'We can be doing better': Interview with Vancouver city council candidate Judy Graves

Judy Graves has been an advocate for fighting homelessness for decades. Photo: SFU/Flikr

The City of Vancouver's by-election is swiftly approaching and one candidate thinks Vancouver has a lot of work to do. Judy Graves, a long-time advocate for the city's homeless, wants to make housing a priority. rabble.ca spoke with Graves about what's at stake in this election. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you tell me about your path to this by-election?  What led you to run?

Vancouver is really in a mess. If you're not among the well-to-do, if you don't have parents able to give you a down payment, there's no hope of [home] ownership and this means that we have a whole new population forcing itself into rental and rental hasn't been built in any significant amount in 30 years anywhere in Canada.

So we've got an aging stock of rental with more people than it can hold and everywhere I go, I'm coming across older friends, younger friends, all of them telling me things like "I'm crying myself to sleep at night because I don't know where I'll be next year. I don't know how to raise my children because I'm going to have to move so far outside of the city and spend all my time on transit."

I think we can be doing better.

It seems like there's a lot riding on this election. What do you feel is at stake?

I think Vancouver is at a crossroads; if we don't address the very real problems right now, we're going to see ourselves going very much (going in) the direction that London or New York or San Francisco have gone, where there's a city that's become a playground for wealthy people and there's a servant class and everybody else has been forced out of the city.

We at One City very much believe that if you work in the city, you should be able to live in the city. That it's definitely not green to bring an entire workforce in every day from the far reaches of Surrey and then send them all back at night. It's a beautiful city, but we're losing that quickly.

You've been working to respond to the housing crisis here in Vancouver for years. How do you feel the city needs to respond?

I think the city needs to set some priorities. When Mayor (Gregor) Robertson was elected, I was actually very excited by the promise of housing everyone in six years, getting all of the homeless in, and in fact it could have been done. But somehow the priority slipped and seems to have disappeared. We've got increasing levels of homelessness in every neighbourhood in Vancouver now. We've got to be dedicated to fixing that. We have to really establish, as a priority over other things, housing the working class, the middle class, the people who have their children in school in Vancouver.

If housing is made a priority, what specific solutions would you like to see?

We'd like to see as a quick solution, the building of housing in Vancouver, certainly housing the homeless as quickly as possible, but also other, large groups of people who are frantic for housing, like students. We have plans to make that possible.

We would like to see, also, densification within residential areas. Right now, 80 per cent of Vancouver's land is zoned for single-family housing and it bans building rental. That's not sustainable. The people who are in the houses are aging and they're selling them. We would like to see some of what is built be multi-family housing. We would be using some of the beautiful heritage in those areas to create densification that could be used for rental at 30 per cent of people’s income. We would like to put a luxury tax on just the five per cent most expensive homes in Vancouver and use that money, not in general revenue, but in a designated fund to build housing quickly for people who need it so they can work in the city.

We would like to see as the taller buildings are being approved that the developers have to build 20 per cent of the units for the city to then rent out to people at 30 per cent of their income.

Besides housing, what other issues do you feel are being neglected by the present city council?

Well, we've got a very silly, fun idea. In Montreal and in Europe, a family can take a bottle of wine to a picnic. In Vancouver, that's a criminal activity. And so we'd like to see the laws loosened up about drinking in public parks. We don't condone drunkenness in parks, but we certainly would like to see it possible for the vast majority of people to be able to enjoy themselves without feeling like they have to hide.

At the same time, we want to work on the opioid crisis. The only thing that we can do in the right direction right now in Vancouver, in terms of legislation, would be to decriminalize. The City of Vancouver does have the ability to decriminalize. Beyond that, I feel very strongly that we've got to press the federal government to legalize drugs and regulate the quality of them.

It's certainly far from unusual for, especially young people, to want to experiment with drug use, and that hasn't changed since I was a puppy and probably since my father was a puppy so we're going back 100 years. It's probably not going to change in the future, but what we're being told by the doctors at UBC is that the world's entire recreational drug supply has been contaminated and there is nothing that anybody can do about that. That is probably going to continue as long as the world continues. So we have to find other ways of protecting our young people who may well not be addicted, may well not ever be addicted, but might use a little something at a party or during a night out and shouldn't be risking death.

For potentially skeptical by-election voters out there, what's the value in one city council seat in your opinion? What change could you bring as an individual?

It would give me the freedom to speak. I worked at City Hall for 39 years so I know it inside and out, and I know good policy, and I know bad policy when I see it because I see lots of both. So it would give me one vote, but it gives me a lot of power to speak truth and to move people along. My whole working life, I had no power but I can bring people to a point of collaboration and it makes a huge difference.

Was there anything else you wanted to add?

You know, I've never met a person yet that wasn't part of the solution. So I will be inviting the whole of Vancouver to become a part of the solution to the problems that we're facing as a city.

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She completed her undergraduate degree at Queen's University and studied journalism at Langara College. Alyse's work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, Pilcrow Magazine and Vancouver Observer. She was rabble's 2015-16 news intern.

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