Vancouver is an anomaly with its real-estate driven, consumer-led economy where most of its large employers are public-sector institutions (hospitals, universities, colleges) or publicly linked organizations, including the Port of Vancouver.
Unlike most cities with high-cost real estate, it has rarely attracted corporate headquarters since the heady days of forestry and mining. And unlike other West Coast cities, such as Seattle or Portland, few global companies have been born, grown and remain thriving in place here.
That may be changing. Over the past two years, tech companies like AbCellera, Visier, Trulioo, GeoComply and game developers like Dapper Labs have reached “unicorn” status with valuations of more than $1 billion.
But the $2-billion question is: Can businesses afford to thrive here? Does Vancouver offer companies the space to grow into something bigger? Is Vancouver — once Canada’s most livable city — attractive enough to attract the kinds of employees that they need?
Yet there’s been barely a whisper about the economy in the lead-up to Vancouver’s civic election on Saturday. The exception is a promise by every party and candidate to speed up the building permitting process.
Civic politicians haven’t spent much time on these economic questions even though they’re inextricably linked to the election’s top issue — housing affordability. It’s not just that the prices are so high, it’s that incomes are so low.
According to the 2021 census, Vancouver’s median income is $82,000. That puts it 39th among the 56 Canadian cities with populations over 100,000. The median housing purchase price is close to twice that at $1.45 million. Median rent is $1,570.
Gatineau, Que., is 38th in median income, but homes cost $332,000 and rent is $900 a month. Halifax, N.S., is 40th. Homes there are $348,000 and rent is $1,170.
Despite not talking much about the economy, politicians have been promising more of pretty much everything — non-market housing, co-ops, supportive housing, renter protection, child care, addictions treatment, safer supply of drugs, electric vehicle charging stations, SkyTrain loop and more public-sector employees.
All that with scant indication of how it will be paid for beyond the usual promise to go cap in hand to senior levels of government.
Among the few concrete, wealth-creating suggestions is extending bar and restaurant hours. Forward Together promises to create an Office for the Night-Time Economy at City Hall, while ABC Vancouver would have a “Night Mayor.” (Perhaps the pun is intentional?)
The NPA promises to bring back professional basketball, which might be described as economic activity. But if that is, it’s curious no one ventured to talk about any perceived benefits of Vancouver staging the four, mega sporting events that the current council has supported behind closed doors: The 2023 Laver Cup, the 2025 Invictus Games, the 2026 men’s soccer World Cup and the 2030 Winter Olympics.
TEAM is talking about the Olympics, promising to hold a plebiscite so that taxpayers can decide whether they want to spend the $4-plus billion it’s estimated to cost. It also mentions preserving industrial and commercial land.
OneCity has the longest list of economic promises that send mixed messages.
It promises to favour local businesses over “giant chain retailers.” Would it apply to Lululemon or Aritzia?
It promises to protect industrial land. But it also promises greater density on industrial land including live-work housing, which could potentially boost the price of industrial land, forcing out growing companies that need more space for software development, biotechnology development, manufacturing and even warehousing.
In some ways, none of this is surprising.
People have always paid a premium to live in Lotusland, including accepting lower wages or fewer opportunities for advancement.
But a Leger survey done for Postmedia and released this week suggests that we might be at a tipping point. It found 48 per cent of Vancouverites believe they are worse off now than four years ago when they elected the current council.
Across Metro Vancouver, only 35 per cent of respondents said that. If there’s “good” news for Vancouver, it is that 53 per cent of people in Surrey feel they are worse off.
The other reason it may not be surprising is that so-called “progressives” reject traditional economic measurements.
Last month, the council-appointed Vancouver Economic Commission released its first report, called Beyond GDP. It noted that an increase in production of goods and services alone “can undermine the building of economies that thrive within planetary boundaries and support healthy, prosperous communities.”
It said businesses need to work toward “valuable social purposes to help make Vancouver a better city to live (in). This value expresses the aspiration that people and businesses may pursue goals other than earning money.”
Those other things include volunteering and building social capital.
It stressed “economic reconciliation,” which it defined as “redressing the fundamental social, political, educational and financial harm enacted through systematic disempowerment (of First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples).”
It said Vancouver’s other shared values are sustainability and striving for an “antifragile” economy, which might be more easily understood as resilience.
Back in the old days — 1992, to be exact — Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville advised him, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The American economy was in recession. Clinton listened and became president.
Thirty years later, Vancouver’s economy perches on a housing bubble. Property taxes have increased 25 per cent in four years. Inflation is a problem across the country and global uncertainty is higher than at any point in many people’s lifetime.
With little to go on, Vancouver voters can only hope that the next mayor and council will take Carville’s advice to heart — the economy matters.
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