It’s an early morning at Burnaby City Hall, and Mike Hurley has already been working for two hours.
The new mayor — who pulled off what many had failed to do by finally toppling his longtime predecessor Derek Corrigan back in October — isn’t wasting any time getting down to the business of putting Burnaby back on track. As Hurley sees it, he doesn’t have the luxury of time.
“Right now, housing is the major concern,” Hurley said. “The people in Metrotown who are being moved out of their homes, how do we accommodate them while new homes are being built? That’s the immediate challenge we’re facing.”
Over the course of an extensive interview in his office, Hurley laid forth his plans for 2019 while reflecting on his first few weeks in the city’s top job, including how he’s tackling housing displacement and affordability and how he wants to break Burnaby out of its shell.
“We’ve built this region so everyone goes to Vancouver,” he said. “I want Vancouver people to come to us.”
As the key issue that drove the municipal election in Burnaby, the growing number of demovictions and renovictions remains at the top of Hurley’s mind.
A new housing task force has been set up and will meet in January to hammer out a series of recommendations that will be presented to council in the summer.
In the meantime, Hurley and his staff have been exploring several options to improve rental stock in the city and to protect those who are at risk of losing their homes to developers.
“We haven’t pushed anything through that would allow developers to take any buildings down,” Hurley said.
“And they won’t be allowed to take any of those buildings down until all the people in those buildings are accommodated in some form, either by paying them out so they can find a place or finding them somewhere else to live with a similar rent so no buildings are coming down until that’s done.”
WATCH: Coverage of Burnaby affordability on Globalnews.ca
Hurley is also looking at fine-tuning some of the initiatives taken by the previous council, which in April became the first B.C. city council to take advantage of provincial legislation that allows municipalities to zone land for rentals only. Hurley says that can help but that it needs to be done responsibly and with further restrictions on developers.
“If you’re [developing a building with rents of] $2,500 a month, that doesn’t really help very many people,” he said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox, but it’s certainly by no means the [solution] for what we’re facing.
“We would have to use those laws to slow down development a bit and make sure new developments have low-cost rentals and below-market rentals. We haven’t really focused on that in the last 10 years, and that’s something we need to prioritize.”
Beyond upping the rental stock for those just entering the housing market, Hurley said he also wants to ensure the city provides what he calls “different stages of life housing” that can serve the entire population.
“Families need two-, three-bedroom places they can stay in,” he said. “And then maybe move to the next stage where you have single-family homes after that. And then there’s our senior population.
“All of that doesn’t belong in a highrise apartment, and we’re building a lot of highrise apartments in our town centres so we really need to…ensure [our housing stock] meets the needs of all people, not just people in highrises.”
That kind of housing plan requires faith in the idea that the single-family home is still achievable in the Lower Mainland, despite several politicians and economists effectively saying the dream is dead. Hurley doesn’t see it that way.
“I think people will get to single-family homes but I think they’re going to have to start from a different place,” he said.
“I don’t see anyone going right into a single-family home. I think they’ll be townhomes, row homes, and eventually people will build enough equity to move into single-family homes. It will be more difficult, for sure, but I think it can still happen.”
Hurley said he’s also working to create more opportunities for the city’s homeless population — including building the city’s first permanent shelter and warming centres — which he hopes will act as springboards toward more permanent housing.
“We have some modular housing coming on board just across the street [from City Hall]; 52 units are being planned as we speak as transitional housing,” he said.
“We hope to transition people from the warming centres to the permanent shelter to the modular homes and then get them into permanent housing. That’s the goal. It won’t work for everyone but it’ll work for some.”
WATCH: (Aired Dec. 14) Burnaby’s new council opening warming centres for homeless
The mayor said he hopes spaces like this will also take the strain off of the city’s aging community centres, some of which have been forced to close recently due to malfunctioning equipment and safety issues. Upgrades and replacements are on the way, he said.
“The plan is we have four major projects coming up on deck,” Hurley said. “We have the [two] ice rinks in southeast Burnaby. We have a couple of dry community centres in North Burnaby — they don’t have any dry facilities at all so there’s two of them coming on deck — so within the next four years we hope to have all of those up and running.”
The number of projects on the go early in Hurley’s tenure is a credit to his council, he said, despite people’s predictions early on that he would clash with most councillors who ran with Corrigan under the Burnaby Citizens Association banner.
“It’s been very positive working with most of them so far,” Hurley said. “I’m not saying I haven’t gotten any pushback from a few [councillors], but the majority of council have been very co-operative and seem to share a lot of my views. That’s why we’ve been able to move [on] the warming centres, why we’re moving with the shelter, and I’m sure we’re going to come up with some new ideas around housing very quickly.”
Another area where Hurley is looking for new ideas is transit. He said the city needs fresh solutions to address long-standing gaps in service.
“We’re very well served east to west with SkyTrain but north to south not so much,” he said.
“Simon Fraser [University] is not very well serviced by any other transit system; you have four-bus waits there often. The Evergreen line only has two trains running most times so there are long waits for those people. We still have a lot of work to do on transit. The whole region does.”
Hurley said different options for improving service to SFU, including the long-simmering idea of a gondola up Burnaby Mountain, will be discussed in the next phase of Mayors’ Council meetings. Despite years of arguments that taxpayers would “revolt” over potential tax increases to pay for such projects, the mayor said it’s worth the extra price.
“I think people are willing to pay a little bit more to get the right service, especially if they’re educated enough about what fossil fuels are capable of, what global warming really means,” he said.
“If we’re serious about the survival of our planet, then we need to get on with the job, and paying a little bit more taxes is a small price to pay.”
The larger issue, Hurley said, is that local politicians aren’t thinking about the long-term benefits better transit options can bring to the region.
“If we’re really serious about it, we’re going to have to really invest in it,” he said. “I’m not hearing that willingness from too many to really get outside of their four-year terms and think about 30-year terms. Because in order to do transit well, you have to think 30 years, 50 years ahead. We have to spend the money and we have to get going.
“Our world is not going to survive if we keep driving vehicles the way we do,” Hurley continued. “That’s just the reality of life, unless 85 per cent of the world’s scientists are wrong.
“We need to get on board the electric trains and we need to start really pushing to have transit run around the Lower Mainland the way it should be, and right now I’m not seeing an appetite for that.”
As he talked about his vision for the city, Hurley repeated the phrase “bedroom community” in reference to how Burnaby has become a place for people to live for a short time but not to visit or settle down in. He wants to change that.
“We’re not planning to keep people in Burnaby,” he said. “We really need to work hard to start developing that. We have lots of great things in Burnaby: great parks and lakes that people can walk, play and run around in. Unfortunately, once you rely too much on SkyTrain then everyone just goes to Vancouver, and the character starts to leave your city.”
Keeping people in Burnaby also means retaining a workforce that Hurley said is slowly leaving the city because they can’t afford to live there anymore — tying everything back to creating more affordable housing.
“Every day, I’m getting calls from businesses who are saying: ‘I can’t find any workers because no one is living here anymore,’” he said.
“The workforce is all moving to the outer cities, and when they get jobs there they aren’t coming back. We need to address that.
“We really have to pay great attention to the rental market and the affordable rental market. If you look at Metrotown, we’re building $750,000 condos there. The average wage in the Metrotown area is $45,000. That doesn’t get you into a $750,000 condo. That’s the reality we’re facing.”
With only a few weeks behind him in the city’s top job, Hurley knows he has a lot of work ahead as he attempts to solve these and other problems that Burnaby is facing.
While he awaits his housing task force to report back and for staff to provide solutions for the short term, he says the people facing evictions in Metrotown have given him a one-track mind heading in to 2019.
“How do we house those people…that are going to be moving or forced to move out of these buildings that have already [had their] zoning changed?” he asked again.
“That’s still the biggest challenge we’re facing, and it’s the biggest challenge we’ll continue to face over the next couple of years. That’s not going to change anytime soon, unless we act quickly.”
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