Erin Airton interview with Bill Tieleman

Post by Erin Chutter in


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?

Bill Tieleman 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!


Much better City Caucus, balance! I hope this is a trend. Great interview and I hope to see Mr. Tieleman interview Ms. Airton in the near future along the same lines. This would be a great model of balanced blogging, a frequent segment where someone on the Left interviews someone on the Right and then vice-versa. Better than a debate I think. Certainly better than mud, mud, mud....

I'm curious about Mr. Tieleman's perpective on rental vs. ownership housing. That's a bit of a euphemism actually; I don't see how he can advocate more ownership rather than rental housing while admitting that housing cost challenges increasingly make it "impossible for young people to be independent and impossible to have a city with a wide range of diverse and interesting people".

The first affordability priority for young people and lower-income earners generally is to retain the ability to pay for a home on a rental basis, not just to enjoy cheap land values. You could take another 25% off of home/land prices in Vancouver and you still wouldn't be able to buy a home for under $ 300,000. In this case a 20% down payment still amounts to $60,000 and young people and lower-income earners who have trouble making monthly ends meet simply do not have $60,000 in the bank.

The question of rental housing is nothing less than the question of how many lower-income citizens have the right to live in the city that they love and need. With no significant vacancy rate, if you are one of these people and are evicted by your landlord under the 'use of property' provision (renovation, landlord wants to live there etc.) who then sells the unit as ownership housing, you are out of here. That is, unless you succeed at the musical chairs challenge that is our tenancy housing crisis and snag a unit that would have been rented to someone else otherwise, in which case they are out of here, unless...and so on. Eventually, someone can't sit down in time because there just aren't enough chairs. Hope you like Port Moody.

Otherwise Mr. Tieleman is spot on.

Hey, and you don't need to know Klingon to submit a comment anymore.
Is this CityCaucus 2.0 ????


We heard the feedback from our readers...and responded. Glad to see you like it...and we anticipate many more comments from you in the future!


We heard from our readers they can't read Assyrian from the 5th Century B.C., so we've made a change. If our commenters continue to be pithy and speak to the topic, it's going to be great.

Glad to help somewhat balance the City Caucus Tower so that it is ever so slightly moving more towards centre!

But to Michael Phillips point about rentals - as a longtime renter until my late 30s I am not advocating more home ownership versus rental housing - I'm advocating more affordable housing of every sort.

But if Vancouver increased its density and thereby helped reduce housing costs, it would result in both more rental and ownership housing.

The reality is, as Mark Twain famously said: "Buy land - they're not making any more of it."

We can't make more land in Vancouver - short of adopting Dutch reclaiming land from the sea tactics - but we can make the land sustain much more housing and at the same time help cut costs.

Vancouver has to grow up and become a more densely urbanized city - excluding the obviously densified West End - if we are ever to make the city truly more affordable.

But let's face it, Vancouver housing prices will never be like those in Winnipeg or Saskatoon.

Thank you Mr. Tieleman for your response. I realize your original statement about there existing a disproportionately high amount of rental housing in Vancouver could be read two ways and now I see what you intended, that an increase in density would lead to decreased housing prices which would allow current tenants to own more housing. I interpreted your words to mean that not interfering in the current city-wide shift from rental to ownership housing for existing and new units helped affordability because in the long-term home ownership rather than rental is more economically viable, the end, which would of course omit the part about how many people simply can’t afford to own and if you flip their home with no vacancy rate someone has to leave the city. I'm glad that wasn't what you meant.

Although I have to mention that if increased housing supply and decreasing prices were to correlate with an increased proportion of residences being owned not rented you would expect that home ownership would have decreased in the past 7 years of increasing prices and of constrained supply relative to demand, while the opposite has occurred and ownership has taken a big bite out of rental housing. I would actually suspect that if prices dropped because of increased supply, the controlled rent increases would have a chance to catch up to actual property values and we would see more rental housing as the relative advantage of avoiding rent controls by selling outright would diminish. This seems to be what’s happening now to some extent. In any case, thanks for clearing that up for me and continue the great work at 24.

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