecaps and the other park users. This compared to $3 Million the City was already budgeting to spend in similar projects over the same timeframe. The “gap” between those two amounts was the central debate.

The breakdown, from the September 15th Meeting. 

Was this the best way for the City to spend $8 Million in capital improvements for Parks and Recreation right now? How does this priority line up against the need to address the Canada Games Pool, or to provide a second sheet of ice in Queens Park, as was included in the Master Plan? (admitted bias here: Ms.NWimby is tired of having to drive to Coquitlam to play hockey when we have two skating rinks within a few blocks of our house but there is no women’s hockey in New Westminster).

To be fair, we don’t know half the deal – the amount of money the Whitecaps were willing to provide, and the potential for other revenues arising from the project. Because of the nature of in camera negotiations, and because I’m sure the Whitecaps don’t want to make their offer public knowledge, as they are likely to be shopping around to other Cities, we can only speculate on whether their contribution would be enough to cover the capital investment costs, or if the less-tangible benefits to the community would have been worth the investment. Clearly, Council did not feel the offer was good enough.

Aside from the money, there were other reasons to support or oppose this project. Some argued the cachet of hosting a USL Pro Team, while other argued it was inappropriate to have what is essentially a for-profit private business operate on publicly-owned park land. If there is one thing I lament through this process, it’s that we didn’t really have a chance to hash out those debates in a meaningful way as a community. I think it would have been instructive going forward as we plan for the next phase of our city’s growth.

Alas, the timing was too short. If the Whitecaps had come around 12 or 18 months ago with a vision, there may (or may not) have had a different result, but we definitely would have had a different process and discussion.

On that timeline, we could have done the due diligence on the plan and the cost. We could have seen a mock-up of what the proposal was and make the inevitable and sometimes subtle changes that would be required to address unforeseen issues. New Westminster baseball could have been better engaged in the planning process, and could have been empowered to build the facility of their dreams without the risk of a lost season that may have hurt their organizations’ momentum. We could have done a comprehensive evaluation of the financial impact on the community and residents (good and bad). We, the residents, could have had a discussion about costs/benefits based on an actual plan, not on conjecture and suspicion. The Whitecaps could have worked with the Queens Park Neighbourhood to reduce impacts, and with TransLink and the Justice Institute or the Uptown malls to develop parking alternatives.

We could have also had time to not mix all of this business planning with the other big debate – is this something the City wants? The (I’m sorry, but it is ideological) debate around the entire idea of having a professional sports franchise operate in our limited parks facilitates. Some oppose this as too financially risky, others on pure ideological reasons, but that important discussion in the City could not happen in a meaningful way as part of this rushed business plan

This may turn out to be a bullet we dodged, or it may turn out to be an opportunity lost, and I guess we won’t really know. However, what was lost was an opportunity for a better community discussion, again forced by an unreasonably tight deadline.

One interesting thing that did come out of this was this post-mortem article in the NewsLeader which shows the balance between boosterism for the City and prudent municipal management. This is a theme that I will be talking about more as the election goes on. If I ever find the time to write!

Cultural Crawl weekend

Now that we all survived traffic-ferry-border-freeway chaos just to get to the beach-island-lake-forest for the long weekend, I am sure you have resolved to spend next weekend at home and never facing that again. Am I Right?
(disclosure: I spend all weekend in my backyard managing a fig harvest, in the kitchen making jam, in my basement/campaign office making plans and repairing bicycles, and consuming ice to keep from spontaneous combustion, but listening the radio most of the time, I was empathetic of those feeling the pain of the “three sailing wait”)
The good news is that you don’t have to leave New Westminsternext weekend to have a weekend full of fun and variety, because the CulturalCrawl is August 9-10. There are events happening in all the different neighbourhoods of New Westminster: some passive, some interactive: some featuring emerging artists, some looking at our history; some a feast for your eyes, some hitting the other senses. And it’s all free. 
When most of us think about Arts in the City, we think about the visual arts (and there is no lack of these on this tour), but Trudy Van Dop, the founder of the Culture Crawl, envisioned a distributed cultural experience, where a City can show the many aspects of its culture – the artists, the historic sites, the museums, the history and the hot spots. Think of what you would want to do if you had guests from outside of the country visiting New Westminster for a weekend- what are all the things you would you want them to see to show off the City’s best characteristics? The Cultural Crawl aims to make them all available on one weekend to encourage “Staycations”, and to attract regional attention to the culture of the Royal City. 
The many private and public galleries in the City are open for the weekend, including Trudy’s beautiful gallery in Victory Heights and the brand new art space opened by Susan Grieg at 100 Braid Street. There will also be special shows at our various museums (including Irving House and Cap’s Bicycle Museum), specials at various retail shops with artsy appeals (including Brick&Mortar Living, Localo Living, the RiverMarket, etc.) and events everywhere from an English Tea at Port Royal Community Garden to the annual Uptown Live music event. Jeez- have you seen the Uptown Live lineup
This year, Ms.NWimby and I are contributing to the Cultural Crawl in the slightest way possible. I mentioned in an earlier post about the passing of our friend, the great painter and artist Jack Campbell. He was born and raised in New Westminster, and created many works chronicling the recent history of his hometown. He was also well known and respected in the local arts community, even after he “retired” to paint on SaturnaIsland, so it turns out many people in New Westminsterhave small collections of his work.
During the cultural crawl, there will be a retrospective showing of selected pieces of Jack’s work, loaned from various New Westminster residents owned by local residents, at the New Westminster Arts Council gallery at Centennial Lodge in Queens Park. We have lent a few Jack originals and prints for the show, both depictions of New Westminster’s (sometimes gritty) history, and some of his late works that find unique forms in the arbutus trees and rocky shores of his home on Saturna Island.
So make Centennial Lodge one of your stops on the Crawl this year, pay a tribute to Jack, but mostly enjoy the fact we live in such a diverse, active, and expressive community, thanks to the volunteer efforts of people like Trudy Van Dop. Summer is great time to be in New West – why drive anywhere else? 


When Pipelines come home

I apologise once again for not posting as often as I would like here. There are many things afoot, bringing a completely different meaning to what I call “free time”. I am also working on a major project related to my pledge (a little more than a year ago) to take a risk – more details on that will be released really soon.

However, this issue has piqued my interest and I had to stay up late to write about it, because these hydrocarbon pipeline projects people keep talking about in other regions of the Province have come home to New Westminster.

After having attended last week’s NWEP meeting where Mark Allison from the City outlined the City’s approach to the project, and Elmer Rudolph from the Sapperton Fish and Game Club came to talk about the Brunette River, I think it is time we in New West started talking about Kinder Morgan.

You probably have heard that Kinder Morgan, the Houston-based uber-pipeline company that purchased the Trans Mountain Pipeline in 2005, wants to “twin” thee pipeline. To quote directly from the project site:

“Trans Mountain is proposing an expansion of its current 1,150-kilometre pipeline between Strathcona County (near Edmonton), Alberta and Burnaby, BC. The proposed expansion, if approved, would create a twinned pipeline that would increase the nominal capacity of the system from 300,000 barrels per day, to 890,000 barrels per day. At present, the Westridge Marine Terminal handles approximately five tankers per month. Should the proposed expansion be approved, the number of tankers loaded at the Westridge Marine Terminal could increase to approximately 34 per month.”

What we don’t know about this project could fill a blog post, but for a variety of reasons, I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of this project here. There has been some excellent analysis of the project opportunities and risks prepared by CRED, which you can read here.

However, few people in New Westminster up to now realized that this project will likely be passing though our own backyard, and may have a significant impact on one of the few remaining local areas of high ecological value: the Brunette River. When first announced, it appeared that the pipeline was to be “expanded”, suggesting that it would follow the existing right-of-way through central Coquitlam and skirting along the south side of Burnaby Mountain. However, the proposal showed a different routing for the new pipe, which passed through south Coquitlam, and essentially paralleled the Lougheed Highway. Now, and “alternative route” has become the favoured one – and this one passes though the green spaces on the New Westminster – Burnaby border, immediately adjacent to the Brunette River.

This is where Elmer Rudolph comes in. For those who may not know him, Elmer is a real local hero and a legend amongst western Canada’s Streamkeeper groups. He and his group from the Sapperton F&G Club have spent 40 years pushing the envelope on salmon habitat restoration in urban streams, improving the world’s knowledge of salmon ecology, habitat recovery, and environmental protection in urban areas. He did this mostly through sheer persistence and elbow grease. When the Brunette was a “dead” river as recently as 1970, a lot of very smart people thought any attempt to bring salmon back to the River and its would be wasted time. It was only 15 years later that the River came alive again, and for 20 years since, Elmer and his volunteers have made slow, steady improvement in habitat and water quality along the river and throughout its massive basin.

The route along the Brunette is also part of the region’s best Greenway route, the Central Valley Greenway. That route is a green oasis paralleled by development, density, and traffic, a heavily-used place for pedestrians, cyclists, dog walkers, and anyone wanting to escape the sun on these hot summer days and cool off along a bubbling salmon-bearing stream, right in the middle of our City. If you travel along the CVG, you see large areas of habitat enhancement – areas that were improved to improve water quality and habitat diversity – for the Port Mann Highway 1 expansion project only a year or two ago.

So I’m glad the City is getting involved in the project, and the idea of a Public Meeting in New Westminster to discuss the project and get the mood of the community about putting this project adjacent to the Brunette River (like the City did last year for the still-up-in-the-air Fraser Surrey Docks coal terminal project) is a good idea.