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Get to know Burnaby council candidates: Scott Van Denham

“About one-third of Burnaby residents are renters, and city hall needs renters like me at the decision-making table to keep their interests at the forefront of city policy, particularly in planning and development.”
Scott Van Denham
Scott Van Denham, independent, is running for Burnaby city council in the upcoming October election.

Burnaby will head to the polls on Oct. 15 and vote for eight city councillors and seven school trustees. Mayor Mike Hurley has been acclaimed for a second term after receiving no challengers. 

The Burnaby NOW asked every candidate running for office in the upcoming civic election to respond to a questionnaire on issues facing Burnaby today.

Candidates were given strict word limits and a deadline to submit their answers. Answers exceeding the word limits are marked. For details on how and where to vote, see our voter’s guide.

Questionnaires have been edited for clarity.

Name: Scott Van Denham

Current occupation: Retail service/sales worker

Short biography (50 words maximum): I’m a 44-year Burnaby resident, 33 of those in South Burnaby.

I’m a renter, a life-long transit user and service worker. I’ve petitioned against the Fraser Surrey coal port, and Trans Mountain expansion, and given input to the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing. A renter, seeking to represent renters.

Why are you running for city council? (150 words maximum): About one-third of Burnaby residents are renters, and city hall needs renters like me at the decision-making table to keep their interests at the forefront of city policy, particularly in planning and development.

To my knowledge, only one current member of council is a renter, and although many current homeowners remember what it once was like to live with the uncertainties that come with a lack of ownership/equity, being a renter in the present brings that experience into sharp focus.

I also bring the experience of someone who lives below the median income and who, like many others here, struggles to make ends meet.

We need economic diversity represented on council, in addition to diversity in race, age, ability, orientation and gender.

What are the top three issues facing Burnaby today, and what are your plans to address them? (250 words maximum): First, we need to expand opportunities for truly affordable housing across Burnaby, so service workers, seniors, students and young families can continue to live here.

To this end, the creation of a housing corporation will allow Burnaby to assemble land, seek partnerships with non-profits, and hire tradespeople to build the rental and co-operative housing we need, at a cost-recovery basis.

The result is housing that’s less expensive to build, with a portion of units rented out at near-market rates to help finance construction costs and subsidize other units for those in greater need.

We also need to pressure the province to re-introduce vacancy controls, and break the cycle of drastic rent increases whenever a tenant leaves. This encourages stable income through long-term tenancy, while discouraging renovictions for short-term profit.

Second, Burnaby needs to demonstrate climate leadership to residents and the business community.

All city buildings, new and old, should be built or retrofit to make use of renewable energy to heat and cool them, which over the long term should reduce operating costs.

We also need to incentivise the oil production/storage sites in Burnaby to close down by 2040. Site owners (including Trans Mountain) should be ‘encouraged’ through taxes and/or changes in their Official Community Plan designation, to redevelop their land-wasting oil storage depots.

Third, streets and public spaces must be safer for people of all abilities. Daylighting – creating barriers for vehicle parking at intersections – allows pedestrians, cyclists and motorists to more easily see one another, reducing collisions.

What is your housing situation? Are you a homeowner, renter or something else (describe)? Do you rent property to others? (50 words maximum): I am a renter, although I’d really like to be a member of a housing co-operative.

Burnaby currently has a population of about 250,000 people and is projected to grow to about 360,000 by 2050. How – and where – do you want the city to accommodate that growth? (200 words maximum): The island of Manhattan covers about half the land area of Burnaby, and yet it has a population of around 3 million. Contrary to popular thought, most of those living in Manhattan reside in three- to 10-storey apartment buildings, not skyscrapers or single family houses. London, Paris, Barcelona and other European cities are also built this way.

We could locate such buildings in many more neighbourhoods across the city than just the town centres, where the recent emphasis has been high-rise condominiums. These buildings could feature corner grocery stores and specialty shops that residents would otherwise have to travel greater distances to patronize.

Alternatively, we could try to achieve the same population targets by building ever taller high-rise apartment buildings. What we end up with, though, is a city that is no longer human scale, with a dull skyline of steel and glass that blocks out the sun for surrounding neighbours.

Adding 100,000 or so new residents by allowing more neighbourhoods to have low- to mid-rise apartments is definitely achievable, and I believe, preferable.

Some organizations are calling on municipal governments to support the creation of non-profit housing by allowing projects to be built without rezoning requirements. (As an example, Women Transforming Cities wants social housing initiatives of up to 12 storeys to be permitted in multi-family areas and up to six storeys in other residential areas, without a rezoning requirement). Is this something you would support – why or why not? (250 words maximum): I would support a more ambitious social housing program that doesn’t require rezoning, provided such initiatives include adequate green space surrounding them, so they remain attractive places to live for generations.

I mention this because we recently lost an opportunity to retain some valuable urban green space on Kathleen Avenue (the “Kathleen Forest”) in the rush to secure senior government funding for social housing, when council and staff could’ve pushed the developer harder to re-configure the sight to include the forest with the social housing component. 

As for building heights, we can fine-tune the height requirements by allowing, say, eight- to 12-storey buildings in established multiple-family areas, depending on proximity to public transit, and four- to six-storey buildings in single-family neighbourhoods, again with the caveat of proximity to local bus routes.

In that way, we are gently transitioning single-family neighbourhoods in a way that is less jarring than continuing to stick 35-storey highrises right next to single-family detached houses. We can do better than that, but council has to provide developers, as well as planning department staff, with very clear guidelines.

This is where the approaching update to Burnaby’s Official Community Plan (OCP) comes in.

I don’t think anyone involved in the previous OCP update could have anticipated a scenario wherein we would have 60-plus-storey high-rises in our town centres, or the epidemic of demovictions of crucial rental housing and their near-wholesale replacement with condos. The next OCP update has to make non-market rental and co-operative housing a clear priority.    

In 2021, 73 people died in Burnaby due to the heat dome. What are your plans for the city to address increasing heat? (150 words maximum): Locally, we need to update building design requirements to provide for better ventilation, heating and cooling.

Heat pumps and/or groundwater heating/cooling systems must become the norm in residential and commercial buildings. In addition to these changes, Burnaby should provide more city facilities to serve as emergency cooling centres during extreme heat events, as not everyone is able to retrofit their homes. We should also consider developing a registry where neighbours promise to check in with those they know who are heat-vulnerable.

On a larger scale, we need to get serious about decarbonizing our city, by electrifying our city buildings and fleet.

We should also join the effort to sue Big Oil for its role in creating the climate crisis. A dollar per resident is a small but worthwhile investment if it means the fossil fuel industry has to pay for at least some of the damage it has done.

Is crime a concern for you, and how do you hope to address it? (150 words maximum): Working in retail, I see the effects of theft on an almost daily basis. But putting people in jail does nothing to resolve the root causes of crime: addiction, poverty, mental health crises and functional illiteracy.

We need to resolve these larger issues, largely from a public health standpoint, and stick with it to see long-term improvement. We also need to work with senior levels of government to develop a safer supply of drugs, and establish mental health response teams, as police know they’re ill-suited to deal with those situations.

Finally, we need to increase public education around theft from vehicles – which I understand to be Burnaby’s largest crime problem – to minimize the temptation that a vehicle with valuables left in plain sight presents.

What is the biggest achievement and/or failure of Burnaby council in the last four years? (100 words): Regarding affordable housing: I would argue “challenge” rather than success or failure.

It was the previous BCA council that chose to blame senior governments rather than demonstrate leadership in developing solutions. This council has laid the foundation for resolving the housing situation long-term; now we need to build on it, using tools like forming a housing corporation to increase the momentum of new rental/co-op housing starts.

It’s true that we need to build better partnerships with senior governments to secure some of the funding to development deeply affordable housing, but it helps if Burnaby is prepared to do its part.

How would you spend a leisurely 24 hours in Burnaby? (150 words maximum): I love exploring neighbourhoods, so I do a lot of walking. That works for the daytime. But I’m also a night owl, and having interesting places to go at night would appeal to me. That is something Burnaby lacks.

Which reminds me: I haven’t done a Starry Nights at SFU for years! Star gazing on those rare clear nights can’t be beat. I also like to try new places to eat on paydays. Shameless plug: the Periperi Shack at Hastings and Sperling.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell voters? (100 words maximum): I know many people feel cynical about voting, but local government affects so much of what we do on a daily basis.

Last night’s Thai takeout is taken away today through a city-maintained sewer line. Our kids study at city libraries. We walk our dogs through city parks. Did you overcook last night’s dinner, and wreck your kitchen, thus the Thai takeout? The fire department kept that yellow curry inferno from wrecking the rest of your home.

All these services cost taxes to run, and the people making the spending decisions need your input.  

How can folks contact you? (Website, email, social media handles)

Instagram: @scottvandenham2022