On his way out of city hall, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is resisting blame for a housing crisis that has seen the cost of homes crush the ownership dreams of many who live there.
In a one-on-one interview with Global BC’s Chris Gailus, he said that while he sat in the mayor’s chair, the city had “great difficulty” dealing with previous federal and provincial governments on a number of issues.
Coverage of Gregor Robertson on Globalnews.ca:
One of them? He said the city couldn’t get those governments to regulate “offshore investment.”
But Robertson himself wasn’t always so enthusiastic about the idea that foreign money was driving up home prices. So what did he do to combat the issue while he was in office?
“Everything went crazy here without those governments intervening and dealing with speculation and the skyrocketing market.”
Now, he said, “we’ve got governments that are paying more attention, they’re investing in infrastructure, they have a city agenda, which we worked hard on these last two elections to make sure there were city priorities when these governments got elected.”
Robertson’s mention of offshore investment represented a marked contrast with the impression that people have formed of a mayor who some believe has not tackled housing affordability head-on.
Certainly, he didn’t always seem enthusiastic about the idea that international buying was having an impact in Vancouver.
“The city’s primary concern is around empty homes and market speculation skewing the prices. Foreign ownership is a separate issue, that’s not something that should be a big factor here,” he said in a 2015 interview with Metro News.
In that same year, a study by urban planner (and now-SFU City Program director) Andy Yan showed that pricey homes on Vancouver’s west side were being purchased by people with occupations such as students and homemakers.
The study was carried out by looking at non-anglicized Chinese names on land titles.
Robertson responded to the study by saying, “We do need far better federal and provincial tracking of data on international investment and absentee ownership. What we don’t need, however, is the blaming of any one group of people — or any one kind of last name — for the challenge of housing affordability.
“This is a public policy issue, not a race issue.”
Asked about Robertson’s remarks about “offshore investment” in his interview with Gailus, the mayor’s office said he was referring to an attempt he made, also in 2015, to urge the provincial government to take action on speculation.
Among other actions, he recommended that the provincial government increase the property transfer tax on the priciest properties, and bring in tax measures to discourage “flipping.”
Then-finance minister Mike de Jong threw cold water on the idea of a speculation tax — just over a year before his government brought in a 15 per cent property transfer tax on foreign residents.
Justin Fung, the spokesperson for Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT), a citizens’ group that pushes for government action on housing affordability, was surprised by Robertson’s latest remarks, saying he only made an about-face on offshore investment recently, with the introduction of the Housing Vancouver strategy.
“I think ultimately in his role as mayor of the City of Vancouver, certainly a lot of people looked to him to provide leadership,” Fung said.
“In my mind, I think a lot of it, the responsibility of what’s happening in Vancouver, the housing affordability crisis that’s come through, the fact we have more homeless people than ever before, falls on him.”
What’s next for the mayor?
Housing wasn’t the only issue that Robertson and Gailus covered in their interview.
They also talked about the mayor’s legacy in the city — like a bike network that has seen dedicated lanes pop up on streets such as Hornby Street and the Georgia Viaduct.
“On transportation, we can’t add more cars to the city, the traffic is as bad as any of us would like to see,” he said.
“We can’t build more roads, we have to get people out of cars. As the population grows, as the jobs grow, we’ve got to make sure people can walk and bike and take transit, not add more cars.”
Robertson said the toughest part of his job has been not spending as much time with family or close friends.
He was asked whether that factored into the end of his marriage, which was announced in 2014.
“It is a tough part of the job,” Robertson said of the personal cost.
“I’ve had great support from my family and close friends, a lot of love and understanding over the years because I just had to go full tilt in my work.
“That was my commitment to my city, and I think my family gets it.”