Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for December 2008

My Christmas Card

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snow tree 2008_1222, originally uploaded by Stephen Rees.

To all the readers and commenters on this blog, my very best wishes to you.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 24, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in personal thoughts

Economy has builders eyeing a return to rental apartments

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Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail reports that developers in BC are thinking about building new rental apartments instead of condos. Given a vacancy rate of 0.5% and steadily rising rents, that may not be a bad idea. This type of development practically ceased in Canada in the 1970s when federal tax incentives for apartment buildings were ended.

A couple of things occurred to me. The first is that even in the boom times, many condos were not being bought by occupiers – many were speculative “flippers” – and others were bought for the purpose of  letting. In fact some strata councils introduced rules forbidding rentals (like mine) as way of “keeping out the riff raff”. There is a lot of the rental market which is distinctly grey – suites that do meet the building code and may well not be reported for tax purposes. Many municipalities have decided to abandon the idea of enforcement against illegal suites, recognising that they serve an essential social function, but still worry about the health and safety aspects of spaces being used for human occupation that fail to meet even the most basic standards.

Secondly the operation of rental units actually requires a lot of professional skill and attention – but usually does not get it. Big developers like Cressey still have significant rental holdings. But the way the legislation has been changed by the present government has removed much of the protection tenants once had. And this has done very little so far to bring new units onto the market. The most recent major news in this sector has been the forced eviction of tenants by owners claiming the need for vacant possession to renovate, but actually being cover for stiff rent increases. The law currently allows landlords to raise rents every year up to a specific limit. There is, of course, no provision for tenants to keep rents down or get them reduced.

Under the old law as a tenant of a Cressey property I became an unwilling expert in the workings of the provincial agency that was supposed to regulate tenancies. I spent quite a bit of time and effort in quasi-litigation just to get the place where I lived looked after properly. The work that had been done just before we moved in was simply cosmetic and was designed to c0ver up problems that has been left unrepaired for years. The worst was the simple failure to ensure that tiles in the bathroom were properly grouted. After long rounds of visits to the Landlord and Tenant offices – and paying rent into escrow – the landlord finally brought in contractors who had to replace the bathroom floor and the kitchen ceiling – but not before trying to blame me for leaks which had been going on for years before I arrived. It was an abrasive and unpleasant experience. But all I wanted them to do was look after their property properly. Cressey, of course, was much more interested in its new developments for sale. It is a lot easier to blame the tenants for everything – and harass them – than actually try to ensure that you have adequately maintained units.

There is a great deal of prejudice against tenants. One of the people I used to commute with in Victoria was appalled that, as a tenant, I had the right to vote in municipal elections. Very few landlords are as good as the last one I had, who went out of his way to ensure I was comfortable. He is one of the very few I have known who recognised that his interests and mine interlocked. I am fairly certain that this Vancouver Craig’s List ad is a spoof but who knows.

It is probably too much to expect that many municipalities will get into this business. Though the developers are suggesting they need incentives “temporarily forgoing property taxes or development charges” – and even expecting the province to get involved.  The market may well actually work for a while without these kinds of support. But what is equally clear is that the market has grotesquely failed – and that is evident by the homelessness problem. And the market is generally not at all interested in getting into “social housing”. Although, of course, there have been and are those only too willing to try and exploit the homeless too. And it seems the current political atmosphere here is still stuck in 19th century attitudes to the poor that prevent us from doing what we could do to help in terms of a wider variety of tenures and support mechanisms.

What is really sad is so many of the people who could be moving us to become a more inclusive and caring society will  be in churches this week, singing carols and talking about a homeless family forced to occupy a stable and give birth to a child among the animals. Their political philosophy seems to get hung up on the idea that only private acts of charity have any moral value. Yes it is very good to work in a food bank or give out blankets and warm jackets at this time of year. But we do that every year and it never changes – the need is, if anything, growing. Our politicians need to get their heads around the idea that a decent home and an adequate social safety net are indeed Canadian values that we cherish and expect our governments – at all levels – to rebuild. And soon.

I think that is probably a good point to stop blogging and go enjoy the holiday myself. I trust that all of you who read this blog will have a safe and happy holiday – and not have to spend too much time stuck at airports.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 24, 2008 at 9:21 am

Posted in housing

Not fast enough

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Quite a good piece from the Province that got copied to the Financial Post on Rail for the Valley. Mostly positive, but oddly neglectful “the Golden Ears Bridge and other improvements” is hardly a adequate way to deal with the Gateway and the present government’s determination to make sure we get lots more freeways but no trains – and that is supposed to contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions! But then that may be the only way to a story like this into the Asper’s papers.

He is right about one thing. This will be big issue in the upcoming election just as it was in recent municipal elections

Written by Stephen Rees

December 22, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

Tagged with

Citta Slow

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The Tyee

It was not so long ago that I was writing about “The Need for Speed”. And it was clear from the responses that not everyone understands why trams, walking and bicycles are going to be the way of the future.

This is the first of a series of articles the Tyee is going to be running, and I am going to assume that if I have alerted you to them, I do not necessarily need to link to each single one.

But this one definitely strikes a chord. It also fits very nicely in to the idea that we should close down some streets – if only so that we can get to meet some of our nieghbours. Car free commercial streets do better financially. Neighborhood streets that keep out through traffic – either as a protest or just as a way of recliming some space where kids can play safely – gain tremendously in community spirit. Just getting out there and meeting people face to face. Chance encounters – and time to stop and chat. Maybe some real friendships can develop – not just facebook  and twitter.

One neighborhood I lived in once – in Scarberia – took off one christmas when the snowplough couldn’t get through. I was shovelling the driveway more for the exercise than any intention of driving anywhere – and after a while others came out and we all started pushing through the stuff in the street and throwing it onto the traffic island in the middle. And someone brought out hot cider – and the kids started throwing snowballs and building snowmen.  It might even happen in your street today. There seem to be a lot of people who have declared it a “snow day”. Another christmas in Saanich shut the entire town down due to heavy snow fall. It was wonderfully peaceful – and the only snowplough was in Oak Bay and tucked up nice and warm in their works yard. They were not going to lend their nice plough to anyone else! And since we all had warm houses and lots of food it really didn’t matter.

the designation is “not a marketing tool,” but a new way to think about civic planning that recognizes “the quality of life for people who live in your town and for the people who visit.”

That fact alone is enought to get me enthusiastic. I have had enough of brands and “concepts”. This seems to me to be more about a philosophy. And one that rejects the life that has been foisted on us. That needs colour supplements at weekends and its own cable channels to explain to us how we “should” live. Quality of life is not about the brands, or the handpainted christmas decorations you buy in July. That has a whole section called “Living” but which really means “advertising” or “conspicuous consumption”.

We cannot do that any longer. It is no surprise that places like Cowichan Bay and Gibsons are the first on board. Steveston might be – but I would be very suprised if it was. This is, after all, the place that rejected the idea of a heritage streetcar. They said it would be “too noisy” but I think what they really worried about is what it might have done to their parking spots.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 22, 2008 at 11:05 am

Posted in Urban Planning

The great log disgrace

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Robert Matas has a longish piece in the Globe and Mail this morning explaining why our river and our beaches are such a mess. He also makes it clear that since present trends are likely to continue, it is not going to get any better, any time soon.

River Eagle North Arm Vancouver BC

River Eagle North Arm Vancouver BC

Moving logs around in booms is something that I have only seen here. It has been, of course, a feature of BC’s logging business for a long time. And everywhere  you go here when you are near the water there will be logs lying around. There is a system to collect them, but it simply doesn’t work. There is not enough reward for the log salvors.  I know the word “beachcomber” has some resonance with Canadians, which is why, I suppose, the Globe used it in it’s headline. But it does not seem to me to describe what the people who go out and try to make a living by collecting logs actually do.

Logs cause a lot of problems to people who use the river. Traffic control in Victoria constantly has to warn shipping about “bundles” that are drifting in the shipping channel. In a small boat logs are a real hazard – and can cause plenty of damage to even large craft. And with more people living in houseboats, clearing logs out of moorings is a constant and expensive chore.

log debris Woods Island Marsh

log debris Woods Island Marsh

Since most logs that escape the boom are not recovered they just become litter. They have “no value”. But of course it took a lot of effort to cut them  down and get them into the river. The sheer wastefulness of the industry should be an alert. Trees are a valuable resource – and if the business that cuts them down does not at least try to get the best use out of them they should not be allowed to exploit it. Stewardship of the forests has to be built in to the contracts that the BC government has with the forestry companies. In the natural cycle of the forest, dead trees are an important part of  the ecosystem – the rotting logs are the the source of the process of continuing regeneration of the he forest. The forestry industry has long fought against any idea that what they call “waste” should be returned to the forest floor. In many communities in BC beehive burners continued to pollute the air – long after they had been banned elsewhere. And the only reason that happened was the industry lobbied the government – and threatened to close the mills if their costs were raised by ideas like taking the chipped bark back to the forest floor.

Nurse log

Nurse log

The forestry industry is of course now in deep trouble. The shameful softwood lumber deal, and the decline of the US market for construction materials being only two lines in the long litany of its troubles. And, of course, it is raw logs that are now exported. We simply gave up on the idea that we needed jobs in forest products processing.

There are some people who use logs. You see them down by the beaches all the time – with a big pickup truck and a chainsaw. The logs are cut up, dried and stacked – and used for firewood. The open hearth burning of wood for comfort in the home being specifically exempted in the local air quality rules. Of course, a closed wood stove would be much more efficient, but if there is a ready supply of fuel for free floating past, there is not much incentive to go for a modern, efficient stove.

Logs on the roof

Logs on the roof

The Globe story concentrates on the log salvors – as it should. But it is part of a much bigger picture. That here in BC we like looking at the mountains and the forests as we drive by. Some even go camping and hiking in the woods. But mostly we just take the existence of the natural environment for granted. The neglect of the rivers and beaches is only part of a general preference to remain concerned about our businesses and profits. We keep being told that this is “the best place on earth” – a slogan designed to bolster complacency. It seems highly unlikely that anyone has the concern – or the intestinal fortitude – to tackle any of this at the moment, or any time soon

Written by Stephen Rees

December 20, 2008 at 10:12 am

Posted in Environment

Tagged with

B.C. port expansion delayed

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Prince Ruperts new container berth

Prince Rupert's new container berth

Globe and Mail

The Port of Vancouver  and Gordon Campbell appear to believe that we are immune from these influences, but the Port of Prince Rupert is hurting and has now put off Phase 2 of its expansion.

Shipping volumes at the container port have fallen far short of initial expectations that capacity would be fully taken up this year.

Instead, only about a third had been used as of the end of November, and traffic dipped from the month before.

A Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters survey released yesterday indicates that 52 per cent of companies say their orders will likely fall between now and March, l 2009, and that more than one-third believe their inventory levels are too high. Both responses point to reduced demand for imported goods.

The decline has touched virtually every category of products shipped from Asia, including consumer goods and components used in North American manufacturing operations. But West Coast ports have seen particularly steep declines in categories of goods that don’t have to be delivered quickly.

The falloff in shipping volumes has demolished one of the key arguments for expansion at Prince Rupert – namely that other ports along the West Coast of North America were running at full capacity.

That assertion has of course not been true for some time, and is something that has been reported here. More than once.  Prince Rupert was supposed to be at an advantage too – a day or more sailing saved on shipments from China – a quicker, easier route to Chicago.

The big picture is of a US, and now a Canadian, economy in deep trouble. Even our Prime Minister is acknowledging that: six weeks ago, he was firmly promising that Canada would not run a deficit budget. That is no longer the case – and indeed it is now forecast to be around $30 billion. Desperate times. But not one in which you just start spending on projects that have little chance of being useful. Like the port expansion – which is simply not needed in Prince Rupert – and won’t be needed here either.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 19, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Gateway, port expansion

Tagged with

Where to donate old cell phones

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3121575464_8a062db061Art by KK – message from Uncle Weed

Written by Stephen Rees

December 19, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Posted in poverty