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British Columbia Kennedy Stewart mayoralty would bring a cautious approach to housing, possible electoral reform to Vancouver

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

When it comes to a fix for Vancouver’s housing crisis, don’t expect any hasty moves to cool the market from Kennedy Stewart if he becomes Vancouver’s next mayor.

He would move fast to build social and affordable rental housing while willing partners – the provincial NDP and federal Liberals – are in power. He recognizes that window of opportunity could vanish should either party be turfed in future elections.

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But when it comes to market adjustments, the NDP MP, who is resigning his seat to run for mayor, favours a go-slow approach. He sympathizes with Vancouverites who, like he and his wife Jeanette Ashe, rent in the current market where vacancy rates hover at about 1 per cent and rents are the highest in Canada. But he says he also cares about those who own. “You don’t want to crash their property values.” A sudden drop would be catastrophic, especially for anyone who took on a huge mortgage during the past five years when prices shot sky-high.

Mr. Stewart knows how bad it can get. When he was a kid in Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, unemployment struck his family and they lost everything. “We went from being middle-class to absolutely dirt-poor.”

His grandmother gave him $100 and he bought a one-way bus ticket to the West Coast where he worked for the city. Student loans and grants helped him through university. He earned a PhD, became a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, and more recently a member of Parliament. “I’m never going to say I’m a self-made man. A lot of public programs helped me.” Those experiences shaped his values and aligned him with the NDP. He entered politics to “fight for the chances I had.”

He won two federal elections in neighbouring Burnaby, B.C. But this time, Mr. Stewart enters a race where at least two competitors share similar values and will be wooing the same voters. Shauna Sylvester, also running as an independent, and Vision Vancouver’s Ian Campbell, are centre-left candidates.

Mr. Stewart says his political experience and lifelong obsession with cities will set him apart from the crowd. His master’s dissertation analysed Vancouver civic-voting patterns back to 1886, and made him a proselytizer for proportional representation or, failing that, a ward system. Expect an electoral reform component in his platform when details are released in September.

An experienced grassroots fundraiser, Mr. Stewart raised more money in the last federal election than any of his NDP colleagues. About four years ago, he switched primarily to online solicitations for small donations, which is key in this civic election, the first to be held under new fundraising rules prohibiting large contributions. Still, without a civic party to back him, fundraising may prove more difficult.

Recent polls, which show Mr. Stewart having a slight edge over other candidates on the left and right, suggest his name recognition is already higher than most, another huge challenge for independent candidates. He most recently made headlines when he was arrested earlier this summer at a demonstration against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, along with national Green Party leader Elizabeth May. His anti-pipeline position will help him win supporters from the Green Party, which is not fielding a mayoral candidate. It also will help him with those NDP voters who agree with the party’s anti-pipeline stance.

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But is Vancouver really an NDP town? The folks at Vision Vancouver believe the city’s voters are more in line with federal Liberals, which certainly played out in the last federal election. Still, Mr. Stewart points out 88,000 Vancouverites voted NDP federally last time. If he can convince them he’s the best of the left and coax them to the polls, given a similar number of candidates stand to split the centre-right vote, he reckons he can win.

Mr. Stewart is a smart policy wonk with a colloquial speaking style that will serve him well in debates. He may not be left-wing enough for Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) voters, who are already pointing out he mostly played nice with Derrick Corrigan, Burnaby’s NDP mayor who allowed unfettered gentrification to displace many low-income renters in Mr. Stewart’s riding. But he’s an able politician and my bet is this race is between him and the Non-Partisan Association’s Ken Sim.

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