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Politics As Vancouver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stewart will have to unite a council divided over housing

Kennedy Stewart is greeted by his supporters after winning the mayor seat in the municipal election in Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 21, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In an election that was mostly fought over one issue – affordable housing – Vancouver now has a council that is divided on how to fix the problem. It is the first huge challenge confronting the Mayor-elect, Kennedy Stewart.

Not only is the governing body, over which Mr. Stewart will preside, split on the best route to address the most difficult issue the city has faced in decades. In many ways, the weekend vote revealed that the citizens of Vancouver are also divided.

Mr. Stewart, running as an Independent, prevailed by the thinnest of margins over Ken Sim, leader of the centre-right Non-Partisan Association (NPA). While Mr. Sim lost by fewer than 1,000 votes, five of his fellow NPA colleagues won seats on council. There will be five others representing centre-left parties, including the Greens, OneCity and COPE.

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Which in a deadlocked vote leaves the mayor with the tiebreaker.

Mr. Stewart campaigned on an aggressive approach around housing, pushing for density across the city, including in neighbourhoods that have heretofore been reluctant to embrace this level of change. The Mayor-elect said in interviews that some people are just going to have to accept it, because waiting for everyone to agree on new forms of affordable housing is not an option.

Kennedy Stewart supporters react to the results during the municipal election in Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 20, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Sim, on the other hand, ran on a housing platform that was much more cautious. He said he would not force change on neighbourhoods that didn’t want it – a message that resonated with an older demographic, particularly on the city’s west side, that has been resistant to seeing new forms of multiunit housing constructed anywhere near them.

And you can bet that the five NPAers on council are going to do everything they can to stop Mr. Stewart from proceeding with his plan.

This means that the new mayor is going to have to form alliances with the other members of council, who represent parties that also have varying views on how best to solve the housing crisis. It will mean that compromises are going to have to be made. Mr. Stewart will not get everything he wants – nor will anyone on council.

Consequently, it’s difficult to predict what housing policy emanating from city hall is going to look like. That will have to be bargained and negotiated over the coming months.

There is, however, a cautionary tale that can be found in the outcome of Saturday’s election. And that is the virtual wipeout of Vision Vancouver, the centre-left party that ran the city for the past decade.

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It did not have a name on the ballot for mayor, after its candidate – Ian Campbell – withdrew from the race in early September citing personal reasons. Vision decided not to replace him.

Perhaps Mr. Campbell saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to be the public face of a humiliating electoral shellacking. It’s not like there was an absence of those predicting the party would face the wrath of voters upset about many things, including Vision’s aggressive housing strategies.

Mr. Sim and the NPA gave voice to those concerns and the real anger that is out there.

This is something Mr. Stewart and the council are going to have to reconcile.

It’s one thing to talk bravely on the campaign trail about how neighbourhoods are going to have to welcome change – it’s quite another to push ahead with it in the face of virulent opposition. That takes a thick skin and a strong stomach. It takes putting a priority on doing the right thing over what is best for a person’s re-election chances.

If Mr. Stewart is looking for inspiration on this front, the former NDP MP need look no further than the provincial government in Victoria.

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The New Democrats have forged ahead with measures designed to cool the housing market, such as a speculation tax, that are deeply unpopular with a wide swath of voters, especially many living in Vancouver’s more expensive areas. But the NDP has forged ahead with the moves anyway, evidently convinced that many more people support what the government is doing to bring down house prices, than oppose it.

After a decade of one party being in complete control of policy in Vancouver, the city is in for a huge change. Time will tell whether it’s change that serves the city well.

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