Kennedy Stewart talks about housing the middle class, heritage preservation, and wringing money from Ottawa

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      Independent mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart often says that if he’s elected on October 20, housing affordability will be his top priority. And in a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office, the former NDP MP emphasized that he didn’t want to “overpromise” in his platform.

      “[Mayoral candidate] Hector Bremner’s 70,000 units in three years is clearly never going to happen,” Stewart said. “But my plan is 85,000 units over a decade.”

      Of those, 25,000 would be “affordable” rental units developed on city land and operated by nonprofit organizations. According to Stewart, they would be mainly targeted at families with household incomes of $80,000 or less.

      He said that allowing for a higher income threshold will generate more money, which can help finance single-room-occupancy units and social housing.

      The next 25,000 units would be market rentals, with the other 35,000 units being homes that would go on the market.

      He also promised to renew leases for co-ops on city-owned land and look for opportunities to expand this type of housing beyond the 6,000 units that exist in the city today.

      He suggested that it might be possible to get to 8,000 or 10,000 units by densifying neighbourhoods where co-ops exist.

      “But if you think about it in the overall scheme of things, there’s 6,000 co-op units and 300,000 homes,” Stewart said. “It is only two percent of our housing stock. To focus on that is a bit too boutique-y for me.

      “I think that they need to be saved,” he continued. “We have to reinforce that. But really, we’ve got to move out into the nonmarket rental or else we’re not going to really address our problem here.”

      Stewart emphasized that the next mayor is also going to have to know how to work with power brokers in Ottawa to attract more federal money for nonprofit housing.

      “You’ve got to go out and make a lot of noise—also, in the same way, allow the feds to kind of save face and make announcements,” he said. “So I still have my MP pin. It allows me access forever. So I can just walk in and talk to folks. That’s what I would do immediately after getting elected.”

      Stewart would also like somebody on his team who understands how the power structure works in Ottawa to increase the likelihood of more money coming to Vancouver. He’s already been “talking to some folks” in this regard.

      The Straight asked if this person might be Libby Davies, a former Vancouver East NDP MP and ex-city councillor who’s backing his candidacy for mayor. Stewart said that he’s just focusing on winning the election and thinking about what types of people he might need in the future.

      Long-time NDP MP and former city councillor Libby Davies is backing Stewart's campaign, but he wouldn't say if she would be deployed after the election in any capacity to help him solve Vancouver's housing crisis.
      Stephen Hui

      Recently, the B.C. government passed legislation allowing municipal governments to create rental-only zones. Stewart said that if he becomes mayor, he’ll “absolutely” use this power because it will discourage real-estate flippers from trying to make quick profits.

      “One think I’m really thinking about is the city assembling land on its own,” Stewart said. “Why not buy single-family-home lots or a duplex now and then, assemble that ourselves, and then rezone?…Then we can have rental-only that we assemble and we could turn it over to a nonprofit.”

      In the early 1990s, Stewart worked on CityPlan, which was a document outlining a citywide vision for Vancouver. Only in recent years has that been followed up with neighbourhood area plans for the West End, Downtown Eastside, Marpole, and Grandview-Woodland.

      Stewart said his priority is to “get the housing stabilized and then look at long-term planning”. And he has no intention to reverse a recent council vote allowing duplexes in almost all of the city that’s zoned for single-family homes, saying he doesn’t want to create uncertainty for people affected by the decision.

      “I was hoping it was going to be kicked back to the next council,” he acknowledged. “I did think there were some good points to the plan, which I incorporated into my own platform. I will abide by the results.”

      One of the last council’s more unexpected moves in land-use planning came when it declared First Shaughnessy a heritage conservation district to prevent the demolition of homes built before 1940. It was popular with heritage advocates but enraged many local residents, who saw their property values fall sharply.

      Stewart said that he’s “not so keen” on heritage conservation districts, noting that he prefers it when cities preserve individual properties. To reinforce this point, he talked about how much he likes the blue plaques outside historic buildings in London, England.

      As for the city’s large property holdings in False Creek Flats, Stewart’s priority is for mixed-use rental housing, particularly for households with incomes of $80,000 or less.

      “I don’t want to do strata on city-owned land,” he declared. “I look at that area in the Olympic Village. There’s a lot of strata down there now. I really want mixed neighbourhoods.”

      The independent mayoral candidate is also concerned about growing speculation in commercial land, which is driving up property taxes for local businesses. He said that demand-reducing measures on residential properties—such as the property surtax on homes valued at more than $3 million and the foreign-buyers’ tax—have led investors to pursue other types of land in the city.

      “I think we definitely need to look at that and take some measures perhaps to slow that down,” Stewart revealed. “A business is there for a long time and all of a sudden, boom, a massive [tax] increase and they’re done. Their business no longer works at that location.”

      Stewart’s concern over climate change was reflected earlier this year when he was arrested for violating a court injunction ordering protesters to stay away from the gates of Kinder Morgan’s facility in Burnaby.

      Speaking to the Straight, he said that rising sea levels are going to create huge challenges in the future, including to Vancouver International Airport. He suggested that not enough is being done to prepare for that.

      Stewart would also like to see more long-term planning in connection with regional transit.

      “I’m a data guy,” he said with a smile. “I would like to collect more on that.”