British Columbia·Analysis

Why crime has replaced housing affordability as Vancouver's biggest hot-button issue

One can debate whether the issue is overblown or too focused on the anxieties of homeowners at the expense of the most marginalized. What's clear is the city has decided it's a top priority.

It’s not as universal — but politicians risk downplaying the emotion surrounding it at their own peril

Strathcona Park is the site of Vancouver's newest tent city, after tents at Oppenheimer Park and Crab Park were dismantled in the spring. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver is the epicentre of an overdose crisis that is claiming the lives of 175 people a month in British Columbia.

The benchmark price for a detached home in Greater Vancouver is $1.5 million, up seven per cent this year and 81 per cent in the last decade. 

A global pandemic has forced politicians to make tough decisions on a regular basis on health and safety protocols, many of which currently centre around schools

And yet, at least for the moment, the most acrimonious political debate in the city is not about any of those things. 

"The conflict over streets and street cleanliness and order: It's definitely top of mind for lots of Vancouverites. It's probably the single issue we hear [most] about, and for good reason," said Councillor Pete Fry. 

"Certainly, we see a lot more garbage on the street, we see a lot more human waste on the streets, we see a lot more needles, more violence, more folks who are in the throes of psychosis or other crisis, and it's scary for a lot of folks."

It's caused Mayor Kennedy Stewart to call an emergency council meeting for Sept. 11, after months of growing rhetoric over a growing homeless population, which includes the city's third tent encampment this year. 

The reason for the tension is clear: an increase of hundreds of homeless people that the city and province attribute mostly to COVID-19 shelter policies enforcing physical distancing; a summer of highly visible homeless camps in the province's two biggest cities; and a noticeable increase in petty crime and theft in neighbourhoods like Yaletown and the West End, causing some residents to worry about a tipping point.  

One can debate whether the issue is overblown, or over-focused on the anxieties of homeowners at the expense of the most marginalized. 

What's clear is the city has decided it's a top priority — whether the city has the capacity to solve the issue is a different matter.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Housing Minister Selina Robinson talk prior to a September 1, 2020 press conference announcing more modular and social housing units in the city. (Sean Foss/CBC News)

From friendly neighbours to concerned citizens

In the same way that the rising home prices galvanized regular citizens into concerned activists, so too has the increase in crime.

"In Strathcona we've been used to dealing with a certain level of petty crime … but in the last 10 weeks, we've seen an incredible shift in our neighbourhood, and it's just not sustainable," said Katie Lewis, vice-president of the Strathcona Residents' Association. 

That timeline coincides with the arrival of the Strathcona Park encampment, along with the traffic through the neighbourhood from the park to the Downtown Eastside.  

It took 19 months to end the Oppenheimer Park encampment — complete with endless buck-passing and emergency motions from politicians that changed little — and Lewis and others in Strathcona worry of a repeat.  

"Government hasn't learned its lesson from the Oppenheimer experience," said Jamie MacLaren, a lawyer leading a movement by residents in the area to withhold their property taxes next year unless the encampment is closed and more social housing is created throughout the city. 

"It needs to happen immediately. Modular housing in the spring of next year won't do the trick; winter is coming and they have real safety needs in the camp."

Fry is a long-time Strathcona resident and politician, not known for stigmatizing the homeless or prioritizing "tough on crime" policies. But he believes the anxieties of residents — not just in Strathcona, but in Yaletown, the West End, Crosstown and other neighbourhoods where there's been an increase in crime — are warranted. 

"What we're doing right now is not working, and we're all dreading the inevitable second wave of the pandemic that might make this crisis more extreme."

Strathcona resident and lawyer Jamie MacLaren is leading a movement by residents in the area to withhold payment of property taxes unless more social housing is created throughout the city. (Sean Foss/CBC News)

Managing, not ending

But what short-term changes are possible?

The province has already committed to 450 more units of modular and social housing, but they won't start coming online until next spring — and for its part, the province is adamant that its approach to the issue has been effective. 

"People are witnessing more [homelessness] than they have historically, but we also used to have the [Surrey] Strip, we used to have Sugar Mountain," said Housing Minister Selina Robinson.

"We have some work to do, but we're working hard."

Mayor Stewart asks people for compassion, but he's also aware the public wants concrete movement more than before.

"I agree there has been a change in public tone, and it's our job as politicians to move resources to where they're most needed," he said.

"It's about trying to build these partnerships that are delivering, rather than lots of talk. I can understand the frustration, and that's how I'll be judged when the next election comes along: how well did we tackle this?"

It's why Stewart's motion for Friday's meeting calls on staff to come back with solutions by early October that haven't been seriously considered before, including an emergency relief encampment.

However, with an independent park board that permits continuous overnight camping and a section of the population leery of social housing guidelines, he's trying not to overpromise.

"Cities, it's never about ending anything, it's about managing it better. When I talk to mayors around the world, those kinds of promises, they shouldn't be made, because you can't keep them."

One might remember the city's last mayor, Gregor Robertson, making a bold promise on the cusp of the 2010 Olympics that he would end street homelessness

Now, the city is promising to manage the issue rather than end it. 

It might be pragmatic. It might be pessimistic. 

But it's definitely a sign of how the city's mood has changed. 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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