Michael Geller clarifies his position on Olympic Village social housing
"I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." Michael Geller said he can't get that song out of his head lately and he sang it as I photographed him outside Elysian Coffee today after a one hour interview.
He said he has good reason to feel that way. The architect and one-time City Council candidate took a recent battering in the press, including by Jim Green, writing in the Vancouver Sun. Geller was criticised for his interview with Globe and Mail reporter Frances Bula where he discussed mixing high-income residents with difficult-to-house residents and explained it in a way he now regrets. He talked about potential Olympic Village residents from wealthy to poor as: "A,B,C,D, and E." People read this to mean A=wealthy and E=poor, but Geller never said that. People projected that into what he said, he pointed out.
Geller said today that the amount of public discussion around the Olympic Village is mainly political and "isn't helping." He wasn't sure that talking to another member of the media was a great idea, particularly one named Linda Solomon. But he graciously set aside any problems he had with Vancouver Observer's coverage or editorial policy and spoke openly about The Olympic Village, dirty politics, and how most issues are more complex than people like to make them out to be.
MG: I'm a complete fool for having this conversation with you.
LS: I disagree!
MG: (Laughing.) I'd rather be forthright and take my chances.
One of the interesting things is that when I speak people assume that because I'm a failed NPA candidate, I'm speaking for the NPA. And I'm not. I don't mind apologizing for, or being accountable for what I have to say. But I'm definitely not a spokesperson for the NPA. I'm not that involved, I'm not on the board and I'm not running for mayor.
LS: You're not?
LS: Let's talk about that a little later. But let's start with the Olympic Village. You took criticism last week for comments you made about social housing and the Olympic Village. What ARE your real thoughts about it? Were you unfairly treated by Jim Green last week? How are you feeling about it all now?
MG: If the social housing at the Olympic Village had not initially come in significantly over budget, and if the city wasn't facing significant financial challenges, as the mayor pointed out, I would never have commented on the social housing. It is an accepted fact that the large scale projects in Vancouver comprise a mix of market and non market housing.
When the costs of the social housing were first coming to light, that's what prompted me to suggest that the city consider doing what VanCity and SFU had done at UniverCity: sell housing on leasehold land with certain conditions to make it more affordable to people who can't purchase market housing.
And, the purpose of me saying that was to have a broader social and income mix and maintain a broader mix, but allow the city to recover all its costs and even make a small profit.
At the time, it was not a criticism of a comment on whether rich people should live with poor, or whether there should be social housing or not. It was purely a financial consideration, noting, according to the city report...there was $128 million difference between the cost of subsidizing 126 social housing units and the return from selling the 252 units.
That was my first view.
The second comment that I made, which would have been more recently, after the social housing units had remained empty for six months, and after the province rejected the three management proposals and it appeared that it was possible that the city would go it alone with the Portland Hotel Society, the most qualified of the three bidders, I then spoke out again. To make the observation that having the Portland Hotel society manage the housing, including some hard to house residents...that prompted me to point out that I didn't think the City should do that, because I feared it would impact the value of the remaining condominiums.
LS: But why did you say that when there are so many examples of successful social housing communities?
MG: Because in this case, there would be dramatic disparity between those living in the social housing units and those living in seven figure condominiums. I'm told one third of the condos are selling for over $2 million.
Furthermore, unlike many Vancouver developments that have separate towers and townhouse podiums, the Olympic Village is actually designed to more closely integrate the market and the non market housing.
The plan was developed by the city, not a private developer...and that is actually a design consideration...
The thing that I most regret was trying to explain this concept to Frances Bula and awkwardly suggesting, and unfortunately suggesting, how government officials and housing providers think of the population spectrum in 5 quintiles.
Had I numbered them, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, it might not have sounded so condescending.
But using letters, something I heard over 30 years ago, a, b, c, obviously brought back images of Aldous Huxley for some, and it sort of imposed...it became much more value-laden than I ever intended.
Indeed, I was on CKNW with Jim Green yesterday and Jonathan Ross phoned in and while he was somewhat complimentary to me personally, he pointed out how unfortunate it was that I called the upper income people A's and the poor people E's. In response, all I could say was I never actually said that. Indeed, think of the rich people as the E's and people with lower income as the A's.
LS: You're saying people read more onto it than what you actually said?
MG: Of course they did. As one of Jim Green's colleagues who wrote to me said, he's glad I said what I said and that Jim made something of it because now I will never be a politician in his city.
LS: Was he implying that this will stop you from running for mayor or council?
MG: Yes, he was implying this would take me down forever. It's not the first time I said something I truly regret.
The point is for those who perhaps don't dislike me and for those who aren't feeling opposed to me, they understood exactly what I was saying. They pointed out that it was unfortunate how I said it, but the reality is that what I said is what most people think. But that doesn't condone it. And I apologize to anyone who I offended and I mean that sincerely.
The irony is that I made my comments from the perspective of a real estate consultant and community planner. My sole goal was to minimize the city's losses on the development. And now I do worry that all the attention that has been given to this issue may have the opposite affect.
LS: I'm assuming if you're saying don't put social housing in the Olympic Village, you meant that it should be put somewhere else, not that it should just go away. Where should it be?
MG: Next door to the Village. What I would say is just develop the community over time with a broader mix and in a more cost effective way. Don't try to make the social housing the most sustainable housing in North America, regardless of its cost. That's what happened at Olympic Village.
LS: Are people just playing politics with the Olympic Village?
MG: That's right.
I have a piece coming out in The Sun tomorrow in which I point out that too many people have used the Olympic Village as a political football. There's no doubt that the Olympic Village did significantly impact the outcome of the last election. Whenever I'm feeling grateful that I'm not on council, I thank the person who leaked the in-camera document to Gary Mason.
LS: Does it make you withdraw to get all this criticism? You're human. You're out there, you make mistakes. Was it unfair to come down on you so hard?
MG: Absolutely. Especially when people start to believe that I'm a liar and that I'm prejudiced against poor people. That's a pretty hurtful thing to have someone say, like Jim Green who I've known for 15 years.
LS: How do you guys know each other?
MG: I first met Jim Green when he helped me remove the social housing for low income families from the Bayshore Community. I felt that the money that would have been spent to create low income family housing could be better spent in the DTES. And I proposed that and Jim Green supported it. He was active in the DTES. He introduced me to Libby Davies and Bruce Erikson on that particular matter. So, it's an irony that he is criticising me.
LS: Have you talked to him since this?
MG: We see each other each week.
LS: Where do you see each other?
MG: We were in the studio together yesterday and it was the first time we'd met since we talked.
LS: Were you friendly?
MG: Yes, because you can't go through life bearing grudges. One reason I shouldn't go into politics is because I don't enjoy criticizing people. In fact, it would be interesting for you to do a search and see if I've ever publicly criticized Gregor Robertson.
LS: I remember when I interviewed you during your campaign for City Council you said you could easily have been a Vision candidate.
MG: Absolutely. The values I have could easily have been represented by Vision and the NPA. And even by COPE.
One of the few gratifying things that has come out of this recent dialogue is the fact that I've received some lovely notes and letters from people associated with COPE, the Green Party, Vision and the NPA.
Some of the comments are helpful. I don't mind saying that Geoff Meggs' glee with Jim's story was hurtful, because although I don't always agree with Geoff I do have a lot of respect for him.
LS: Has politics gotten to the point that it's so in the gutter that normal people don't want to be involved in it?
MG: I think you called me to get together because you heard I was running for mayor. But you know and I know that I couldn't win. Not today. Not unless something extraordinary happened.
LS: The question is would you want to do it? Is that a job that looks wonderful to you?
MG: I think I have a love-hate relationship with politics.
LS: Who doesn't?
MG: So there's aspects of it that I'd absolutely love. I would love to be able to sort of, at one level, to be mayor and help to make people feel really good about living in the city. I have seen politicians in the past have the ability to create tremendous civic pride.
At the moment, there's a lot of pride in many circles about what the current council has done in terms of striving to become the greenest city in the world. But I do sense, unfortunately, quite a lot of whining and complaining and general negativity.
I feel that the pride we felt during Vancouver during the Olympics has not continued.
LS: That was a peak experience. How do you sustain that?
MG: I just feel that...it may be just because of what I've been saying but I"m constantly hearing people being more negative than I would like about Vancouver. I think that people are upset about some of development decisions that are taking place. Some of the high rise proposals. Again, I'm viewing it through my lens. I would say the biggest thing that people are concerned about is that price of housing.
The part that I would hate, I really would hate is all the criticism that you have to take, regardless of what you decide or do, very often you never win, in politics. You have to have a very thick skin to withstand all the criticism. I don't have that. I admitted it at the start of the last campaign. It's just not my nature. I'm not like that.
LS: You mentioned at the beginning of the interview, people would advise you against talking with me. Why?
MG: A lot of people if they knew I was coming to talk to you, would say don't talk to her, she's a Gregor supporter.
LS: Thanks for coming anyway. I'd like the Vancouver Observer to be platform for many voices and parties, not just one.
MG: The other thing is I don't want to pretend I"m righteous. Even during the last campaign, I found myself starting to think too much about what would voters like to hear rather than what I really think. Also my views on most issues are not so strongly formed that I can't be influenced. That's why My Dinner with Andre is my favourite movie.
LS: You mean you deal in ambiguities and complexity. Me, too. Things aren't as black and white as they're sometimes portrayed.
MG: Yeah, I'd love to share with you the number of journalists who have said I think you're right but I'm going to have to write down what you have said, because that's a better story.