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Election heat: Is there a limit to Burnaby’s population growth?

The question nobody prepared for.

It was the final question of the night that threw Burnaby council candidates off their well-trodden campaign scripts.

The moderator of an all-candidates meeting on Oct. 11 asked council hopefuls: “What would you say the maximum population of Burnaby should be before we say ‘enough’?”

Does Burnaby have a maximum population?

“This is one (question) nobody prepared for,” Jasmine Nicholsfigueiredo of the Burnaby Green Party said.

“This is not a country with borders, we’re a city – we cannot exclude people,” Nicholsfigueiredo said.

She said the city should look at large and dense European cities, noting they have reserved green space and planned for population growth.

“I do not think that we can put a number on it (population), we have to do a better job of planning.”

Incumbent One Burnaby councillor Mike Hillman asked, “How much is too much?” He noted Burnaby is looking at a population of 360,000 by 2050.

“What happens when we get to 500,000? What sort of city is Burnaby going to look like? Is it going to be another Hong Kong? I don’t know if we want that.”

Hillman said fresh eyes are needed to start engaging in those conversations.

“We have to look at it. We have to, at some point, say, ‘enough is enough.’”

Later in the evening, Burnaby Citizens Association candidate Maita Santiago told the NOW she was “disturbed” by Hillman’s comment and its “racist” implications.

In her remarks during the meeting, she said Burnaby is diverse and inclusive and should be proud of everyone who wants to come to live in the city.

Hillman later told the NOW it’s not a racist comment.

“The question is, is how do we use the land we have and what is the nature of the communities we want to have?”

Independent candidate Gulam Firdos noted the number of people a city can accommodate is dependent on the utility services facilities it has.

“If we have more than the people that will need it, (then) the utility service will break down,” Firdos said.

Destruction of affordable housing?

The meeting, hosted by the hosted by the Heights Neighbourhood Association, also focused on housing.

The first question of the night asked candidates if they would commit to not “approving the destruction of any more of Burnaby’s affordable housing,” prefacing the question by saying Burnaby “has destroyed over 13 per cent of its rental apartments in the past 10 years.”

Multiple candidates brought up the need to build more, rather than focusing on the demolition of housing.

The idea of creating a housing authority was supported by several candidates.

“It’s not just about places being destroyed, we need to build more purpose-built rentals and affordable purpose-built rentals. And we are committed to that,” said Daniel Tetrault of the BCA, saying the party is planning for a housing authority that will give the city the ability to zone and build for renters all around the city.

Incumbent councillor Joe Keithley of the Burnaby Green Party agreed that a housing authority needs to be fast-tracked to build affordable rentals.

“We need to build co-ops and we need to build rent-to-own, so when you put the rent in, eventually you own a piece of the pie. And eventually you own,” Keithley said.

Hillman supported a housing authority and said the issue of demovictions stems from the BCA party.

“Those (Metrotown) apartments, back in those days, those were market rental places. Over time, they became affordable,” Hillman said.

“It’s unfortunate that the BCA government at the time didn’t realize the problems that they were going to face.”

Independent Martin Kendell took aim at the BCA incumbents Sav Dhaliwal, Pietro Calendino and James Wang.

“They basically shrugged their shoulders with all of these seniors, low-income families, and said ‘We can't do anything about it.’” Kendell said.

He said the city’s tenant assistance policy is weak and favours developers and wants to see an independent office created for the program.

How to create affordable housing?

When it comes to how to build more affordable housing, independent Scott Van Denham suggested working with community land trusts and funding new co-op housing.

Deborah Skerry, independent, asked whether affordable housing was just for renters. She said she wants to see programs to help people getting down payments for a house.

Speaking for the BCA, Calendino said there isn’t a magic wand that can solve the housing crisis.

Calendino said there’s 12,000 units of affordable housing in the development process, and another 10,000 in preliminary planning stages.

One Burnaby’s Mario Miceli said, “It’s great to have 22,000 (housing units) in the pipeline, it’s hard to get to build 22,000 when you talk to developers, and the permitting process takes in excess of a year.”

McLaren of the Greens said strategies to reduce high construction costs can include using city land for non-profit housing and co-ops, partnerships with land trusts and other governments for subsidies.

Bikes and safety in Burnaby

Responding to a question on cyclist safety, Richard T. Lee of One Burnaby said education is very important.

He said One Burnaby wants to introduce bike lockers so cyclists can get on and off and leave their bikes safely.

The Greens promised to create 30 kilometres of separated cycling lanes every year and hope to minimize intersections on highway bike routes as that’s where accidents primarily happen.

The BCA committed to creating a connected cycling network in Burnaby and promised to invest in more cycling routes across the city, especially near schools.

Tower schools, where do kids play?

School board candidates shared their thoughts on how they would consult on tower schools, and how they expect to manage children’s lunch and recess time without playgrounds.

Candidates primarily said they would continue community consultation with parents, teachers and nearby residents to see what the needs are.

Harinder Parmar, school trustee candidate for the Greens, said she was concerned about how the school capacity issues arose in the first place.

“You don’t wait and then say, ‘Oh we don’t have capacity.’”

Spenser Sproul, independent, said it’s important to think of creative solutions to solve problems like capacity issues. “I don’t know that there’s going to be a black and white answer to this question,” he said, noting that it’s fortunate there is an opportunity to build more schools.

Civic elections in B.C. will be held on Oct. 15 this year.