The new mayor of this city under stress says Vancouver’s biggest problem is the way residents are being squeezed out of their own neighbourhoods.
Tenants are being forced from their apartments as landlords try to increase rents by emptying out buildings to do renovations, while homeowners are being made to feel as if they no longer belong in neighbourhoods that have turned into vacant-home zones, Kennedy Stewart said.
“It’s not replacement, it’s displacement. I really think this is the No. 1 thing. Folks have seen their traditional neighbourhoods change dramatically,” said Mr. Stewart, who said he was the most struck by those stories since he’s been elected. Mr. Stewart rents a condo near the Granville Bridge from an owner who lives in Seattle.
The second phenomenon that has had the most impact on him is the city’s struggle with the opioid drug-overdose crisis.
“It’s so bad that people are numb to it,” he said.
Mr. Stewart, a former political-science professor at Simon Fraser University and then an NDP backbencher for seven years, was elected in October by a slim margin as an independent, heading a four-party council with no clear majority.
That makes for a sharp contrast with the past 10 years of Vision Vancouver-dominated councils when former mayor Gregor Robertson worked to drive through a very activist agenda.
It’s unclear how the new council will tackle severe housing problems affecting everyone from people who become homeless to professional couples earning healthy incomes who can’t afford to buy in the city.
The new government’s first two months were marked by ambitious but off-in-all-directions motions from various council members, sometimes put forward without checking with staff on their feasibility. That produced council meetings that went on for days, with dozens of speakers showing up for some of the issues, and a lot of referrals to staff to get more information.
But Mr. Stewart said Vancouver citizens need to realize that the new council is heavily affected by these speakers. “I feel that this council’s really influenced by what’s happening at the podium. It may have not been important in the past to come to council. Now it is.”
Renters showed up by the dozens to talk about their sense of insecurity and fear of ‘renovictions.’ Most councillors voted to support more actions to protect tenants.
Neighbourhood business groups came to talk about the devastating impact escalating city taxes are having on businesses. The council voted to look at shifting more taxes from business to residents.
Mr. Stewart also thinks some of the solutions to Vancouver’s housing problems will have to come from the developers themselves: They need to help create more rentals while not displacing existing tenants.
In the optimistic style characteristic of him, Mr. Stewart said he thinks they are ready to do that.
“One developer had a proposal for a thousand units of rental, but it would mean 57 people displaced. I indicated to them it was a major problem. So we talked about phasing it in instead,” he said. That would allow renters to stay on site as different parts of the property were developed and then move into the new units.
“Until we ask, we’re not going to get,” the mayor said.
He remains committed to his election promise of tripling the empty-homes tax, saying that there are still 2,500 vacant apartments and houses in the city despite the existing 1-per-cent tax that was imposed this year. However, it’s not clear whether that will pass.
A majority of councillors, including the city’s three Green Party councillors, passed a motion in December expressing opposition to the province’s “school tax” – an extra levy that is imposed on properties worth more than $3-million.