Kennedy Stewart says he began working on Vancouver’s housing crisis immediately after he was elected mayor to take advantage of a brief window of potential money before the federal election next year.
The mayor-elect and former New Democrat MP says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has promised significant funding for affordable housing as part of its national strategy but little cash has been delivered.
The British Columbia government is also supportive and has invested in building modular homes for the homeless, Stewart added in a recent interview.
“If there was a chance to put a dent in this housing crisis, it’s right now, when we have the alignment between the federal, provincial and municipal governments,” he said.
“That’s why I started working the minute after I was elected on this particular issue and will continue to do so, because this window will close and I have to do the best I can because it may not open again.”
Stewart will be sworn in Monday and believes voters have told him his top priority is addressing the housing crisis. The city’s rental vacancy rate hovers near zero and the benchmark price for a detached home, while falling, is still $1.5 million.
The federal government unveiled in 2017 a national housing strategy worth $40 billion. Earlier this year, it signed a deal with B.C. to split a $1-billion investment in affordable housing.
Stewart noted that recent elections in Ontario and Quebec have ousted Liberal governments in favour of conservative leaders. If those provinces are reluctant to co-operate with the federal government, that could help Vancouver capture more funding when it becomes available in the next budget cycle, he said.
He added that the previous federal Conservative government made no investments in housing, and even if Trudeau’s Liberals win with a majority and continue their policies, it’s easier to get money prior to an election than it is afterward.
“It’s my job to make sure we can land that money,” he said.
The next federal election is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2019.
Trudeau phoned Stewart shortly after he was elected and the two also met on Thursday, with housing and infrastructure making up the bulk of the conversation, he said.
Stewart was elected on a raft of promises including building 85,000 new homes in 10 years, tripling the empty-homes tax and protecting up to half of new homes from speculators.
He said he hears skepticism about his building plans but points out that there were 8,000 building permits issued in the city in 2015, and his goal is 8,500 a year.
“People are saying these are impossible goals. I think that’s nonsense,” he said, adding the caveat that unexpected circumstances like recessions could get in the way.
Vancouver’s empty homes tax, at one per cent of assessed value, has been successful in pushing owners of vacant properties to rent them, he said. But some owners are still choosing to pay the tax instead of becoming landlords, so tripling it would provide a greater incentive.
“The great thing about the empty homes tax is that it’s got a built-in expiry. If you’ve filled the unit, the tax goes away. I guess ultimately what we’d see is that even though the tax is still in place, nobody pays it, because all the homes are filled.”
As for the promise to protect up to half of new homes from speculation, he said the type of housing dictates the protection. He wants 25,000 of the 85,000 new homes to be affordable, non-profit rentals, which would be attractive for long-term pension funds investments not house flippers, he said.
Another tool is rental-only zoning, recently brought in by the provincial government, something Steward said he intends to use.
He said the city is facing a crisis, with lower-wage workers unable to afford Vancouver rents, making it harder for businesses to hire staff and adding pressure to transit, and he wants to change that.
But wealthier neighbourhoods made up of single-family homes have been resistant to change. Stewart won the election by fewer than 1,000 votes, narrowly beating Ken Sim of the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association, who said he would not force change on areas that do not want it.
Asked whether he would increase density in communities that reject it, Stewart said he would.
“We’re going to have to,” he said. “What I have said, though, is that you don’t want to change the feel of the neighbourhood. That’s when people say, ‘Paint a picture of what your affordable rental housing is going to look like,’ it’s going to look different everywhere.
“There are so many different forms of affordable housing that can be delivered.”
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press