Homelessness, a housing crisis and a city at the centre of Canada’s opioid overdose crisis: Vancouver’s longest serving mayor faced unprecedented problems over the past decade.
2008 was a heady time. Hope was audacious. Politicians and voters dared to dream big. Gregor Robertson was one of them. He promised to end homelessness by 2015.
When the kilt-clad Vancouver mayor was sworn in for his first of three terms, he was compared to another guy only recently elected: Barack Obama.
At 44, Robertson had sailed across the Pacific, been an organic farmer, a successful entrepreneur and a member of the legislature. He was as handsome as the city aspired to be when the world arrived for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
In a city with a rapidly increasing Asian population, Robertson had the added cachet of being a distant relative of Norman Bethune, the revered Canadian doctor who took modern medicine to China.
With the chain of office barely around his neck, there was speculation that Robertson would take his Vision party provincial and possibly defeat the ruling B.C. Liberals and then-premier Gordon Campbell.
He’d inspired a new generation to vote and they not only elected him, but a majority of Vision members to council, the school board and park board.
But, despite being buoyed by the win, Robertson was quickly sobered by the scale of the city’s problems.
An 85-day garbage strike had just ended. With 5,000 people sleeping rough, council quickly opened temporary, cold-weather shelters.
But the city-backed Olympic Village housing development was facing a loss of up to $400 million on the Athletes Village. To recoup the loss, council slashed the 1,100 planned social housing units by half.
Holborn Properties was allowed to demolish 224 low-income housing units at Little Mountain. The company opened Trump Tower, but the Little Mountain site languishes with fewer than half the replacement units built.
And that was just the start of it. Indeed, housing affordability would become the issue that defined Robertson’s decade as Vancouver’s mayor.
The rebirth of the old police station as an innovation hub for social enterprise, non-profits and makers in the heart of the Downtown Eastside embodies many of the hopes and dreams Robertson and his Vision Vancouver council had for the city.
So, it was fitting that Robertson was at the opening a few weeks before his decade-long tenure at city hall ended.
The screech of sirens punctuated the formalities every few minutes, providing a stark reminder that this is the centre of Canada’s opioid overdose crisis.
The renovation is stunning. Logs that were “respectfully harvested” at Cultus Lake give the lobby the feel of a longhouse. They were introduced to the building with all the proper First Nations ceremonies. This is unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, each of the speakers acknowledged.
Upstairs, Hives for Humanity was humming along. In the basement, the non-profit East Van Roasters was getting down to business.
On the second floor, a massive, rough-cut wooden slab serves as an informal gathering place for the “creatives” — millennials mostly — who rent office space.
The Downtown Eastside was a major focus during Robertson’s term, as it had been for several previous mayors.
“We tend to talk about the Downtown Eastside as a problem, but it’s also a huge success story of a resilient neighbourhood that’s enduring despite the waves of capital and growth and development and gentrification,” Robertson said in one of two interviews spread over nearly two hours.
“It’s a sign of our strength, despite people thinking it’s a dark side.”
In the past decade, more supervised injection sites have opened along with the city-sponsored, five-day-a-week street market. There are floodlit alleys and a 30 km/h speed zone to keep drug users safer.
Still, drug dealers abound and strung-out addicts, many with bleeding sores, sell all manner of goods along the streets. There are ambulances, emergency workers and volunteers at pop-up naloxone stations, all trying to deal with the epidemic of fentanyl overdoses.
A few blocks away from the Main Street innovation hub, a homeless camp was recently re-established at 58 West Hastings St. Two years ago, Robertson pledged it would only be developed for social housing. But council reneged on that earlier this year, approving a 10-storey building with only a third of the units within reach of someone on welfare.
In a news release, the tent-city organizers said that they “savour Gregor’s resignation and the humiliating end of Vision Vancouver.”
It was quite a parting gift to Robertson, who was first elected in 2008 on the promise to end homelessness.
By the end of his first year, Robertson made clear his frustrations with having to deal with a public that wasn’t always adoring.
At a public meeting in 2010, Robertson was unaware that his microphone was still on. He called a group of West End residents “f—ing hacks” and suggested that they were NPA supporters.
The residents opposed Vision’s plan to waive fees and levies for developers building rental housing because the city didn’t limit the rents that developers could charge.
At one point, he declared himself “pissed off” at cyclists who shut down city streets on the last Friday of every month to protest the lack of bike lanes. They were, however, eventually rewarded with a network of them that, to use the mayor’s phrase, pissed off a wide swath of residents and people driving in from the rest of Metro.
Bike lanes will be a part of Robertson’s legacy, for both his supporters and detractors, said Andy Yan, director of SFU’s City Program.
The number of cycle commuters in Vancouver soared by more than 85 per cent between 2006 and 2016, while the number of Vancouverites who walk to work increased by 26 per cent.
“These are trends that are very slowly happening in other Canadian cities, but in Vancouver it’s happening so much faster,” said Yan.
At the same time, the number of transit commuters increased by 32 per cent and transit ridership is likely to increase more. In his role as both Vancouver’s mayor and chair of the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, Robertson worked to secure funding for the Broadway subway extension, which he’s described as “one of the largest infrastructure investments in B.C.’s history.”
In 2010, Vancouver proved a perfect Olympic host, a gorgeous backdrop to the international spectacle. Every night, tens of thousands of people were happily out on the streets celebrating.
The city had bowed to the International Olympic Committee’s requirement that any protests be held in fenced-off zones. To make room for visitors, it didn’t stop the renovictions from SROs. The displaced set up a tent city at 58 Hastings St.
The following year, Robertson and Vision had no trouble getting re-elected by recycling the promise to end homelessness and touting the goals in the city’s 10-year housing strategy, adopted just before the election: to add by 2021 more than 38,000 homes — nearly 19,000 of them affordable and the rest new market condos.
As of last month, the city had approved the construction of 18,642 units towards the affordable-housing goal, including more than 7,000 units of supportive and social housing and 8,409 units built specifically for the rental market. So far, the city has completed about half of the units of social and supportive housing and purpose-built rental set out in the targets of the 2011 plan, and anticipates about 12,600 social and supportive housing units will be finished in the next 10 years, based on projects underway.
By 2011, the Olympic euphoria was gone. There was a riot after the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup hockey finals. Cars were flipped over and burned, windows smashed and stores looted. More than 140 people were injured and there was an estimated $4 million in damages.
It was one of Robertson’s worst nights as mayor; the morning after, one of his best.
“People just started showing up early in the morning with brooms and dustpans, cleaned up the mess. It was so beautiful … after all the brutal rioting the night before that trashed the downtown. It was a moment where you really feel the spirit of the city and how much people care about Vancouver.”
By mid-morning, the streets had been cleared but still people kept showing up to write apologies to the businesses and write love letters to the city on the boarded-up windows.
READ MORE: An oral history of the 2011 Stanley Cup riot
People love Vancouver and want to live here. That’s the heart of its intractable housing problem, which is making one of the world’s most livable cities unlivable for many people.
Single-family houses are out of reach for anyone whose income isn’t in the high six-figures. Even then, the house may be a teardown.
The rental vacancy rate is less than one per cent and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,200 a month, which is more than a minimum-wage earner makes in pre-tax income.
As for homelessness, even though the city has housed 4,799 people over the past decade, there were 2,181 homeless in March 2018, the highest number since 2005.
“Unfortunately,” said Robertson, “people just keep coming or are being displaced within the city and every year it’s another mountain to climb, which speaks to the systemic challenge across the province and country.”
When he promised to end homelessness, Robertson said, he fully expected the provincial and federal governments to step up, particularly with the Olympics little more than a year away.
“I really thought everyone would recognize how critical big investment was,” he said.
What Robertson regrets is how he dealt with the conservative governments in Ottawa and Victoria.
“If I could do it over, I would have been more abrasive and more vocal with the other levels of government. I wish I had tried a much more full-frontal, critical approach to call out governments when they’re not investing in homelessness and housing and they’re not regulating foreign capital and the real-estate industry.”
Far from solving homelessness, Robertson and his council oversaw the Manhattanization and gentrification of Chinatown, Gastown, Railtown, Yaletown, Coal Harbour and the West End.
It’s not that there wasn’t a plan. The 2012 mayor’s task force on housing affordability laid it out. What was lacking was implementation.
The rezoning of single-family neighbourhoods to allow duplexes was passed in September at Robertson’s final council meeting before the election. Construction of 1,039 co-op units on city-owned land in the River District only recently got underway and 600 units of temporary modular housing were built within the past year.
Implementing plans for higher density in various neighbourhoods was clumsily done. Vision’s once enthusiastic, young voters soundly rejected it in Grandview-Woodland, putting in motion Vision’s decline and the rise of several new parties.
Condo king Bob Rennie was a generous financial backer of both Robertson and Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal party. His assessment of Robertson’s record is harsh.
“He didn’t deal with stakeholders properly. He gave in to the sound bites. He always knew population growth that was coming — yet everybody acted like this was a surprise,” Rennie said.
“It is political suicide to talk about meaningful density increases. Who could pull that off and get re-elected?” Rennie said.
And while thousands of condos were built during Robertson’s tenure, Rennie said, “More $3,000-a-square-foot condos downtown are not going to solve anything.”
But others have questioned how much blame for the housing and homelessness crisis should be laid at Robertson’s feet.
“These are global market forces, and to think that there’s a Vancouver housing market that you can build a wall around is craziness,” said Thom Armstrong, executive director of Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C.
“Absolutely, a municipal government can use the tools at its disposal to make the situation better or worse,” he said. “But the underlying fundamentals of the market itself, they’re operating at a level that is, in many ways, beyond the reach of local government.”
Vancouver’s current civic government has done more than previous Vancouver governments when it comes to non-profit housing, said Armstrong, including the creation, in 2014, of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency.
Armstrong, whose non-profit organization is independent of government, has publicly criticized governments previously when he sees fit, including what he saw as Robertson’s councils dragging their feet on renewing co-op leases. Still, Armstrong said this week, “I certainly know of no other municipal government (in Canada) who so actively sought out partnerships with the community housing sector and made partners of us in the effort to add new affordable homes to the market.”
In 2008, architect and developer Michael Geller was a council candidate running on the Non-Partisan Association slate and one of the many who called Robertson’s promise to end homelessness naive.
Geller now says there was nothing wrong with Robertson’s aspiration.
“The sad thing is they didn’t really do a lot of things that they should have done,” he said. “They could have renovated the SROs (single-room occupancy hotels). They could have helped clean up the Downtown Eastside to create more employment opportunities.
“They could have followed the Four Pillars approach, which was a much more comprehensive plan for dealing with the drug problem than just building more low-barrier housing units and more safe injection sites.
“And maybe they could have made Vancouver not so welcoming.”
In 2014 and a month before the vote in his final mayoral campaign, Robertson nervously apologized to citizens during a televised debate.
“I have heard you … I haven’t met your expectations … I am sorry … I can do better.”
Robertson won easily. Vision hung on to its majority on council, but lost control of both the park board and school board.
But there were no big, new ideas. Vision recycled past promises — housing for all and green jobs in a city where nobody needs a car, only a bike or a transit pass.
Police had already started warning that a rash of overdose deaths were caused by fentanyl. But no one was predicting the overdose crisis that would lead to B.C.’s medical health officer declaring it a public health emergency in April 2016. That December, when six Vancouverites died in a single day, Robertson said it was his worst moment as mayor.
Fentanyl wasn’t the only problem. There seemed to be an illegal pot shop on every other block. It wasn’t until 2015 that the city finally moved to license some and close others that were close to schools, daycares or one another.
Rennie blames Robertson for destroying Vision, which in the 2018 contest didn’t have a mayoral candidate or field full slates of candidates for council, park or school board. In the end, only a Vision school trustee was elected.
“It was all about him and his brand,” said Rennie. “He hollowed out the democratic party. … And the slate and the party now has no colour or personality.”
Despite the criticisms of his friend’s legacy, Rennie said Robertson made Vancouver a better place with his environmental and social consciousness that has enhanced Vancouver’s reputation internationally.
Robertson, a co-founder of the Happy Planet natural food company, carried that passion for both the environment and business to city hall.
He vowed to make Vancouver the “greenest city” in the world by 2020, and set goals that included reducing dependence on fossil fuels, using green building designs, reducing waste, improving access to green spaces, improving water, encouraging locally grown food, and making the air cleaner.
He drew criticism from some quarters, such as people who were angry about the loss of car lanes in exchange for more biking and walking paths. But the international community took notice, and in 2016 and 2017 Vancouver was ranked at or near the top for the most sustainable city in North America.
The greenest-city plan also promised to expand Vancouver’s green economy.
Former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt, a member of the task force that worked on the Greenest City Action Plan, said Robertson’s work on sustainability was a “huge success” and the outgoing mayor deserves credit for “moving us into these gutsy, aggressive actions that are going to have to be taken in dealing with climate change.
“He made some significant shifts that won’t be noticed for at least five or 10 years,” Harcourt said.
After an unprecedented 10 consecutive years as Vancouver’s mayor, Robertson is proud of what’s been accomplished against difficult odds. And even his critics can’t say whether anyone else would have done better.
“We’ve been ground zero for the toughest global problems to impact a city, but we’re weathering it,” said Robertson. “We’re staying true to ourselves and keeping our city on top and thriving despite the hardships.”
Renters were affected because “they didn’t have protections that they should have had from the province.”
The affordability crisis has driven people out and caused both individuals and companies to reconsider coming here.
“Some people have had a difficult time,” said Robertson. “I wish we’d had the tools as a city to deal with that. That’s been the most frustrating part, just not having more of those tools.”
As for the Downtown Eastside: “The lack of treatment and support for people with mental health issues and addictions continues to be a huge challenge. But (it’s) better that we’re open about it than institutionalizing a neighbourhood or pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s challenging for many of us to witness, but we need to own it. We don’t solve it by pushing it away and ignoring it.”
Ever the optimist, Robertson believes that the overdose crisis might be the catalyst for change.
Despite the problems and frustrations, he said being mayor was an extraordinary job that he’ll miss immensely.
So what’s next? Robertson is going travelling with no set plans, taking time to decompress and try to figure out what he’ll do next. And, no, it’s not likely to be politics.
— With files from Dan Fumano