Hey, what's a hundred million here or there anyway?
During the last term of council I received several media inquiries insisting that former Mayor Sam Sullivan provide proof regarding his claim to have secured 3,500 new units of social housing during his term in office. What stuck in the craw of his critics was that Sullivan told everyone who'd listen that he and Coun. Kim Capri had secured more funding for social housing from senior levels of government than any other previous administration, getting strong commitments from the Premier and Minister Rich Coleman. After all, the opposition's narrative was all about how Sullivan was doing nothing to solve homelessness.
As for a few media pundits, they were relentless in terms of getting Sullivan to explain the origins of every single social housing unit. I recall vividly asking my Director of Communications David Hurford to work with city staff to make public the “evidence” supporting Sullivan’s claims...and they did. All of this is now a matter of public record.
With Mayor Gregor Robertson now in the big chair, I’m intrigued with how little interest there is in the media to challenge his claims of tackling homelessness. Take for example the whopper that currently is posted on the Mayor's bio page at vancouver.ca. Robertson claims to have secured $170 million in “new” funding for social housing since he took office about 15 months ago. Quoting from the website:
The Mayor has since secured over $170 million in new funding from the provincial government for social housing throughout the City.
Seeing as how no one else appears eager to scrutinize the Mayor’s claim, we thought it might be good to do put it through our legendary de-spin cycle.
Let’s put the Mayor’s boast into context. He was elected to office in November 2008. He was then sworn into office three weeks later, and proceeded to head to Mexico for a well-deserved holiday. Then 10 weeks after that the Province of BC undertakes a series of groundbreakings to begin construction on those 3,500 social housing units Sullivan referred to before leaving office.
The first groundbreaking took place on March 17th, 2009 whereby crews immediately began construction on the first of 14 social housing complexes being planned throughout the city. Somehow Robertson wants us to believe that in the period between January 2009 and March 2009, he personally rolled up his sleeves and negotiated $170 million in “new” funding with Minister Coleman.
As part of our research, we contacted both the City of Vancouver and the Ministry of Housing and asked them to provide us with a breakdown of exactly what “new” money Robertson had secured for permanent housing since taking office. In response, we received a terse one-page letter from the City re-directing us to the BC Housing website. The link they provided us was for a news release regarding a ground breaking ceremony held on March 17th, 2009.
We then received a response from the Minister's staff, followed up by a chat with Minister Rich Coleman himself. They were much more succinct and forthcoming in terms of providing us with details regarding the $170 million Robertson had supposedly secured. This is what their senior public affairs officer told CityCaucus.com:
In December 2007, Vancouver City Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding between the Province of B.C. and the City to expedite the municipal approval process for up to 1,200 new social and supportive housing units on city-owned sites.
It appears that 1200 of these units to be constructed on six City-owned sites was actually announced months before Robertson even declared he was running for Mayor.
Ministry officials go on to state:
On March 17, 2009, the Province announced an investment of $172 million for the construction of six housing developments as part of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Province of B.C. and the City of Vancouver which was approved in December 2007. All are currently under construction.
There is that 2007 again! So the fact that the first groundbreaking took place during this term of government, and the fact that Province put out a news release regarding how much it was all going to cost, somehow constitutes "securing" the funding.
Robertson’s claim on the City’s website that he secured new funding for permanent housing is a nose-stretcher of the highest order. He should have the claim removed from his bio if he wants to retain any credibility on this file.
The fact is Mayor Robertson did get $6.5 million in new funding from Minister Coleman for temporary shelters to get people off the street, and he deserves credit for those efforts. The Minister tells us that deals are in the works with the City for some "transitional" housing, and the only permanent housing is that which was agreed upon before the last election. The future success of any of it is incumbent upon council's approval of appropriate density at Little Mountain.
Having one politician take credit for the work of a previous politician is a longstanding tradition. Clearly, some politicians are more adept at getting away with it than others. However, in Robertson's case, making these false claims only serves to damage his reputation, and it also risks the relationship he's cultivated with Minister Coleman.
Mayor Robertson, you did not secure $170 million for social housing, and your staff should correct that error on your web page.