Ken Dobell (with Premier & L.G.) recently awarded an Order of B.C. (photo: Flickr)
In one of a series of articles highly critical of the Vancouver NPA published by The Tyee online magazine, we learned about the beginnings of what is today the City of Vancouver and Province of B.C.'s proudest achievement on the matter of homelessness. Few outside of Vancouver City Hall really understand how we arrived at the situation we're in today, where thousands of units of social and supportive housing are coming onstream – albeit behind schedule. But thanks to Monte Paulsen's report from June 2007 titled Dobell Homeless Plan Stalled, we know exactly who didn't want to support a unique partnership between the City of Vancouver, the B.C. government, and a group of private benefactors to address homelessness.
Namely, Vision Vancouver.
In Paulsen's view the initial phases of the City's partnership with Minister Rich Coleman was a "complicated plan" (echoing Vision) that was "rushed". The NPA argued in turn that the goal was to complete the needed 1,500 units of new social housing by the 2010 Olympics. Under the current Vision government only 4 of 14 housing units have been opened, or just over 300 units, with the projected completion of the plan by 2013 – three years after the original commitment. A recent report from city council states that less than 40% of actual homeless individuals have been housed in the new units.
In opposition, Vision Vancouver was vocally opposed to the plan put forward by then NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan:
"The private funding plan is absurdly complicated. Since the beginning, it seemed less like a workable solution than a way to prod the province into action," said Councillor Tim Stevenson, of the opposition Vision Vancouver party. "Well, now the province is acting. B.C. Housing is back in the game. So why is this necessary?"
At the centre of this political tempest were a number of key power brokers within the City and the Provincial government. The person whose influence packed the biggest punch was Ken Dobell. Dobell is reviled by critics on the left because of his extremely close relationship with former Premier Gordon Campbell. Dobell was Vancouver's city manager during Campbell's term as mayor, and was also the mentor for Judy Rogers, the woman who would replace him at City Hall.
Dobell would later follow Campbell into the Premier's office as his Deputy Minister. In 2006, he and Don Fairbairn were hired on a $300,000 contract by the city to come up with a plan to analyze and recommend solutions for Vancouver's growing problem of homelessness. The result was the Dobell-Fairbairn Report – an impressive 50+ page document titled "More Than Just a Warm Bed". Says Paulsen:
The Dobell-Fairbairn plan proposes that the city donate $50 million worth of land to the foundation (and exempt it from future property tax), and that the province pony up the remainder of the estimated $300 million it will cost to build 1,500 units of supportive housing.
Vision reared up in opposition to the plan. Not entirely surprising given their skill at playing homelessness politics – then and now. They had bullied Mayor Sullivan during the first year of his term as Mayor, even chumming with the Anti-Poverty Committee in squats and protests to raise public interest in the matter.
"The NPA forced a vote," complained Councillor Stevenson. "We objected. But the NPA argued that the city had to start talking to the provincial and federal governments right away." Council did instruct Dobell to solicit public consultation on the plan, and report back within two months.
Vision Vancouver and COPE may have "objected" to the Dobell plan (minutes show all Vision councillors voted against creating Streetohome), but they couldn't stop the momentum behind the deal. Minister Coleman spent long hours with Councillor Kim Capri ironing out the scope of the Province's commitment. In the end the City provided the land and waived their usual levies, and the Province purchased two dozen SRO hotels (which would be renovated and fully staffed with support services) and committed hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate the 14 social housing developments.
What irked Vision and their political allies the most was the suggestion that a separate privately-funded body be created to help pay for social housing. What was originally dubbed the Vancouver Homelessness Partnership was later named the Streetohome Foundation.
The Vancouver Homelessness Partnership would hire a $210,000-a-year CEO and staff whose 2007 objectives would include securing $60 million in equity and debt, and initiating development on six buildings. Through this proposed limited partnership, investors would receive mortgage-rate interest and (yet to be enacted) tax breaks in exchange for lending money toward the construction of new supportive housing. Dobell said the investments would be structured to "encourage donation of the principal" after the tax breaks were realized.
The Streetohome Foundation was quickly embraced by Mayor Gregor Robertson when he took office, and was even used initially as a piggy bank for his HEAT shelters program, with the organization providing $500,000 in a one-time matching fund to open some beds in the cold winter of 2008-2009.
Streetohome, however, didn't get a warm response from future Vision Vancouver candidate David Eby.
"... the idea of forcing charity to pay for it is both unworkable and un-Canadian. What will charities be asked to pay for next? Health care?"
The "un-Canadian" Dobell-Fairbairn Plan became the road map which Mayor Gregor Robertson claimed as his own. Vision brags that they "secured" the funding for the program, ignoring the fact that the budget was arrived at and the MOU were signed in 2007. Was Coleman kidding in 2007 about the $300 million? Vision seems to suggest he was.
Eby put his best political rhetoric to work, and questioned Sullivan's motives:
"This entire process raises troubling questions," Eby added, noting that the Dobell-Fairbairn report is little more than a summary of existing city work followed by notes for a business plan. "I don't understand how this report is worth $300,000. I do understand that it was written by a friend of the premier. That leads me to ask the question, 'Did Mayor Sullivan believe he was buying something else?'"
In hindsight, I'd say that $300,000 spent on Dobell & Fairbairn's report which raised so many hackles (Dobell was later censured for not registering as a lobbyist, and in another twist was recently awarded the Order of British Columbia) was money well spent. Sullivan also looks like a bit of a genius for bringing in people like former Attorney General Geoff Plant and Ken Dobell to use their personal relationships with Coleman and Campbell to make this unprecedented partnership happen.
Today, however, there's a new sheriff in town. Mayor Robertson is cutting the ribbons on the 14 housing sites – albeit a few years behind schedule. Because the cheque arrived after Sullivan left they can claim they "secured" the money Coleman committed to the City earlier. But hey, that's politics, I guess.
Now we're hearing that Vision Vancouver are planning to rely upon Streetohome to deliver their Rent Bank scheme. On the surface I can say that I approve on the condition that it will be private funding and not scarce Vancouver taxpayer dollars being used for this plan. The devil, as they say, will be in the details, and Gregor Robertson is non-committal on what it will cost you and me.
This week Suzanne Anton and our NPA team previewed our own plan to address the high cost and lack of supply of housing. One thing the NPA like to point out is that when it comes to making deals to benefit the city, the NPA has a stellar track record. The fact the NPA negotiated over 3,000 units of social and supportive housing for our city is a matter of public record. Vision Vancouver, despite their rhetoric, can boast about little when it comes to new partnerships with senior levels of government since they've taken office.
Of the 14 housing sites, half will receive funding from the privately-funded Streetohome Foundation, according to the City's own report.
Back in 2007 both Dobell and Councillor Kim Capri – Sullivan's lead on the housing/homelessness file – looked past Vision Vancouver's criticisms:
"We're looking for a means to get individual and corporate investment into a structure that will deliver supportive housing in a relatively short time frame," Dobell said. "If someone else has a political problem with the solutions we've proposed, let them bring forward their own solutions. As far as I'm concerned, anything that gets the job done is acceptable."
City Councillor Kim Capri likewise defended Non-Partisan Association support for the Dobell-Fairbairn plan on the grounds of expediency. "We're about results. We have to do something about homelessness. Let's take the help that's being offered."
In the end no other solutions were brought forward by the NPA's critics. The plan moved ahead, and Vision now embraces it as their own. That's a credit to the people who came up with a solution and delivered on it – Dobell, Fairbairn, Plant, Rogers, Sullivan, Capri, Campbell, Housing Centre boss Cameron Gray, and most of all Coleman.
Gregor Robertson was left with a huge legacy thanks to the previous NPA council. Forty buildings to house our city's most disadvantaged. The next Mayor of Vancouver will have no such legacy – Robertson's contribution in terms of housing for homeless people is virtually nil. I'll let the good reader decide who should be governing if you want to get Vancouver's homeless people into homes.
For more background read:
- Is Robertson embracing 'Project Civil City' with shelter bed scheme? (CityCaucus.com, Dec. 2008)
- City Report: Only 1/3 of New Supportive Housing Units Filled By Homeless (NPA press release, Oct. 16, 2011)
- Mayoralty candidates 'spinning' numbers of city's homeless (The Province, Oct. 15, 2011)
- Web archive proves Vision Vancouver altered homeless promise (CityCaucus.com, May 2011)
- Post by Mike Klassen. Mike is a city council candidate for the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association (NPA). If you're an elected official or candidate seeking a nomination and want to write about urban issues, please send your 450-500 word submission to CityCaucus@gmail.com.