Q & A: Kennedy Stewart discusses first year as mayor of Vancouver

Mayor fields questions on housing, empty homes tax and Oppenheimer Park tent city

Kennedy Stewart celebrates his first year anniversary next Tuesday as mayor of Vancouver.

So how’s he doing?

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He campaigned largely on a promise to deliver more affordable housing.

In fact, he promised to build 85,000 homes over 10 years, with 25,000 of those being non-profit “affordable” rental homes for households making $80,000 or less.

The math on those numbers suggests 2,500 homes for households in the $80,000 range should have been built in Stewart’s first year.

That didn’t happen, but Stewart said in an interview Wednesday from his office that he was confident more homes will be approved or built before his four-year term expires in 2022.

“You try to measure yearly that way, but you’re going to have big chunks of units that are delivered [in years to come] — definitely a lot more before the next election, for sure,” he said, referring to $184 million the federal government announced in August towards construction of 1,000 affordable rental units.

From the day Stewart was sworn in — Nov. 5, 2018 — until June 31 of this year, 233 social housing units and 312 purpose-built market rental units were approved.

Also as of June 31, approximately 1,200 purpose-built market rental units and 740 social housing units were in application.

Those numbers are courtesy of the City of Vancouver’s communications staff, who said an update on housing statistics for the third quarter of the year is expected to be available next week.

The same day of the Courier’s interview, the city announced a 58-unit temporary modular housing building was approved for 3598 Copley St. (formerly 2303-2355 Vanness Ave.), which adds to the 10 sites opened over the past two years.

Housing was one of several topics the mayor — a former NDP MP who was elected as a union-backed independent candidate — addressed in the 30-minute interview.

He talked about the Oppenheimer Park tent city, working with a mixed council of four political parties and suggested the need to hire lobbyists to work in Victoria and Ottawa.

Stewart also responded to the number of motions introduced at council meetings by him and councillors — 135, he said — and why he has backed off on a promise to triple the city’s empty homes tax.

He spent two days in Victoria this week talking to ministers and said he’s expecting a call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next few days and will travel to Ottawa next month.

The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

What will you be celebrating on your anniversary?

The highlight for me was landing the $184 million [for housing] from the feds. No other municipality in B.C. got that and, in fact, very few municipalities around the country. That was a full-on effort, with many, many meetings, many phone calls in getting the federal government to understand how our system works on the ground, and then trying to make that match. I’ll also be celebrating the $33 million in childcare [for 2,300 spaces in Vancouver] from the provincial government that is starting to roll out now.

In June, council rejected a rental townhouse development in Shaughnessy, which was to be built next to a hospice. Then in September, council approved a purpose-built rental building in Grandview-Woodland. You supported both projects, but what should the public make of that division in council – that rental housing is OK on the East Side, but not in Shaughnessy?

We were, as a council, kind of finding our way. I think we’ve had 17 rezonings come to council and we’ve approved 16 of them. So I see that as more of an anomaly and a special circumstance with a hospice, rather than any kind of larger signal. It’s a learning process. So I think all councillors will be finding their boundaries, and I think [the Shaughnessy project] was definitely a boundary.

You promised to issue a report in your first year that outlined how to make life more affordable for renters, including reviewing current policies and examining new measures such as freezing rents. Did that happen?

We kind of rolled that all together in the new renter’s office [approved in this term]. There are new guidelines that go along with that — the tenant relocation policy that we renewed — all of that’s really wrapped up together. That’s a pretty big step ahead, with the renter’s office being somewhat virtual and then having a hard space where people will actually go and all the non-profit agencies will be there. So I’m feeling pretty good and I do feel that, overall, some of the anxiety about demovictions and renovictions has subsided.

You promised to triple the empty homes tax. That hasn’t happened. Why?

I do think a year ago people were saying tripling it was a really great idea. But I do think circumstances change, and is this the right thing to do from an economic policy perspective? Would it help fill [the city’s objective] of filling more homes? I’m still waiting for a report back from our team that’s evaluating the impacts.

But wasn’t the idea of the empty homes tax to raise money for an affordable housing fund?

That’s a happy byproduct of the tax, but it’s not the main objective. We’ve been adjusting all the way along with the tax, and we’ll continue to do so. But with the rate, we’ll take the advice from the experts.

As an independent mayor, what has been the biggest challenge in dealing with a mixed council of four political parties?

This is a new scenario for everybody on council and I’m just making sure I’m taking the time to give everybody a voice and to treat everybody fairly. It’s developing the trust in relationships and thinking of people as individuals first and then party members second. You can see through our votes that it hasn’t been partisan blocks of voting. Lots of other mayors from across the country say that’s how their councils work. You look for coalitions of the willing, and that’s really what we’re doing.

I’ve lost count of the number of motions introduced by council, or the number of amendments to the amendments, or recesses during a meeting. This can be exhausting to watch. Is this good governance?

All the wranglings of past councils with majorities would be behind closed doors. I almost think it’s better governance that you’re seeing the entire debate. Council’s more transparent and all the decisions are made out front, and I think that’s a good thing. If there’s one word that’s kind of underlying it all, it’s transparency.

Your agenda on creating more affordable housing, getting the SkyTrain extended to UBC and combatting the opioid crisis relies heavily on senior levels of government. Should your title maybe be changed from mayor of Vancouver to lobbyist of Vancouver?

I think I’m both. I was looking at my calendar for next week. I’m potentially in council for three 12-hour days in a row. Then there’s TransLink and Metro Vancouver [duties]. So I do a lot of regular mayor stuff. But where I’m really trying to bring my skills to the job is that I understand Ottawa really well. And I think we need to do a better job as a city and province of having our voice heard because we’re missing out. The mayor of Seattle was teasing me. She has two permanent lobbyists in Olympia, and two permanent lobbyists in Washington, D.C. They’re always working for federal and state level money. We have a good government relations department here, but we still don’t have enough. You think if you paid somebody $100,000 or $120,000 to do that, that the potential to land tens or hundreds of millions of dollars would be worth that [investment].”

Your Twitter account tells me you met with several provincial cabinet ministers this week – Claire Trevena, Mike Farnworth, Selina Robinson, Judy Darcy, to name a few. Any promises made?

I had great discussions and started a rough agenda of how we’re going to work together over the next two years that they have remaining in their term. I also had a very good meeting with Andrew Wilkinson of the Liberal Party, and MLAs Sam Sullivan and Michael Lee were there, too. We agreed on the need to build a lot more rental housing and the need for a split assessment [tax measure, where property is taxed on current use and not potential use]. I really hope that moves ahead because there seems to be cross-party agreement.

The Oppenheimer Park tent city hit the one-year mark this month. That’s almost the same period of time that you’ve been in office. Many people are looking to you for leadership on this file. What are you telling people when you’re approached in the streets?

The park board has jurisdiction of the park. [Former Toronto mayor] David Miller told me this: he said no matter what happens, it’s always the mayor’s fault. Sometimes, it may be that you get credit for it, but often it’s your fault. I just try to reassure people that we’re doing everything we can to get housing for people in need. It has to be a federal, provincial and municipal answer to this problem.

A motion passed by council last week regarding Oppenheimer suggested you had to be more aggressive to get funding and land for housing. What do you say to that?

The original motion was ruled out of order and they went ahead with it anyway. I don’t think you should do that. So they added debate on a motion I think was out of order. And in the end, it doesn’t really tell us to do much more than what we’re already doing, or anything more.

The same motion called for city staff to work with the park board to consider adding a community kitchen, laundry, clothes drying spaces and 24-hour sanitation facilities with running water “near Oppenheimer Park.” This suggests the tent city is going to be there indefinitely. Is that your read of this?

The thing is with services is it’s usually not one body doing them. It usually requires support from the province or Vancouver Coastal Health, or somebody like that. I don’t think there’s a lot of willingness from other partners to do that. Certainly, there is a huge willingness to help people in Oppenheimer Park get to a better place. But I don’t see there’s a huge appetite, or any appetite, from any other level of government to make that a permanent encampment. Motions are one thing, actions are another.

During your campaign, you said if the proportional representation vote was rejected, then future city elections will be conducted using “neighbourhood constitutiencies” (wards) similar to those used at the federal and provincial level. What’s happening with that?

I would love that to happen. I’m still a big advocate for neighbourhood representation. But, pretty clearly, citizens are telling me to focus on housing, opioids and transit. I have to respond to what citizens want, and I don’t think I’ve had one person contact me about electoral reform. I feel like I would be kind of foisting my agenda on the city, if I did that.




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