Mayor Kennedy Stewart: Stop using word ‘affordable’ in Vancouver

Stewart delivers first speech to Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

12th and Cambie

Mayor Kennedy Stewart told business leaders Wednesday that he plans to rezone the entire city for rental housing and only allow people on low to moderate incomes to live in the new homes.

Actually, he said nothing of the sort.

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It would have made for an explosive story had he did, and most certainly made Stewart a good candidate for a witness protection program.

But in Stewart’s first address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade since being elected mayor last October, he unfortunately didn't deliver any breaking news to report for regular readers.

The mayor focused his 26-minute speech at the Hotel Vancouver exclusively on housing and essentially how there isn’t enough of it for people who are tired of surviving in this city and just want to live in it. That, and if the city doesn't do something about it, "we'll end up with an elite downtown like Paris."

His words were supported by a series of PowerPoint slides showing doom-and-gloom graphs and charts on how Vancouver is becoming a city more for the wealthy than people on low to moderate incomes.

Stewart then posed this question: “What do we do about this?”

The first part of his response will likely be refreshing to all people trying to make a go of it in Vancouver. Whether it leads to a person on a low or moderate income spending less than 30 per cent of his or her income on housing is open to interpretation.

Anyway, the mayor’s answer began like this:

“First of all, if we’re talking about an income-based approach to delivering housing, what we have to stop doing is using the word ‘affordable.’ I think that [word] really makes people angry.”

I did not hear a hallelujah from the crowd of more than 300 people that included developers, union leaders, art gallery folk, the fire chief, city manager and other high flyers.

But it is a take on one of the most uttered and written words in recent Vancouver history that I hadn’t heard under the previous administration of Gregor Robertson.

The ending of Stewart’s answer went like this:

“We’ve been trying to dampen that down in council and not to say, ‘We just built a whole bunch of affordable housing.’ We’ll just say, ‘No, we’ve just built a whole bunch of market rental housing, and that’s good.’ That’s a good thing. Take ownership and say this is important because it is for a certain group of people we need for the economy [to thrive] in this city.”

He went on to mention some of the incentive-based programs such as Rental 100 and the Moderate Income Rental Housing Program the city has introduced to bring some relief to what he described as a “full blown capitalist market.”

It’s worth mentioning for context that the city’s housing strategy calls for 72,000 homes to be approved for construction by 2027. The city says nearly 50 per cent will serve households earning less than $80,000 per year.

Two-thirds will be available for renters, with 40 per cent with two or three bedrooms. Much of it is expected to be built by the private sector.

Which brings me back to this idea of creating rental-only zones across Vancouver for low to moderate income earners, as I joked about off the top.

Actually, there is a serious question there because the provincial government last year gave municipalities the power to create rental-only zones.

Urban affairs journalist Frances Bula posed questions to Mayor Kennedy Stewart as part of Wednesday's Greater Vancouver Board of Trade event. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Urban affairs journalist Frances Bula posed a question about that very fact to Stewart as part of a sit-down Q & A following his speech.

The mayor answered that he was worried about crashing the city’s housing market “overnight” by introducing rental-only zones.

He noted more than 90 per cent of the city’s 285,000 homes are privately owned and worth more than $350 billion.

“We really have to be careful when we’re moving forward with such blunt policy instruments,” he said, noting legal challenges in New Westminster over the policy.

But Stewart said rental-only zones could be possible along transit corridors.

“But it’s worrying to put it in places that have already been up-zoned and say, ‘Hey, you had some options with your land and now you don’t have them.’”

Added Stewart: “Just because we haven’t used it, it doesn’t mean that we’re not grateful and it doesn’t mean we won’t use it. We just got to be careful.”

As the mayor said a few times since elected, he wants to get to a place in Vancouver where the number one topic of conversation is not housing.

“After we can get this thing all fixed up, we can go and talk about things that we like to talk about like music and art,” said the former musician. “We have to make sure that all folks can live in this city in a way that works for them. It’s not just from a moral point of view, it’s from an economic point of view. Our city is not going to work, the engine is going to slow down unless we get this right.”


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