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Vancouver mayor reflects on halfway mark in 4-year term

Kennedy Stewart: ‘People are wondering about the direction of council’
Kennedy Stewart is closing in on two years as the city’s mayor. He spoke to Glacier Media last Friday in a wide-ranging interview about his time in office. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Mayor Kennedy Stewart begins the second half of his four-year term this fall with an agenda largely dictated by the devastating effects the pandemic has had on businesses, city finances and residents, particularly the less fortunate and most vulnerable.

It’s not a time Stewart ever anticipated he’d be governing in when elected in October 2018, let alone be doing it in a mask and running city council meetings remotely from his downtown apartment.

But here he is.

“You often feel like you’re failing all the time, and that’s why talking with other mayors around the world is so important,” he told Glacier Media by telephone last Friday.

“What you soon realize is that all mayors feel the same way. It is extremely stressful. When I’m talking to mayors in Europe who are opening up their second round of mass graves, and they’re breaking down in tears, I feel like we’ve got it easier here in Vancouver, but it’s still really hard.”

The pandemic occupied some but not all of the conversation Stewart had with Glacier Media in what was a wide-ranging interview conducted to check in on his first two years in office.

He talked about his new “Making Home” affordable housing initiative, the homeless camp in Strathcona Park, his call to abolish police street checks, his assessment of council’s performance and whether he’ll support a party or candidates in the Oct. 24 provincial election.

He also shared that he and mayors from some of B.C.’s cities will roll out a campaign possibly this week that challenges provincial party leaders about their commitments to municipalities, particularly on housing.

Stewart was tight-lipped on the conflict-of-interest case involving Green Party Coun. Michael Wiebe, but expects to make a decision this week, although he still hasn’t determined whether it will be made public.

Two weeks ago, Glacier Media posted emailed responses on this website from all 10 councillors to questions about their halfway point in office. Most assessed the performance of the mayor, with some suggesting he is a loner and needs to lean in more and work with council.

Stewart, who was elected as an independent, had an answer for that, too.

The following is a rundown of the questions to the mayor, followed by his answers, most of which have been condensed and edited for clarity and space.

overdoseEmergency crews respond to an overdose in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. File photo by Dan Toulgoet

In your campaign for mayor, you promised to build more housing and address the overdose crisis, yet homelessness is not decreasing and overdose deaths continue to spike, with Vancouver’s eight-month total of deaths already surpassing the grand total for last year. How much of this should land at your feet?

People are seeing changes in Vancouver, and they’re coming to the city and saying, ‘Wow you’ve guys have really failed.’ And we have to remind them, it’s COVID — it’s the unemployment rates, it’s the folks who’ve lost their jobs, it’s shelters that are operating sometimes at a third of their capacity, it’s SROs that don’t allow guests anymore. It’s people coming in to the city from other remote places thinking they have a better chance here. It’s also the collapse of the international drug trade. That’s been turned upside down. People are using drugs on their own, and it’s caused this real spike in overdoses. In January and February, I was feeling really good about how we were starting to turn things around, and then COVID has blown a hole in all that, including our finances at the city. Don’t forget, I declared the first state of emergency in the history of the city, and it’s still an emergency. In fact, with [COVID-19] case counts going up, in a way, COVID is perhaps as bad as it was at that period. So that is kind of the lens that everybody has to look through to understand what’s happening in this city. Often it gets missed from the discussion. I think that’s partly my failure. I have to kind of remind people every time that we all have to stand six feet apart. It’s not an excuse, but it’s an important context to think about.

Last November you told a Vancouver Board of Trade audience the city continued to lag behind in its goal to build more rental housing for lower to middle-income people. “Frankly speaking,” you said, “we’re behind all our targets when it comes to providing workforce housing.” Is the city any closer to those targets?”

Yes. In July, for example, I think in our last week, we were in council for maybe 45 hours. A lot of that was public hearings on exactly these things. So since that time, we’ve approved 10 of these [Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program] projects, which is an important part of the mix. I have since brought forward this Making Home motion, which we’ll be voting on soon to really open the door to a very different way of delivering housing for that missing middle, so people may be able to purchase. It’s only a pilot, and I hope council supports it. We’ve got to do something. We just can’t wring our hands. We definitely can’t argue whether we have a housing crisis, which is a background noise through all our council discussions — of questioning whether or not we need to build more housing. That’s not helpful. Of course we need to build more. We have to build more rental, and we have to build more housing that folks can afford to buy.

Your Making Home proposal calls for up to six small homes on one lot. If council passes it and it goes to staff for examination and eventually gets the green light, what do you say to homeowners who don’t want more homes in their neighbourhoods?

There’re about 70,000 single-family lots in the city, and this would be a pilot project for 100. So it’s not like you’re going to wake up and there’s going to be a zillion new homes right beside you. It’ll be across the city. Certain neighbourhoods may like these, certain neighbourhoods may not. But let’s build a bunch so people can actually see how they work. These projects are for small builders. So that is also really important, for example, for the homeowner who wants to downsize. They can look at their own property — an old house in disrepair, and it can be torn down and four or five units can be put up, one of which is affordable for purchase. Then their family could live in the same neighbourhood on the piece of land they already have. Why not try that out? There’s going to be at least 100 people who want to try this, and we’ll learn as we go. That’s policy by evidence, and the best way is to try this experiment and see how it works.

How do you know there’s an appetite for homeowners to do this?

They’re already doing it with laneway houses. I’ve talked to a lot of people who would like to be able to try something different with the property that they own. So I say, let’s try it. Maybe this will be a dismal failure and nobody applies. OK, at least we know that. A lot of people questioned the [Moderate Income Rental Housing Program]. A lot of people said nobody will do this, it’s too expensive and yet we still have 10 projects approved, with more coming. So there are tweaks to that program that will need to come, but that’s why you do a pilot, that’s why you do an initial trial. We can’t wait any longer. We have to try something. Again, 100 in a city of 70,000 lots. With modular housing, it was, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” and now nobody even really notices where it is most of the time.

affordabilityMore than 50 per cent of Vancouverites are renters. File photo Dan Toulgoet

The federal government recently announced its $1 billion “Rapid Housing Initiative” to cover the construction of modular housing, the acquisition of land and the conversion of existing buildings to affordable housing in Canada. How much money are you seeking under this initiative, and for what types of projects?

What I’m doing is building a package of projects that I would like Ahmed Hussen, the federal minister responsible for housing, to pre-look at. “I’ll give you these,” I’ll say, “they’re going to be way more than you can fund, which ones are the most appropriate, or your side agrees is the best thing to fund.” We’ll have a list. We’ll be asking for way more than we’ll ever get. It’s our job to rank them together, and once we’ve decided, the money should flow, and directly to us is my understanding. This is a 100 per cent federal grant, there’s no matching conditions [with the city or provincial government]. I know people have said it’s not enough. I don’t look at it that way. I look at it that it hopefully sets a new pattern of how this goes forward.

How many of the 1,800 city workers laid off at the beginning of the pandemic returned to work?

A lot of those workers were from libraries and community centres. So as they re-open, they’re starting to return. I know they all haven’t been re-hired, but many, many have. But we still have really tough challenges with our operating budget. But the federal government for the first time ever is injecting money into the operating budgets of all cities. So we know this is going to come on a per capita basis. The money has been turned over to the province, and I know that in Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary, they’ve all received letters from their provincial governments as to how much money they’re getting. I publicly asked for $200 million [at a news conference], and I got beaten up over that [by critics, including some of his councillors]. But I think I’ll secure tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to help with our revenue losses. And that’s how you lobby. That’s what I thought I could bring to this table from my Ottawa experience [as a former NDP MP], and it’s coming. I think I’ve delivered, just for this city, I think probably half a billion dollars.

Half a billion dollars?

Thirty-four million dollars for childcare, $184 million from the feds for housing. Some of it’s in grants, some of it’s in loans. But it wouldn’t have come without the lobbying. Then you think about all the housing investments from the province here — the modular housing, the hotel purchases. All of that stuff needed me to go and secure that. Then we have this federal money coming for the operating budget. And although [New Westminster mayor and chairperson of the mayors’ council on regional transportation Jonathan Cote] has done a stellar job as well, together we’ve managed to keep TransLink afloat [with more money]. So people often say, where are you? It’s like, well, I’m off doing this and I’m landing a lot of money that really has never come before. I’m going to keep doing this, but I also realize that I think people are wondering about the direction of council.

How so?

I really feel like they think maybe we lack focus. So what I’ve been doing recently — my Making Home proposal is a good example — is finding ways to get us back on track, to do the things I was elected to do. I may not win everything, but I need council to make important decisions to approve or reject things that are important. For example, on the patio extensions, I called a special council meeting to get that done. On the emergency homelessness COVID-19 response, I called a special council meeting with a proposal to get council to focus on that, and to vote. I don’t have a ton of powers as mayor, but one thing I can do is call special council meetings, and that does seem to be working to pull particular focus on important issues. The first time I used it was with the overdose task force. That was a special council meeting where we eventually got a unanimous vote to move forward with funding and policy responses.

kennedyhalfway3Vancouver city council at their inauguration. File photo Jennifer Gauthier

Glacier Media asked city councillors to rate your performance at the halfway mark of your term. Some didn’t respond, some said you’ve worked largely as a loner and could do a better job of leaning in and working with council. How would you assess your performance, so far?

I would divide it into two. I would think as a lobbyist-in-chief, I give myself an A. That’s what I explicitly said that I was going to do — is that I was going to go off to senior levels of government, improve our relationships there and bring home the bacon, which I think I’ve really done, and will continue to do. In terms of my relationship with council, I’d say it’s a C. And part of the problem is this: I try to organize council by caucus. So every two weeks, I have a caucus meeting with the NPA, the Greens, COPE and OneCity. What I quickly found out is they don’t agree, and you can see this in the voting patterns. [NPA Coun.] Colleen Hardwick will vote against every single rental housing project that comes to the city, whereas [NPA Coun.] Melissa De Genova will vote for every single one of them. They do not have unified perspectives. I’m not an executive mayor, I’m not like the mayor of New York that puts forward a budget and they vote yes or no. It is up to all of us to make council work better. And I feel sometimes that it needs to be picked up a notch.

There has been a lot of criticism from public on why it takes so long for council to get through an issue, or why the city is spending time on motions that are more idealistic than pragmatic. Whereas many other cities in Metro Vancouver seem to move their agendas along more swiftly and effectively. Is that a fair assessment?

I totally get it, and that’s part of the thing of working in a minority government, which is really what this is. The parties are not united in what they’re calling for. Again, the NPA is a great example of that. Look at the budget process. In the very first budget, Melissa De Genova voted for the budget, but the rest of the NPA voted against it. It’s very difficult to coordinate when the groups themselves are not coordinated. I would say there are individual agendas here, as well, and you can see that through the maybe 250 motions that come forward to council. For example, at the next council meeting, [COPE Coun.] Jean Swanson has four more private member’s motions to consider. They may be important to some communities and those types of things, but if every single council meeting we have 10 to 12 private motions that all require public input, this drowns out our ability to get the regular business done. That’s why I’ve had to revert to so many of these special council meetings. Is Strathcona Park a top issue? Absolutely. If I put a recommendation through the regular council process, we wouldn’t be talking about it until October. So that’s why I had to call a special council meeting to do that work, then to put a proposal forward, which is also part of my duty under the Charter — to make recommendations to council, and that’s what I’m doing there.

street-checkMayor Kennedy Stewart has said systemic racism exists within the Vancouver Police Department. File photo Dan Toulgoet

You have said systemic racism exists within the Vancouver Police Department. In an emailed statement I received from your office in June, you said: “Let me be clear: systemic racism exists in all of our institutions, and that includes within the Vancouver Police Department.” Vancouver police officers I’ve spoken to privately want to know what evidence you have to reach such a conclusion.

Street checks. It’s their own data that speaks to that, and that’s why it’s been so controversial and why I’ve called for them to be banned and council backed me unanimously on that. It’s the disproportionate number of stops that are conducted on racialized members of our community, and very much disproportionate when it comes to Black and Indigenous people, and people of colour. In some ways, it may be a misinterpretation of what systemic racism means. I know that happened at the federal level for sure [with the RCMP]. I’m not saying that officers are racist, although I’m sure there are some because there’s racists in all organizations. A very small number. But the way the system operates discriminates against Indigenous and people of colour. The rules were not designed to benefit those communities. That’s what systemic racism is. I look at my own city council. The election rules in this city are not built for people of colour to be elected to city council.

Abolishing street checks was not part of your election campaign in 2018, even though media, including Glacier Media, were writing about this at the time. So what triggered you to call for a ban this year?

It’s emerged from the community. You do have to respond to stuff as it comes up. I can’t say that going into the election that policing was my expertise. This is all new for me. Part of it is listening to the community. I have a close relationship with Stewart Philip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and I really listen to what those organizations — Pivot Legal Society, the BC Civil Liberties Association are others — have to say. And I have to balance it out. And on balance, I think that’s the right thing to do. I was pilloried for saying the province needs to review the Police Act. I got absolutely shellacked on that one. And then later that afternoon, the government [announced a review of the Act], and now we’re having a province-wide review where this issue is at the centre of that review process.

kennedyhalway5Strathcona Park tent city. File photo Mike Howell

The Strathcona Park tent city doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Two-part question: What do you say to the residents complaining of an increase in crime and street disorder in the neighbourhood? And what do you say to the people living in tents in the park?

That’s a perfect way to frame it because I have deep concerns about both. First of all, with the folks in the tents, I’m quite buoyant about the conversations with the federal government about this emergency funding for immediate housing. I’m hoping that will provide some relief. We have a report coming back on Oct. 2 from staff as to our best options as a city, with council to make a decision the following week. I totally sympathize with the folks living around encampments and in other parts of the city [where street disorder and crime is a concern]. I would say north of 12th Avenue, especially the downtown peninsula, there’s a marked change in community. I know from the police statistics that there is an increase in violent crime. I have been in deep conversations with Police Chief Adam Palmer about responding to that, and I’m sure we’ll see something in a short while that will help allay the fears of those folks who are feeling insecure.

Your party lineage is no secret, having served as an NDP MP in Ottawa. So will you be publicly supporting John Horgan and the NDP, as you did as mayor for Vancouver-East NDP MP Jenny Kwan in the federal election?

I’ve known John Horgan for a long time. I really feel his leadership has been amazing during COVID, and I do think that a lot of the NDP policies — for example, the investments in housing for low income people — has been extraordinary. So I like what I’m seeing here and we need more of it, and that’s kind of where I’m at, at the moment. I personally like John very much and I really like what [his government has] been doing for this city, especially when it comes to the COVID response. I was so worried with what was going to happen in the Downtown Eastside, but the investments, the resources, the rapid deployment has saved a lot of lives. We’ve got a long way to go on this, but I need more of the same.

You promised to triple the empty homes tax. Why haven’t you done that?

When I made that promise, the province was talking about putting in new demand-side measures, but they hadn’t. So by the time we got to the point where we were making a decision about the empty homes tax, there already were, I think, five new demand-side measures on speculation and vacant homes. So what I thought would be a bit reckless would be to add all that in, and I was worried about the effects on the market.

Back in February, you announced that you wanted next year’s property tax increase at no more than five per cent. Can residents expect you to follow through with a five per cent cap when council approves the budget in December?

Yes, I’m firm on that. I’m one vote in that process, but I won’t vote for anything over five per cent, and I’d actually prefer it to be slightly lower than that. But I’m one out of 11 on that vote, but I put that forward back in February for a reason.

You’re already on record of seeking re-election in 2022. What should voters assess your performance on when deciding whether to re-elect you, or vote for someone else?

I set out to secure better relationships with senior governments and to bring money into the city. That is something I would like people to consider, and whether any opponent — whether it’s Ken Sim, or Sarah Kirby-Yung or Colleen Hardwick, or whoever runs for mayor with the NPA — can do a better job. I think that’s what it comes down to. Also to keep in mind that this COVID stuff is going to go on for a long time. Even when it’s over, and we can all take our masks off, there are going to be significant economic impacts on the city. I think in the end, it will be what the opponents have to offer that would be better than what I’m doing. That’s what elections come down to is: ‘Have a done a good enough job to get another four years?’