Safety, affordability, and sustainability? What the next four years of Sim City may bring for Vancouver

Experts say mayor-elect Ken Sim’s ABC platform has plenty of ambitious pledges, but it’s unclear whether the party “fully understands the implications” of its promises.

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      After four years of a divided council, Vancouver voters elected Ken Sim and every member of the A Better City (ABC) candidate slate to city hall on October 15. It’s the first time a right-of-centre party has been in control in Vancouver since 2008, and the first outright majority since 2014. 

      With seven council seats plus the mayor, ABC is in a prime position to push through an ambitious agenda. But some experts say the platform is style over substance, without feasible plans to enact its promises. (The lack of specifics is a common issue with municipal candidates, and was also apparent in Kennedy Stewart’s council term and mayoral re-election campaign.)

      ABC’s platform—which is no longer available to read publicly on its website, but can be found here—centres on what mayor-elect Sim calls “safety, affordability and sustainability.”

      Let’s look at the three areas an ABC city council is promising to work on, and how Vancouver might look in four years’ time based on both pledges and practicality. We’ll be looking at park board and school board priorities at a later date.

      (An ABC spokesperson  told the Straight that no current or elected council members were available to comment on this story.)

      Safety 

      ABC capitalized on the public’s growing concerns over crime with one of its headline policies: promising to hire 100 new police officers and 100 new mental health nurses “as part of a renewed approach to community policing” that expands Car 87. 

      Car 87 (and its expansion, Car 88) dispatches a plainclothes police officer and a registered nurse or psychiatric nurse to calls for mental health crises. It has slow response times and, when appropriate personnel aren’t available, armed police officers are often sent instead. 

      While expanding the program could help response times, it’s a difficult ask. Earlier this year, there were over 4,200 nursing vacancies in the province. Retaining staff in high-stress jobs is also difficult. Hiring 100 nurses without proper systemic support will result in many leaving for less stressful positions, or quitting nursing altogether. 

      It’s also unclear whether employing more police officers would decrease crime. A 2020 working paper from the non-partisan U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research suggested that police can act as a deterrent to violent crime, with every 10 officers hired abating approximately one homicide, but increasing the number of arrests for petty and non-violent crimes. 

      (It’s worth noting that police links run deep in the ABC. Freshman councillor Brian Montague is a 28-year VPD veteran, two-term councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung is married to a cop, while Vancouver’s Police Union endorsed Ken Sim for mayor in an unprecedented move. The Kennedy Stewart-led council voted in 2020 to freeze the VPD’s budget for 2021—a move later overturned by the province—so police probably foresee generous budget increases in the future.)   

      ABC’s “public safety” platform segment also covers “mental health and community wellness.” The party commits to supporting “initiatives that enhance the safety of the drug supply to address the drug poisoning crisis” and creating a 24-hour “recovery centre” for people struggling with addiction. However, it stops short of endorsing compassion clubs, safe supply, or other measures that researchers and drug users say would help deal with the toxic drug supply that’s killing 1.4 people per day in the city.

      As a result, drug toxicity deaths are unlikely to slow or stop over the next four years. The police budget, the city’s second biggest expense after utilities, will increase. Violent crime may drop. 

      The real question is whether people perceive the city as being safer. Visible homelessness and sensationalized reporting on it, like Vancouver has seen with the East Hastings encampment, can make the public feel less safe, whether that worry is borne out in data or not. ABC’s platform does not mention homelessness or unhoused folks once. The exact encampment that currently exists probably will not be there in 2026, but expect homelessness to continue to be a policy failure that is not adequately addressed. 

      Affordability 

      “Affordability” really means “housing.” ABC’s non-market housing platform promises to create “quality, liveable housing units, instead of the existing quantity-first approach.” Other promises included doubling the number of co-op units within four years, creating a 20-year housing plan, and removing taxes on developments and construction. 

      Patrick Condon, chair of urban design at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, says ABC’s plans are easy to promise but difficult to achieve.

      “Our issues in the city of Vancouver are 95 per cent housing,” Condon says. “Their platform has elements that sound good, but they simply don’t have strategies listed for how they’re going to achieve their targets. It’s a very dramatic ambition to try and double the thousands of co-op housing units in the city in just four years. … The land probably wouldn’t be available, nor would the money.”

      Condon says he endorsed TEAM for a Liveable Vancouver in the municipal election because it provided plans for how it would raise funds for implementing more affordable housing.

      ABC also pledges to speed up development permits for construction projects. Condon dismisses that as a distraction that’s presented “as if that was guaranteed to lead to affordable housing, which it won’t.”

      He says a fundamental misunderstanding is what is driving up the cost of housing. It’s not houses themselves, but the land they’re on. Rezoning for higher density means the same plot of land that once housed one unit could now house 20, and that fuels land speculation. Developers buy land, then sell it for huge profits based on the number of units it can now accommodate—driving up the price of the homes built there. 

      Condon says community amenity contributions, or CACs, are municipalities’ best way of curbing land prices. Cities can set a cost per square metre or square foot that developers pay to the city. This is designed to capture land value increases and return that money to the city, which can use it to fund “amenities” like affordable housing. 

      Currently, only developments in certain parts of Vancouver have to pay CACs, and the targets are low—the highest is $122 per square foot for some developments in the Cambie Corridor, and $340 per square foot for parts of the Broadway plan. That rate could be a minimum benchmark for the whole city, Condon argues. 

      ABC has said it will “establish predictable CAC formula(s) citywide” to legislate on both how much money can be collected and what amenities it can be put towards. While somewhat vague, it’s a good start that could prove key to solving the city’s affordability crisis.  

      In four years time, Condon says the best-case scenario is ABC manages to implement its ambitious promises and more affordable housing does come to pass. But the lack of specifics concerns him. The policies are full of buzzwords and big promises, without registering the scope.

      “It’s very big on motherhood statements around housing affordability, and very lean on the financial and taxing and permanent strategies necessary for us to actually get affordable housing in the quantities that we would all like to see.”

      Sustainability

      Lastly, ABC included a section on climate action and sustainability. The top headline promise is planting 100,000 trees, with additional nods towards giving electric vehicles more charging ports, and accelerating the planned 2040 zero waste plan to 2035.

      Elsewhere, the party promised to “ensure design of neighbourhoods to ensure delivery of a ‘15-minute city’” to reduce car usage, and pledged to continue with the SkyTrain-to-UBC expansion, as well as introducing a new rapid bus line.

      Peter McCartney, a climate campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, says the platform falls short of being a meaningful commitment to sustainability.

      “To campaign on sustainability, you need to be placing climate change at the core of all the decisions you make at a local level,” McCartney says. “They may have checked the box that they have something about the environment in their platform, but that is not what it is going to take to put us on the path to true sustainability.”

      Like Condon’s skepticism with the feasibility of ABC’s housing pledges, McCartney is also unsure whether the council will be able to deliver on some of its platform planks. (McCartney is on the board for OneCity, but keeps a firm firewall between his work and political volunteering.)

      “100,000 trees would be amazing, but I feel like it’s wildly unrealistic,” he says. “That’s like 70 trees a day, for their term in office, including weekends.” 

      And the 15-minute neighbourhood plan, while something that environmental activists are pushing for, requires a lot of work on rezoning and development that just isn’t discussed.

      “The 15-minute city is definitely an urban planning buzzword right now. It’s a great goal to strive for,” McCartney says. “But the things they need to put in place for that to be possible—the changes to the zoning code and broader vision for what a community looks like—will be much more controversial than that one policy point. 

      “I am not sure they fully understand the implications.”

      Some important environmental pledges were also absent in the platform, McCartney says.

      “I was worried to see no explicit commitment to continuing the actions to the Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP),” he says. 

      The CEAP, approved in November 2020, aims to halve the city’s carbon pollution by 2030, and names vehicles and building heating as two core avenues where the city can reduce emissions. 

      “There is already a huge budget gap in the [CEAP], and it’s quite worrying to think that the city might pull back more.”

      Based on ABC’s platform, the best case scenario for sustainability in four years’ time is quite a rosy picture. Neighbourhoods will have important amenities available within walking distance, tree-lined streets will spread across the city, and the hum of petrol vehicles will be replaced by the eerie silence of electric cars. 

      But McCartney doubts changes quite that dramatic will happen. 

      “I don’t believe that any council will be able to roll back the progress we’ve made on climate emissions, because I don’t think Vancouverites will let them,” McCartney says. “Hopefully, we are able to convince them to continue on with the good work Vancouver has been doing and actually fund it.”

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