Kennedy Stewart once told supporters there would come a time when housing and real estate wouldn’t dominate the conversations of Vancouverites — because affordable housing would finally be attainable.
That was on election night in 2018, in the basement of the Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver. Four years later, rent, home prices and homelessness are up.
Stewart — a former NDP MP who ran as an independent mayoral candidate in 2018 — has presided over one of the most fractured and dysfunctional councils in Vancouver’s history. As he seeks re-election, Stewart needs to convince voters that with a majority on council, he’ll be able to make faster progress on pressing issues like housing.
The Tyee met with Stewart at a busy Yaletown café to talk about his vision for the city, and how he expects to get it done. Stewart lives nearby, in a condo he rents with his wife Jeanette Ashe. Ashe is running alongside Stewart for a council seat.
Stewart has constantly touted his relationships with federal ministers, and says that in the first few years, he was making good progress.
“I felt like in 2019, things were starting to turn around,” he said. “I kind of got into the guts of what was happening with housing and the city and found they weren't really properly tracking stuff,” says Stewart.
“We finally got to a place where I knew, for example, that 75 major projects were stuck with staff. So I came up with a process to start to clear the backlog, and that was going well.”
Then in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic hit, setting off a chain reaction that continues.
“It really threw everything for a loop,” Stewart said. “The stress was so high I actually cracked my molar one night because I was just grinding my teeth. Our revenue [plummeted] and we had to lay off 1,800 staff.”
The effects of the strain on the city are visible. After an initial period of great uncertainty about COVID’s potential effects on the economy, home prices and rents surged, and homelessness rose. While crime is down overall across the city, a few neighbourhoods, particularly the West End and Mount Pleasant, have seen a sharp increase in assaults and sexual assaults; and downtown businesses have contended with storefront damage like broken windows.
Basic health and safety in the city’s poorest neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside, has declined: a dysentery outbreak in 2021 sickened two dozen people, while a rash of fires in single-room occupancy hotels has displaced over 200 residents this year.
Although city council was fractured between four parties helmed by an independent mayor, Stewart says he was holding regular caucus meetings with all members of council to try to find common ground.
But that soon changed, he says. In early 2021, the Non-Partisan Association sued him for defamation after he publicly said the NPA had “failed to stop hate spreading within their party.” Stewart made the statement in response to reporting in the Vancouver Sun and The Tyee about the apparent far-right views of some NPA board members.
Vancouver muncipal parties remain numerous, and the potential council makeup could be just as complicated this time around. No fewer than 11 parties are running, all on different slivers of the political spectrum. One of those is Stewart’s newly created party, Forward Together, which is running six council candidates, but no candidates for school or park board.
Here’s our interview with Stewart, edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: Council was very divided over the past four years and it was pretty dysfunctional. You really need a majority to govern and to realize your vision. You’ve created a new party, Forward Together, with you as the mayoral candidate and six council candidates.
Then we have OneCity, which has one incumbent councillor, Christine Boyle, three other council candidates, and no mayoral candidate.* You and Boyle have always kind of tacitly supported each other in council, and even now when you’re campaigning. Why don't you just team up?
Kennedy Stewart: We talked about it a lot, and we just didn't get there. We're friendly — Christine Boyle is the councillor I work with the best. But in the end, they've been building for a long time to get to a certain place, and they had a set number of councillors they wanted to run. We just couldn't find a way.
In 2018, you promised voters 85,000 units of housing over 10 years. How did you do on that initial promise?
Last year we hit 8,800 [housing unit approvals]. If it wasn’t for COVID — and a bananas council — we could have done more.
So let's just walk through the big sites in the city. There’s Jericho, there’s Sen̓áḵw, there’s the Molson site, there’s St. Paul's Hospital. There are the Expo lands. There are the SkyTrain stations: Renfrew, Rupert and Nanaimo, and the Heather lands.
You’re now promising to get 220,000 housing units built in 10 years. Why such a high target?
I think we need to build as much housing as we can because I think we're way behind. I just added up what was possible by looking at all the big sites, by looking at the Broadway Plan, by looking at what we could do with the Making Home program, and looking at what we could do with social and supportive housing.
[When I] call and talk to developers, it's like, “Why aren't you putting your proposals forward?” And they say, frankly, your council is too unstable. We can't go to the bank and borrow all this money to get this going, and then have it come to council and fail. If you talk to Concord Pacific — why are they not moving on the Expo lands — that’s what they’ll say. And that's why I decided I needed a team.
The [federal] Liberals for a long time were convinced that it was a demand-side problem. I always thought it was supply. [Various levels of government] put in all these demand-side measures, like the empty homes tax, the speculation tax, the school tax [on homes over $3 million] — I think there's around five taxes now. So when you have five demand-side measures, and prices still aren't dropping — it's all supply.
We're in such a hole that we have to get stuff building and we have a lot of land to do that. And bust open the single-detached home areas for multiple units.
Other parties, like OneCity and Progress Vancouver, are promising to radically reform single-family zoning to allow low-rise apartment buildings. Would you do that as well?
Pre-zoning’s a big one, and the C-2 [bylaw] changes where we said if you meet these certain conditions — like rental, and 20 per cent of units below market — then you don't need to go to a public hearing to get your building approved. You can go right to the development permit process, which still has a public component, but shaves 18 months off. And that was a fight — it took two years to get that through.
The first time we brought it to council it got defeated, then it got sent back to staff to study forever. It finally came forward again and we passed it. Pre-zoning — I think that’s where we need to go. I would love to pre-zone the Broadway Plan, [so that] if it’s rental or social housing, for example, it doesn't have to go through another public hearing.
Council recently passed the Broadway Plan, which will lead to denser development along a new subway line on Broadway. After hearing concerns from renters who live in older buildings, you proposed some pretty strict renter protections, and now you’re promising to extend those to the entire city. Under the protections, developers would have to rehouse tenants and allow them to come back to the new development at the same rent they were paying before.
And yet — we’re seeing a lot of older buildings in the Broadway Plan area go up for sale, and renters are still really nervous. Will people actually be protected?
The rental protections are a huge disincentive [to tear down older rental buildings]. If you have to find somebody a place to rent [during construction], supplement their rent so they're not paying any more than what they're paying now, pay their moving costs and then move them back into the new building at the same rent or lower — you're going to find easier places [to develop] first.
That is why those are not just important for a renter, they're important for the market. And so what we'd rather them do is develop on easier lots along the corridor. The older rental buildings will have to be replaced at some point — but this way, when you build new rentals first, then you have places for people to move to.
On the new buildings, vacancy control will apply — so around 20 per cent [of new rental units] are permanently locked in at what someone working at minimum wage full time can afford.
Tent cities are now pretty much a permanent reality in Vancouver. A few of your opponents have been floating the idea of identifying a site where we can have a sanctioned tent city with bathrooms, showers and other services. Do you think it’s time to consider that?
I think we're making progress. But if we start to go to the encampment route, we've given up.
But we have encampments now, and they seem to be permanent. Recently when the park board attempted to clear tents at CRAB Park, a Supreme Court judge shot it down, saying the shelter spots and SRO rooms that were being offered to people weren’t adequate. So what is the solution?
The solution came out of the Strathcona Park [encampment], which is the memorandum of understanding that I signed with [former housing minister] David Eby that says they are responsible for the housing in these instances.
And that's exactly what I'm working on with [Housing Minister] Murray Rankin right now, so we have more [modular housing] units coming online. There are also workforce ATCO trailers that the province is looking at now. And for the first time ever, I've talked to other municipalities who are looking at freeing up land to take provincial housing for folks that are in distress in Vancouver, but have ties to other communities.
The only way out of homelessness is housing.
Public safety is another big concern in the city this election campaign. You’ve proposed this idea of creating special teams to respond to some non-emergency situations. Walk me through how that would work.
I’ll give you an example: at this coffee shop, the clerk comes in in the morning, and they find somebody sleeping at their door.
What do I do? Right now I call 911, oftentimes the police come, and what do they do? The person's not committing any crime, so they're kind of stuck.
Under this 311 service, the clerk would call 311 (or if they call the police first, the police show up and they can call 311), and you'd have this team of really trauma-informed folks that are super trained in de-escalation if needed, but also have all the tools you need to hook people into their existing social services.
We know from the parks, our homeless outreach teams sit there with a laptop and hook people up to the supports. A lot of [homeless] people are not getting social support payments, and they're not on housing lists, and they don't have health cards. So that's what these teams do.
I was talking to Sarah Blyth [the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society] about this, and she said, “Wouldn't it be great if instead of a car with lights on top of it, what shows up is a van that's got food and water and clothing?”
Frankly, our 311 system is more technically updated than 911. And the 311 app [VanConnect] is already built out.
Where would the funding come from for this?
It would be $5 million, with an initial 25 folks [to staff the teams]. Back in 2017, [former city councillor] Raymond Louis put forward a motion to have 0.5 per cent of a property tax levy allocated every year to go towards an overdose levy.
One of the things that’s making me so angry about these [election] debates is that [my opponents] are like, “Hire more police, get them into the parks faster.”
They are literally pointing their fingers at me today calling me soft on crime and it’s so disgusting. Maybe they never talk to people who are homeless — but I was talking to a woman yesterday who's a sex worker, and her shirt came up a little bit, and her skin was full of monkeypox. So are we going to arrest her? Is that what we’re going to do? That’s what my opponents are saying.
Let’s talk about the overdose crisis, which is still killing so many people in our city, six years after a public health emergency was first declared.
A lot of options require action from the province, but what do you think the city could do next to save people’s lives?
Compassion clubs. We again would need a partner to do that — but I thought decriminalization was a longshot.
Now we're going to be the first major city in Canada with decriminalization and safe supply. But still, every Monday the email comes in and says 10 people died last week, five people died last week, 15 people — so now we have to move to something else. And I’ve spoken with Vancouver Coastal Health about working with them to establish a Compassion Club, which would eventually be peer-led.
There's been a lot of talk from other parties about how there's just not enough treatment available.
We approved this giant treatment centre at Clark and Terminal. That was a fight. Once the province gets the money rolling on that [construction will start]. It's their project, but we approved it.
That facility is really needed, but it can't just be in Vancouver all the time. We really need a regional approach to this.
* Story updated on Oct. 4 at 6:56 p.m. to correct the number of council candidates OneCity is running.
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.