Tracing Mark Marissen’s path through Canadian politics might require a bulletin board, some tacks and a big ball of red string.
Over the years, the political strategist and lobbyist has been associated with various campaigns on the centre-right to centre-left, from working on Stéphane Dion’s campaign for federal Liberal leader in 2006, to Christy Clark’s BC Liberal leadership campaign in 2011. (The BC Liberals are a big-tent party whose members fall along various points of the centre-right to right-wing spectrum.) Marissen is also Clark’s ex-husband.
In 2018, he worked on the mayoral campaign of Hector Bremner, a city councillor formerly with the centre-right Non-Partisan Association, who had formed his own party called Yes Vancouver that was focused on reforming zoning to allow denser housing throughout the city.
Marissen currently lives in the Olympic Village neighbourhood in a condo that he owns. The formerly industrial neighbourhood right across from downtown was redeveloped in advance of the 2010 Olympics, and the central location means he doesn’t need to own a car.
Yes Vancouver has now morphed into Progress Vancouver, and Marissen isn’t shy about admitting that certain planks in his party’s platform look a lot like what some other left-wing parties have proposed. A luxury surtax idea is modelled on a mansion tax that COPE Coun. Jean Swanson has campaigned on for years. And pushing to change zoning to allow four-storey rental and six-storey condos throughout the city is similar to OneCity’s platform.
Marissen says voters shouldn’t assume he’s just like Clark: there are many issues where he disagreed with the former premier, such as the decision to hold a 2015 referendum on raising more tax revenue for public transit. Politically, he says, he’s firmly at home as a federal Liberal, and he says the six Progress Vancouver council candidates include three New Democrats, two Liberals and one Conservative.
“I really think this thing about right or left doesn’t really apply to this situation,” he said. To Marissen, what matters — and what he sees resonating especially for younger voters — is his stance on reforming zoning to allow denser housing throughout the city.
Here’s our interview with Marissen, which has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: When you're going around campaigning, what are you hearing from people about how bad the housing crisis has gotten?
Mark Marissen: I talk about how I want to restore Vancouver as a social, cultural and economic centre of British Columbia. And we no longer are — because Burnaby, Coquitlam, Surrey, they're welcoming people. They're welcoming young families. They're approving multifamily housing. You're not going to find any young families without rich parents that can go to school in Vancouver or be living in Vancouver. And I talk about the fact that we lost 7,000 people last year — and it’s partly because of the pandemic and everything else — but that same year 100,000 new people came to British Columbia. So why aren't they coming to Vancouver?
If we want to restore neighbourhood character, we need young families, seniors, young kids, teachers and first responders.
I think the idea of building low-to-midrise housing in single-family neighbourhoods resonates with a lot of younger people who feel totally shut out of those neighbourhoods. But when we look at areas like the Cambie Corridor where that was done and the single-family homes are being replaced with apartment buildings, those apartments are still so, so expensive.
When we're thinking about housing for young families, we're thinking about folks that would maybe be thinking, ‘OK, I would like to get a townhouse in Langley. Could there be an equivalent apartment in Vancouver?’ If we don't build the nicer homes what starts happening, of course, is that the rich folks, they outbid everybody else.
OK. Any other ideas about how we get affordable housing — how we actually add that housing that's available to people who are making a middle-class wage?
We need to incentivize purpose-built rentals. We just have to be creative and not stuck into old modes of thinking.
After so many years of housing prices going up and up and up, a lot of people are very skeptical of the development industry. We saw that recently with the reaction to a spreadsheet that was found on the sidewalk and showed the mayor’s party, Forward Together, asking major developers to help fundraise it. We saw that in 2018, when developer Peter Wall paid for advertising for your candidate, Hector Bremner.
So how do you get past that suspicion that reforming zoning isn’t just some huge giveaway to real estate developers?
The developers, clearly, are helping the mayor. They're not helping me.
I would say that what we need to do is we need to make sure that we remove any obstacles or any kind of opportunities for favouritism or corruption by having a more transparent development process.
So one of the things I've talked about is moving from the individually negotiated community amenity contributions to one pool where all of the money goes in. The rates would be pre-established and everybody can know what they're actually dealing with.
This is what Burnaby does. This is what most cities do. I'm not sure exactly why we do all these one-off negotiations. And I believe that these one-off negotiations not only seem kind of secretive, but they also add delays to getting things done.
You're proposing an extra speculation tax: a luxury home surtax that would apply to the top one per cent of homes. Can you tell me where that idea comes from?
From COPE Coun. Jean Swanson. She talks about a mansion tax, so we've said that for the top one per cent of homes that there would be a surtax. We have to figure out what that surtax would be exactly, but the top one per cent — I have to look at the exact number but I think it's homes worth $6 million to $7 million — people can afford to give a little there.
Do you think that there needs to be extra protections for renters in the city?
Yes, we need to make sure that we are protecting renters, but we also need to do everything we can to get purpose-built rentals built so that people have secure housing, as well as affordability.
Recently we saw a lot of opposition to a social and supportive housing building that was proposed in Kitsilano. I feel those discussions are always so divisive in the community, whenever housing is proposed for people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Do you have any ideas about how to have a calmer, or maybe more productive, discussion?
People are concerned about poor people, but there's greater amounts of drug addiction with people that aren't poor. It's nothing about whether you're poor or rich. And I think it's just fear.
Let’s talk about homelessness. We’ve had a large tent city located in parks or on city streets for years, even though there have been repeated attempts to house people in SRO hotels or shelters. What would your solution be?
One of the first meetings that I did when I was thinking about running for mayor was meet with the folks at Strathcona Park. [A tent city was located there in 2020.] I spent half a day with them and listened to their stories. I had not set foot in an SRO yet.
And one of the things that really struck me was the second person I talked to, he talked at great length and in great detail about the nature of his life in the SRO that he was living in, and how much safer and freer and healthier he felt living in his tent. That was a big eye opener for me. And so I went and saw about 15 of these SROs.
We need to build social housing — we’ve had a deficit of social housing for quite some time. But in the meantime, we should identify some places in the city where people can safely pitch their tents and have washroom facilities and showers and security. And there have been recommendations like this from various groups that are fighting homelessness. And then what would come from that is that there would be an entry point to people getting housing or to get recovery services and all of those kinds of things.
I know that this is a bit of a controversial proposal. But I think what's happening right now is far more controversial and it's a problem for everybody, including the people in the tents.
I feel like the solution to tent cities is always saying ‘we're going to give you housing,’ but the housing is an SRO room and then people don't want to stay there. It's ends up being kind of a pretend thing to claim that people have been housed.
We know, for example, that temporary modular housing seems to be working reasonably well. Whereas buying up old hotels doesn't seem to be working very well and it seems to be degenerating into the same sort of SRO issue. And that's one of the reasons why I've talked about bringing back a Vancouver agreement, because the city can't address this stuff alone. We don't have the fiscal powers or anything. We have to get the federal, provincial and municipal governments together.
I'm not suggesting this as any kind of austerity measure — it’s likely this is going to require more investment, not less, at least in the short-term.
In neighbourhoods like Chinatown there have been some really horrible random attacks and public safety is a big election topic. What are your plans for dealing with that issue?
We have to lobby the federal government to have tougher penalties for repeat offenders. We've talked about putting more efforts into just cleaning things and getting rid of garbage. Being better at cleaning up Chinatown, Granville Street, various places downtown. And better lighting. These are all things that we're talking about that are not policemen, because the police can't do all this stuff alone, and we don't direct the police.
Mayoral candidate Ken Sim has been heavily advertising this idea of having 100 more police officers and 100 more mental health nurses. Do you think that we need more police officers?
Nobody's made a case that has convinced me that we need new police officers, although I’m always open to hear people's arguments.
The 100 police officers, it was a number that was just pulled out of his hat. The nurses — nurses! — who are these nurses, and where would you find them? This is just ridiculous. We do need people to be helping with the police. We've talked about these peer groups. And people that might have some knowledge about conflict resolution. Those folks would be helpful.
We’ve said that we need an updated Four Pillars strategy, but some of the other things that we've talked about include attracting better health care to Vancouver. So exploring tax exemptions for family practice nurse practitioners and mental health clinics — because we have a problem of just getting the people rather than just coming up with a number.
And enforcing healthier work conditions for health-care workers and frontline staff, demanding provincial health authorities raise pay rates for paramedics, and setting citywide targets for same-day mental health care access.
And then what we also talk about is reorganizing the Downtown Ambassador Program and various volunteer bodies into one new centralized Vancouver Outreach Corps, which would be chaired by the survivors of addiction.
Let’s talk about another health-care crisis, the overdose crisis, which continues to kill hundreds of people every month in B.C. and is not improving. What are your ideas?
It's a bigger crisis than COVID. And we should be treating it with the same seriousness that we did with COVID.
I do agree with the mayor when he talks a lot about decriminalization and safe supply, but what I did notice, until recently, in the mayor's rhetoric he almost never talks about getting people onto the path to recovery and into healing. And I think that's where we really need to be putting our efforts.
Is there anything else you’d like voters to know?
I would like to see a thriving, exciting, fun, engaging, family friendly nightlife in our city. We have 100,000 people living downtown. I think one of the things that will lift everybody's spirits is to have a much more co-ordinated strategy on how we have a thriving downtown.
That's why I've been talking for the last couple of years about creating a commissioner of the nighttime economy and culture, that would be elected by everybody. And their first job would be to completely revitalize Granville Street, and then we need to do some work with Gastown and with Chinatown.
The municipal election in Vancouver takes place Saturday, Oct. 15, with citizens voting for one mayor, 10 councillors, seven park board commissioners and nine school trustees. Also on the ballot will be three capital plan questions. More information, including a Voters’ Guide, is at Vancouver Votes 2022.