Email to Prime Minister Trudeau on electoral reform

[With copies to Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould and MP for Vancouver East Jenny Kwan]

Prime Minister Trudeau,

It’s unusual that I would have reason to contact you more than once in a month, yet here I find myself once again disappointed by your inaction on a fundamental element of your platform.

I’m especially upset by your latest comments in defense of your opposition to electoral reform, as quoted in this CBC article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/electoral-reform-trudeau-leitch-1.3975354?cmp=rss 

I want to say unequivocally that while I absolutely do not support Kellie Leitch, or fringe parties generally, I still believe that fringe parties should be able to have seats in the house if they represent a significant enough portion of Canadians. When your argument against electoral reform is “I don’t want THOSE people in the house,” you’re fundamentally misunderstanding the very nature of democracy. You are also forgetting that our existing system led to Kellie Leitch being in parliament, so the status quo hardly seems to be solving this problem you’ve imagined. Government represents the people – all the people – government should not be formally established only to be comprised of people you like.  I’m upset that you would abuse the power you were given (by, I might remind you, a minority of Canadians) to further entrench our unfair electoral system.

I also want to dispel the myth that fringe parties will get to hold the balance of power (and, by implication, get to dictate government business).  You know who else holds the balance of power in a minority government with a fringe party with a few seats? Literally every other party in the house. That’s how our parliamentary system works. If the governing party is willing to form a coalition with a fringe party rather than co-operate with the opposition, that reflects on the government, not on the electoral system. You yourself talked about the need for ‘big’ parties and for the need for parties to co-operate with one another – it’s disappointing that you expect Canadians to believe you when you say directly contradictory things in the same sentence.

Finally, you stated “the fact that the NDP was absolutely locked into proportional representation, no matter what, at any cost, meant there was no give and take possible on that,” – this could easily be restated as “the fact that the prime minister was absolutely locked into instant-runoff, no matter what, at any cost, meant there was no give and take possible on that.”

I want to make it clear that I support an Australian-style instant-runoff system, just like you do. Of course, I would like this to come along with an elected Senate like Australia has, but acknowledge that has less popular support. Regardless, I would rather accept MMP or another form of proportional representation than continue under the antiquated, unfair, and barely representative form of democracy we currently employ.  I’m disappointed that you would allow your desire to hold on to power to prevent these very necessary improvements to our democracy.

Sincerely,

Neal Jennings

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Open email on 10th Avenue bike improvements, and the Mount Pleasant transportation problem.

I received this when I got home today:

IMG_20161212_204105.jpg

 

 

My response:

 

Hello,

I received on my door today a notice from an organisation calling itself “The Neighbourhood Stratas” (alternatively “Kingsgate Stratas,” as suggested by their email address), advocating against the proposed improvements to Prince Edward Street, and spreading some misinformation (particularly regarding the number of parking spaces to be removed). I have attached a photo of their cover letter.

As a unit owner and resident at The Uptown, 2788 Prince Edward Street, I would like to make it very clear that this organisation does not speak on behalf of me, and I suspect many of my neighbours would also say the same.  I assume, by virtue of the fact that the notice was left on my door and not my mailbox, that the building’s strata council is participating in this organisation, though we have yet to receive any meeting minutes that suggest as much.  Regardless, residents of the building have absolutely not been consulted on this topic at all. The strata does not have a clear mandate from residents of the building to proceed with lobbying on this matter.

All this said, I’d like to address the concerns highlighted in their flyer, as some of them at least are valid and worth addressing. I apologise in advance for the great length of this message, but I think that there are some very important issues to be addressed, many of which are much, much, bigger than this single project. As such, I’ve copied the mayor-and-council email address on here because there are broader development, planning, and transportation concerns impacting this situation.

First and foremost, I am strongly in favour of the street closure, parking removal, and one-way adjustment proposals as written. As currently designed, this portion of 10th Avenue (and in particular the “jog” at Prince Edward) is dangerous for people travelling by any means – on foot, on bike, or by car. I’ve previously attended open houses at earlier stages of the 10th Avenue improvements consultations and after several discussions with staff I’m convinced that there is no other way to solve this issue other than to change the half-block-jog to bicycle-and-pedestrian-only. As someone who walks, cycles, and drives through this intersection multiple times a day, the current situation is unacceptable.

Specifically with respect to access to my building, we have two parkades. One is a virtually-unused permit-only commercial parkade with access on Prince Edward Street, which I admit will have slightly-more-difficult access, though access via Kingsway-11th-Prince Edward is, frankly, more obvious than via Broadway anyway.  The other is the one used by people who actually live here, and is accessed from the laneway between Prince Edward and Guelph.  This laneway is accessible from 12th Avenue directly, and from 11th Avenue via Kingsway/Prince Edward or via Broadway/Guelph.  The proposals will not affect this access, at all.  If anything, I’d like to suggest that improved access to the laneway from 12th Avenue (especially turning left Eastbound 12th to Northbound laneway) and/or via a full traffic light at Broadway and Guelph might help to alleviate any parking access issues for our building that may be caused by this change to 10th Avenue.

The flyer also raises concerns that residents may have to leave the area via 11th to Kingsway, which would be difficult if doing anything other than turning right (Northbound).  The Kingsway and 11th intersection is, indeed, a disaster. With no signal and no crosswalks, it’s completely impossible to navigate by bike or on foot (this is officially an unmarked crosswalk, but on a six-lane highway, drivers do not respect this), and even by car is still very difficult to navigate – even if only making a right turn onto or off of Kingsway. I’ve personally been in more than a few near-collisions at this intersection.

I’d like to suggest that, rather than backtrack on the proposed plans (which I think are mostly sound), the city consider improvements to the intersection of Kingsway and 11th alongside the changes to 10th Avenue. In previous correspondence with the city, I was informed that I am not the only one to have raised the problem of this intersection, so perhaps the city can take a “two birds with one stone” approach and improve access for everyone by signalising or otherwise better controlling this intersection. In fact, this might give people less reason to drive down Prince Edward in the first place (since it will improve access to major roads other than Broadway), lightening traffic loads across the board.

The other two “concerns” raised by the flyer are with respect to several new developments opening soon in this neighbourhood – concerns that traffic measurements were taken recently without considering the impact of three new buildings currently under construction (presumably The Independent, The Duke, and Vya Living).  First, none of these buildings require access to Prince Edward Street at all – they all face Kingsway. The Independent will have its parkade access via Watson Street, several blocks away, and on the other side of Kingsway, so I don’t think it’s worth considering – given how difficult it is to cross Kingsway, I don’t imagine there’s a lot of risk of people trying to park on the East side of Kingsway for this building. The other two have parkade access from the laneway behind Kingsway, which is unaffected by the plans – there are no changes proposed to the mini-block between Kingsway and the laneway, on either 10th or 11th Avenue, besides the narrowing of 10th for the protected bikeway, but if anything this just moves bikes out of the way of motor vehicles – this block is usually so busy with bikes (in the summer at least) that there isn’t a lot of free space for people to drive anyway.

The two specific concerns with these new buildings were increased traffic volumes and loss of parking in spite of increased residents.  With respect to traffic volumes, it’s clear that the proposals made by the city are to reduce the volume of non-local traffic, since people who actually need to go to these blocks will still drive there anyway, but people who don’t will be frustrated by the traffic-calming (and blocking) measures. If anything, this frees up space on the mini-block between Kingsway and the laneway, because in theory the only people still driving there will be local residents and people going to Buy-Low Foods, as opposed to the current situation where this block regularly attracts rat-runners between Kingsway or Main and Broadway. Paired with the conversion of 10th West of Kingsway to Westbound-only, this will help reduce the volume of people using 10th-> Prince Edward or Prince Edward-> 10th to get between Main Street and Broadway without having to navigate the various no-turn intersections.

With respect to the loss of street parking in combination with the gain of large quantities of new residents, I would normally dismiss such comments since residents generally have in-building parking and visitors can come by other means. Generally speaking, I believe it is the city’s responsibility to encourage active transportation and public transportation use, and not to be concerned about storage of private motor vehicles on public property.

However, in this case this concern does speak to a broader issue of the increase in the number of residents in the neighbourhood. I’m strongly in favour of development and of increased density, generally, but this neighbourhood is about to be hit by a perfect storm of transportation problems. The latest development selling in this neighbourhood (on Broadway at Prince Edward) is marketing itself to be near a “proposed” SkyTrain station which may never come.  Bus service has been decreased consistently in the three years I’ve lived here (particularly on the 19), and buses are only going to get more crowded with the several new developments in the area, plus all the new housing the city is building just North of Broadway on Main.  I realise this is well, well, beyond the scope of the 10th Avenue team (which is why council is copied), but I hope that you could communicate to whoever is capable of addressing this that this neighbourhood badly needs a broader transportation plan, and one that addresses the increased number of residents with real, concrete, improvements.  I must reiterate that I think a AAA bike route, in the form of 10th Avenue (and Broadway, if I’m being greedy), and more bike share stations need to be part of this plan. The plan should also include completing the Millennium Line extension, and improving the pedestrian realm through traffic calming and improved crossings.  In the meantime, I’m living in a neighbourhood that is rapidly being built to Transit-Oriented Development density, without the actual transit to support it.

So to bring this back around to the original point surrounding parking, I can sympathise with concerns about loss of street parking for visitors and for car-sharing vehicles (the latter, frankly, often occupy about 50% of the on-street parking in this area). I think a lot of this could be remedied, on a short-term basis anyway, by negotiating for some space with Kingsgate Mall – there are currently no Car2Go or Evo parking spots in any of their three lots, and of course non-customers are not allowed to park there. However, their lots (particularly the large Buy-Low lot at 10th and Kingsway) are frequently virtually empty.  If even just the Buy-Low lot were opened to paid parking and/or some Car2Go and Evo spots, this could completely offset the loss of 20 (not 30 as implied by the flyer) parking spaces on Prince Edward.  I also wonder if you could clarify for those concerned whether any visitor and/or public parking will be available in Vya Living or The Duke.

To sum up this very long message (apologies again) – 1) the group claiming to represent the stratas in my neighbourhood does not represent me, 2) I encourage you to move forward with the improvements to 10th Avenue, 3) there are several other problem areas in and around the mega-block bounded by 12th, Kingsway, Broadway and Guelph that need to be addressed, the solutions to which I think should be expedited to address some of the concerns raised about the 10th Avenue changes (but these things need to be fixed, regardless), and 4) this neighbourhood badly needs a transportation plan; one that is actually funded and implemented as soon as possible. Further developments should, and I’m sure will, continue to come to this neighbourhood, but we can’t sustain any more until the transportation situation is addressed more broadly, including the completion of the SkyTrain to Main and Broadway.

Thank you for your time,

Neal Jennings

Anti-avoidance in the Property Transfer Tax Act

I won’t get into my thoughts on the impact of charging a higher rate of tax to non-Canadians here, but I noticed a strange choice of words in the BC Government’s Bill 28 from this week.  I wrote the following email to Minister De Jong who introduced the bill explaining it and thought I’d share it here.

Minister De Jong,

(With copies to my local MLA Melanie Mark, Minister Responsible for Housing Rich Coleman, and Opposition Spokesperson for Housing David Eby)

I was encouraged this week to see the government finally reacting to the real estate situation in the Lower Mainland.  While I personally do not agree with the widely-held view that non-resident buyers are the primary source of the affordability problem in Vancouver, I think that the changes made in this bill are a good starting point to improve the housing situation in the Lower Mainland. I am especially encouraged by the allocation of the funds raised by the new tax towards the Housing Priority Initiatives special account.
I would like to call to your attention something that I believe is a shortcoming in this bill, specifically with respect to the avoidance provision.  The way I interpret the new section 2.04 of the Property Transfer Tax Act, it applies only to the new Additional Tax, and not to property transfer tax in general. This is put into effect by the definition of “tax benefit”, being “a reduction, avoidance or deferral of tax payable under section 2.02,” where section 2.02 is the charging provision for the new additional tax.
I’m glad that this anti-avoidance provision is included in the legislation, and I’m especially encouraged to see the government has chosen the wording almost directly from ss. 245(2) of the Income Tax Act.  As a Chartered Professional Accountant, I believe the GAAR to be a robust tool for addressing tax avoidance. What I am concerned about, however, is that no such avoidance provision appears to exist anywhere else in the Property Transfer Tax Act.  Does this imply that, absent any specific avoidance provisions, general avoidance of the property transfer tax is still to be allowed?
Given the recent series of media stories showing the many ways in which property transfer tax can be avoided, particularly through assignment, I would like to suggest that before this bill is passed it be amended to change the avoidance provision. This provision should cover all property transfer tax, and not just the additional tax.  If I might, I would suggest changing the section number to 2.3 and changing the definition of “tax benefit” to: “means a reduction, avoidance or deferral of tax payable under this Act.”  In fact, this is the wording the Income Tax Act uses, so I find it curious that the wording was intentionally changed to exclude the regular property transfer tax. Given the intent of general anti-avoidance provisions, I see no reason that the regular property transfer tax should be exempt from anti-avoidance provisions such as this.
Yours sincerely,
Neal Jennings

Some thoughts about this week

It’s often easy to get lost in the online world and forget what the real world is like.

I’ve only crossed paths with a few people “IRL” since the shooting in Orlando (I work from home, so that happens a lot). But almost universally, the tone in their voice, the look in their eyes, the intensity with which they engage with the matter evokes that same feeling of despair, anger, frustration, sadness, and even exhaustion that I’ve been feeling over the last few days. This attack may have been on the LGBTQ community.  But all the straight/cisgendered people who have reached out to me to ask if I’m okay, and the others who I’ve seen come close to tears when even addressing the topic, have helped me feel that I’m, that we’re, not alone in this.

These days I get most of my news from the internet, plus CBC radio, and it’s been wall-to-wall coverage of this incident. I’ve never been one to demand trigger warnings, but this story is basically every trigger I could imagine all wrapped into one.  I’ve taken to actively avoiding both the internet and the radio because every time I think about the incident, and the insane reactions many people are having, I just really can’t deal with it. I shut down, I lose ability to focus, I get equally angry and depressed, and I just don’t want to deal with it.  I mean, I’m fine, and these are normal reactions, but I can only take so much of them in a day.  I do hope the endless news coverage will eventually turn up some much-needed answers, but every time I see a headline about a victim-blamer or gun lobbyist, or a photo collage of some of the many victims, I just want to turn off the internet and disappear into a cozy cave in the woods somewhere for awhile.

It becomes so easy to escape the real world and real emotions. My reaction to the endless stream of posts is “ugh, just stop. please. I can’t take it anymore.” I’m certain I’m not alone in this.  Having real conversations, with real people, in real life, has helped alleviate that… and also forces me to deal with it, at least in small doses. The fact that those people have been sharing the same emotions despite being primarily from outside my queer community has helped all the more. The good people out there outnumber the bad; of that I am certain.

I’m not entirely sure where this post is going, or if it’s even going anywhere. But if you’re wondering about my absence (on facebook, or elsewhere) when it comes to posts on this topic, it’s that I’m just so overwhelmed by it I don’t even know where to start. And to those of you feeling overwhelmed by it too, thanks for joining me in this headspace. We’ll all be okay. And as we become okay again, let’s solve these problems for good.

Surreal Estate

I’ve been trying to give this Vice series a chance – the creators of it do seem genuinely interested in research and getting to the bottom of things.

Having just watched the second (and most recent) instalment, it frustrates me how a lot of people interviewed make it so very clear that the real estate pricing issue is “not a race question but a money question,” implying that wealthy property owners are doing damage in the market (which is a mostly plausible argument). But then they all go on to conclude that foreign owners are the problem anyway. Why is the problem not “people with lots of money”? Why do we continue to use “rich foreigners” as a scapegoat when we have so many rich domestic people too?

As someone who’s called out xenophobia in this debate many times, I also specifically take issue with Dr. Ley’s assertion that “people who play the race card want the discussion to end, they do not want a serious discussion.” Besides taking offense of being accused of “playing the race card,” I find it upsetting to have the entire thing diminished in such a way. Personally, I have problems with the foreigner-scapegoating because it’s clear that the problem is investors in general, and especially investors who leave homes unoccupied (there are other problems, too, but that’s undoubtedly one of them). We can use anecdata to create a proxy between foreigners and empty-house-investors, but to me the xenophobia attached to that (labelling all foreigners as “bad investors”, and all domestic people as inherently okay) is obvious.

The fact that I see a problem with using weak stereotype-based proxies like this does NOT mean I think there isn’t a problem, or that I “want the discussion to end.” In fact, I’d like the discussion to go beyond just the shallow surface “too many Chinese people” discussion, and go deeper to the root behaviours and activities that are causing the problem. If there are too many wealthy investors leaving empty homes in the city, let’s do something serious about it – regardless of their nationality.

Ultimately, the thing that bugs me most about the foreigner-blaming is that it lets badly-behaving-investors who are Canadian off the hook. It assumes that all Canadians have the best interests of all other Canadians at heart, and would never play games with our real estate markets. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I think that’s a very unrealistic assumption.

I also want to bring up a second, and more unnerving point.  There is a remarkable amount of ignorance around Canada’s tax laws and it terrifies me that even realtors are unaware of some of the basic rules. This episode interviewed a realtor who was working with a buyer in Hong Kong.  She was asked “‘What do I have to do as an overseas buyer, what do I have to be careful of or what tax implications are– do I have to be aware of?’ and I [the realtor] said ‘nothing!'”

This is not even close to true! Non-residents who lease out Canadian real estate (it’s unclear if this was the buyer’s plan) are subject to withholding taxes on the rent they receive, and there’s an entire regime built around assessing taxes on rent earned by non-residents.

And when they ultimately sell, any income or capital gain earned as a result of the sale is subject to taxes as well – a lengthy and complex clearance process is required before they are even allowed to receive all the proceeds from their sale, and they are generally required to file a Canadian non-resident tax return to report the disposition and claim back any excess withholding taxes or pay additional taxes if applicable.

The fact that a realtor, whose job it is to advise her client about the risks and implications of the property they’re buying, doesn’t even know this is a really, really, big problem. This is important information for the foreign buyer, but besides that the tax system relies heavily on realtors (and the paralegals they work with, if they work with them) to know what tax laws apply to ensure that proceeds aren’t distributed to the non-resident before the appropriate taxes are withheld.  No wonder so many people think foreigners get away with paying no taxes!

I really appreciate that Vice is bringing forward these perspectives – I just wish it wouldn’t leave unsupportable or in many cases completely inaccurate statements unchallenged.

Why are my property taxes so low?

This might be a little naïve, but I have to ask – why is increasing property taxes never very seriously considered in the Lower Mainland as a way to both raise badly-needed revenues and calm property values? I just got my 2016 property tax bill emailed to me and, after the provincial home owner grant is applied, my total bill for the year came to $484.17.
 
When I punch in my property value on the City of Toronto’s property tax calculator, it comes up with $2,290.95. This means I’m literally paying just over one fifth of what I would pay on a similarly-priced property in Toronto.
 
Compare to cities closer to Vancouver’s size by population (603,502): in Winnipeg (population 663,617) I would pay $3,901.51, in Brampton (population 523,911) it’d be $3,679.92, and in Hamilton (population 519,949) I’d pay $4,564. Even in tax-averse Alberta, property taxes in Edmonton (population 812,201) on a property of the same value as mine would be $2,641.32. If we want to compare to other “big cities” (ignoring municipality size), Montreal’s taxes (taking Outremont as an example) are comparable to Toronto’s, yielding around $2,438.70 on a property value equal to my condo in Vancouver.
 
Despite that, and despite a lot of hype about a 2.3% increase to 2016 property taxes, in fact our property tax rates have gone down every year for the last several. This is especially remarkable given that the biggest rate cuts are for funds allocated to TransLink and the school boards, both of which are experiencing severe budget crises.
 
Given that property values are in part derived on assumptions of expected future cash flows, and adding cash outflows to that equation would (should) naturally drive down prices, that’s all the more argument for increasing, not decreasing our taxes.
 
We could literally double (or quadruple, for that matter) our property taxes in this city and achieve so much more while hurting virtually no one (sorry, but I have no sympathy for the people sitting on million-dollar homes that claim they can’t afford a few hundred dollars more for property taxes).  When I look at the disparity between my laughably-low property tax bill and the inability of the city, TransLink, and the school boards to pay for anything, the solution to me seems obvious. I’m disappointed in the lack of willingness on the part of our politicians to do something about it.

My X-Files Conspiracy Theory: The Mushroom Cave.

 

I recently rewatched the entire series of The X-Files. I had intended to watch it all in advance of the start of the new season that launched at the end of January, but I fell behind and only finished just in time to watch the entire new series over the span of a week.  I also watched the last several seasons in a bit of a rush – I was up to 5 episodes a night at one point. A lot of fans, myself included, look back with not so much adoration on the last few season of the series.  But in rewatching, I actually quite enjoyed parts of the last few seasons, even though some were rather odd.

But season 7 in particular was… odd. The first half was especially bad.  And through the last few seasons, many of the Monsters of the Week were inexplicable – in most cases, literally. Where earlier seasons came up with some sort of report for the FBI, in the last few seasons many of the episodes ended in a great big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And while The X-Files always required viewers to suspend disbelief a little bit, the implausibility of things increased consistently over the last three seasons.  It occasionally made for fantastic television, but piecing it all together (especially when the whole super soldier thing kicked in) was… difficult.  The season 9 finale did its best to pull it all together, which it did remarkably well (save the one big plot hole of Jeffrey Spender claiming to have grown up with CGB Spender (The Smoking Man) despite him clearly being a total stranger the first time they meet on the show).

All that said, why expect seasons 7-9 to make any sense if you realise what was truly going on: that it was all a great hallucination on the parts of Mulder and Scully.

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