Kennedy Stewart was only elected mayor of Vancouver weeks ago, but he already appears comfortable in his new role.
“I’m definitely liking this a lot more than federal politics,” the former NDP MP for Burnaby told Global News as he prepared to sit down for a wide-ranging interview ahead of the new year.
That doesn’t mean Stewart isn’t proud of his time in the House of Commons. He said that his parliamentary experience is informing his outlook as mayor and gives him an advantage when he has to ask Ottawa for funding.
And Stewart’s most famous moment as an MP — his arrest outside Burnaby’s Kinder Morgan facility for protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline — is preserved in a picture frame next to the large window of his office.
But the 52-year-old said he’s happy to have traded his Parliament seat for the mayor’s chair and for the ability to get policies passed in a respectful, co-operative way — something that was a top priority for him as he entered city hall in October.
“It hasn’t come without effort,” Stewart said. “But I said in my inaugural speech that respect was really my key term, and already we’ve been able to achieve that and get some things passed, which I’m really proud of, and I’m proud of the councillors and how we’ve managed to do this.”
WATCH: Coverage of Kennedy Stewart on Globalnews.ca
Now that he has some wins in the books, Stewart is looking ahead at what’s in store for 2019, with two items at the top of his list.
“One, I really want the number of overdoses and overdose deaths in Vancouver to decline significantly,” he said. “And I really want to lead the country in terms of how do we help people who are being displaced when new housing is being built.”
Shifting focus to renters
On the housing front, Stewart is the first to admit he’s in a better position than others to understand what a growing number of people in the city are going through.
“I’m a renter. My wife and I rent. Just because I’m mayor of the city, that doesn’t mean the single-family home isn’t out of reach for me,” he said, agreeing with the opinion that the dream of owning a detached home in Vancouver is likely dead.
“We still all want to live in the city so we’ve got to find a way to do that, and renting is going to be how we do it so the focus has to be on renters,” he added. “That’s what a lot of big, exciting cities have, a lot more renters than owners, and I think that’s the direction we’ll move in.”
The recently approved rental office — something promised by Stewart during the campaign but introduced in council by Green Party Coun. Pete Fry — is one of the ways the mayor hopes the city will help a portion of the population he sees growing into a majority sooner rather than later.
But a bigger issue Stewart wants to deal with is maintaining the city’s existing housing stock as new units get built while not displacing those who have called neighbourhoods home for decades.
“Our city policy doesn’t really cover that very well,” he said. “Right now, they’re concentrated on the units and protecting the current stock. If you want to build a new building of 200 units but, to do that, you have to demolish 20 units, you have to replace as many as you get rid of.
“The problem is, this isn’t tied to the people living in the existing units so they hardly ever come back, even if they’re allowed to come back to the new building. How do we replace the aging infrastructure without displacing people from the city? If we can get that figured out, which I think we can, then I think that will relieve a lot of pressure,” he added.
Stewart said he’s been meeting with developers and people in the private sector to come up with solutions similar to those found in nearby cities like North Vancouver, where a developer built temporary units for residents displaced by a renovation. That idea of keeping communities together is paramount to the mayor’s strategy.
“That’s what a neighbourhood is,” Stewart said. “The people who live there [are] the neighbourhood, not the fire hydrants and the trees, so I think we’ve somehow overlooked that in the development of these policies that we currently have, and we have to really get on [fixing] that.”
‘We can’t end homelessness’
The issue of displacement also plays into the ongoing homelessness issue, which Stewart said he’s not naive enough to suggest can ever be completely fixed.
“Unfortunately, because of the population, it’s more of a management issue,” he said. “Even if you managed on one day to house everybody, you would still have people who fall on unfortunate circumstances that live in the city, who become homeless. And then you have people moving in also.
“It’s not something I think you could ever say you end it but I do think you can have it to a point where people, if they do fall through the cracks or on the street, they’re not on the street for very long,” he added.
Stewart said growing the modular housing stock has continued to help get people off the streets while providing acute medical services within those units to the people most in need. He also pledged to continue asking for funding from the province and the federal government to keep that momentum going, even beyond a recent approval from council to get the ball rolling on 600 new units.
Further help for the homeless population could also come through the 23 recommendations made by the new emergency opioid task force, which released its first report before the end of the year. But Stewart said that task force, which was initially meant to focus exclusively on the Downtown Eastside, is a benefit to the entire city, including those with a roof over their heads.
“These overdoses are happening all over the city,” he said. “It’s a problem that makes you numb. We had something like 6,000, 7,000 overdoses last year. We’re having one person die a day, and it’s just so much to take on mentally that I think people get numb or just despondent.”
“But we can’t do that,” he added. “We’ve got to redouble our efforts and get more help from the federal and provincial governments because I know it’s a national impact, but we’re the epicentre right here.”
Building transit to UBC
One issue Stewart has committed to solving is building the long-desired SkyTrain line to the University of British Columbia, continuing the Broadway extension past the currently approved endpoint at Arbutus Street.
The mayor said the fact that the extension nearly made it into the TransLink Mayors’ Council’s 10-Year Investment Plan is evidence that it has broad support. He’s also found enthusiasm from other levels of government, and it’s here that his federal experience comes to bear.
“I’ve had an informal chat with Harjit Sajjan, the minister of defence, and he was super keen on this. I talked to the minister of transport, Marc Garneau; he was here in the office, keen on it,” Stewart said.
“So when I see all these people saying ‘yes, yes, yes,’ I think, well this is why I feel good that we can move this forward.”
Stewart said the work plan that’s eventually released to the Mayors’ Council will include a full costing and other details. He also pointed to his allegiance with Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum — who’s in the middle of his own SkyTrain negotiations, as he tries to extend the line to Langley — as further proof the plan is in the best interests of the region.
“I think it’s nice because we’re thinking regionally, and I think it’s a less siloed approach,” said Stewart about potentially having a SkyTrain that stretches from Langley to UBC. “The fact that you could live in Langley and make it all the way to UBC and continue your education or teach there, that is a very attractive notion.”
Despite public skepticism from some veteran mayors, Stewart is confident he and McCallum will get the votes they need to make the plan a reality.
“A lot of the mayors I’ve already spoken with informally have said it’s a great idea and they’re in favour of it. A lot of their kids go to UBC; it’s a big population that’s quite isolated so I think that regional co-operation is very important.”
The benefits of a diverse council
Co-operation is also playing a role in Stewart’s strategy at city hall.
With no clear majority on council for the first time in recent memory, many were expecting chaos out of the gate. But many motions, including the establishment of a renter’s office and requesting funding help from the B.C. government to tackle the opioid crisis, have passed unanimously.
Stewart said that co-operation is a result of not only his efforts to establish connections with his councillors through regular meetings but also the wide-open playing field that the lack of a majority has presented.
Stewart continued: “But this one, we’re having motions coming from all different caucuses — myself, NPA, Greens, OneCity, Cope — and we’re discussing it all. The difference here is that everyone has a chance to govern, which is very different from…most legislatures, where you have opposition versus the majority. And we were able to figure that out in a month.”
WATCH: Coverage of Vancouver city council on Globalnews.ca
The mayor also went back to his earlier message of respect, which he said has trickled down through the rest of council.
“You know, in past councils you might have seen a lot of Twitter back-and-forth, people calling out other people, and that really hasn’t been happening, which is great. It’s a really respectful environment, and if you win your motion, great, and if you lose, you just move on to the next one so I’m very happy with how this is working.”
As he shuts the door on 2018, Stewart’s focus turns back again to housing and opioids, which he repeats are his top two priorities moving forward.
“Those two things, I wake up thinking about them, I go to sleep thinking about them and I really want to do what I can with this council to make a difference. I want this city to be an example to others, like we did with the safe consumption site back in the early 2000s,” he said.
“If we can do that again, awesome. But if we can lower the stress levels in terms of housing with people here, that would be great, too.”