In the weeks leading up to the November 15 municipal election, Business in Vancouver will interview the mayoral candidates for Vision Vancouver, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) to find out where they stand on business and economic issues.
BIV spoke to Meena Wong, the mayoral candidate for COPE, on October 30.
BIV: When you speak to businesses, what are their biggest concerns?
MW: Their biggest concern is that the property tax is too expensive. I explain to them that the reason for that is that the property value is going up so much. So the property assessment has gone up and that’s increased the property tax. Many business owners say that they’re really struggling, and they want to stay in Vancouver, but many of them say I don’t know how long I will last.
I go down to the Punjabi market and to Chinatown and talk to the business owners, and they just say it’s a struggle for them, a constant struggle. That’s why we want to raise people’s minimum wage and give them a living wage so they have money in their pocket and will spend more in the local economy.
BIV: A lot of small business owners would say that raising the minimum wage to $15 would put them out of business.
MW: That’s why we’d protect the small businesses. They don’t have to go with the $15. It’s the big chain retail stores like Walmart or Target, big hotel chains. We believe that they can be like Costco. Costco is paying their employees a living wage; Amazon is not. You’re going to do business in Vancouver, do your duty to the City of Vancouver.
BIV: The city doesn’t currently have the jurisdiction to raise the minimum wage, so what would have to happen to make that happen?
MW: We would change the Vancouver Charter. But imagine the whole city behind me. We have a lot of power as the city mayor. Imagine the determination, making it a priority. I always say to Gregor [Robertson], don’t blame other levels of government. Don’t blame the province, don’t blame federal. You are the mayor of this city.
BIV: You have a number of policy ideas to address affordable housing. What are they and how would they be funded?
MW: In the city of Hong Kong, where I’ve lived, the city government started to build affordable housing in the 1970s to house people living in shanty towns and homeless. What they do is half is for to first-time buyers to purchase, half is affordable rental. [When I say] affordable rental, I’m talking about 30% of a person’s income.
We also want to build more affordable housing on city-owned lands by contracting builders to build them. We’re not going to stop people from building buildings in Vancouver, we’re going to build it with consultation with neighbourhoods, with businesses, and in the form that the neighbourhood can accept.
Right now in Vancouver the biggest cost is land. Under Vision, they give city land to their friends, certain developers, in a non-transparent and I would say non-assessable way, it’s like sweetheart deals with certain developers, where other developers don’t have access.
That’s why [our party] doesn’t accept developer money.
The other way is to generate revenue from rent. When we build those we will collect rent from [tenants]. I’ve been managing rental properties for my parents since 1989, so I know how to deal with that kind of issue. We’re also going to generate revenue from [higher taxes on] vacant properties.
BIV: Vision and the NPA have both been pushing for a subway along the Broadway corridor. What are your thoughts about that project?
MW: That’s a developer plan, I’m sorry to say that. That’s what developers are pushing for because of the [rise] in land value. All along the Broadway Corridor, if that happened, from Fourth Avenue to 16th Avenue you will see the heavy development that is happening right now along Cambie. Neighbourhoods are worried.
BIV: But clearly we need some sort of better solution for that corridor.
MW: We propose a $30-per-month transit pass to all Vancouverites, not including seniors and students who already get a U-Pass as well as senior pass. We have 480,000 adults in Vancouver. Right now TransLink is making $150 million out of fares from Vancouver. If all 480,000 people sign on, they will get $160 million - $10 million more than what they get now. This $10 million will cover those who want to opt out and at the same time we’re going to be the champion of asking for funding from federal and provincial. Imagine if a whole city rose up and said we want public transit. I would see the ridership double.
BIV: But the ridership won’t double if you don’t have the capacity and right now there is no extra capacity along the Broadway corridor, for instance.
MW: The first thing I would do if elected is I would push for more buses on Broadway, and I’m going to make that Broadway line a designated line for buses.
BIV: Do you have any thoughts about how to reduce congestion, which is a concern we hear from businesses all the time?
MW: What business people tell me is, when they try to get deliveries from Richmond to Vancouver, it used to take half an hour. Now it can be two hours. Guess where the big backlog is? Burrard Bridge. I talked to the people in Kitsilano, they say that the bike lane [on Burrard Bridge] was supposed to be temporary with a report back to the community. Vision decided to make it permanent … Now it takes double the time to go downtown. I believe in providing a better alternative for business and for residents.
BIV: Would you take that bike lane out?
MW: I would look into it, and I would see what is the best alternative. That’s definitely an area where I need to sit down with residents and businesses and cyclists as well, because I also cycle. I do care about cyclist’s safety … I want to make sure that everybody can come to an agreement.
BIV: Right now Vision and the Vancouver Economic Commission are focusing on tech and tourism and green jobs, while the NPA is saying the city isn’t focusing enough on resource industries. What do you think is the best hope for economic growth for Vancouver?
BIV: How is that different from what Vision is doing now: they’re looking at creating a green enterprise zone and providing office space to clean tech companies. What would you do differently?
MW: It looks like they only serve the people who give them donations, like Hootsuite and Amazon and other companies. I want to make sure that our process is fair, it’s transparent to everyone.
BIV: You talk about incubators, but you don’t like the city’s plan to turn the former police station at Main and Hastings into a business incubator.
MW: The whole process is not transparent. How did Hootsuite get that sweet deal? … Access to information is a big problem. I want to make sure city hall is transparent. If I wanted to live in a city like that, I would have just stayed in China.