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Canada

Housing remains the top priority as mayoralty candidates debate the issues

With one month to go before the October election, six candidates vying for Vancouver’s top job pitched ideas and sparred over solutions to issues facing the city, including housing affordability and transportation.

The race’s front-runners — independents Kennedy Stewart and Shauna Sylvester and the NPA’s Ken Sim — as well as YES Vancouver’s Hector Bremner, ProVancouver’s David Chen and Wai Young of Coalition Vancouver each had two minutes to address pre-selected questions on a wide-ranging number of issues.

The Sunday event, organized by non-profit groups S.U.C.C.E.S.S. and The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, was billed as a town hall, not a debate, although that did not stop some candidates from taking swipes at their rivals.

Stewart landed the first jab of the afternoon on the topic of affordability. After pledging to build 85,000 new homes a year in Vancouver, including 25,000 affordable rentals run by non-profits, he said: “I’m sorry that Mr. Sim doesn’t have a plan for that, but I do.”

Sim countered that Stewart’s plan was unrealistic.

“We do not have the people in place to build 85,000 units a year,” he said. “We are going to be very pragmatic and come up with a real plan where people are going to live.”

As mayor, he said he would build rentals on city-owned land and take “bold measures” to incorporate senior centres and services into housing in order to deal with the expected doubling of the senior population over the next two decades.

Bremner, who is running on a campaign of “saying yes” to fix housing, said the current city’s plan is “broken” and needs an overhaul, while Young said she will put forward policies to build purpose-built rental housing and “entry level accommodations” for millennials around transportation hubs in the city. She also said she will not sell any city land.

Candidates largely agreed on the importance of immigration, inclusion and access to culturally sensitive services but diverged on the contentious issue of bike lanes and other transportation issues.

Young reiterated her plan to tear up the bike lane in front of Vancouver General Hospital and on the Cambie Bridge, while Sylvester stressed the importance of building “multi-modal transportation” which includes bike lanes that get people out of their cars.

Sim said his party will not build any more bike lanes, but will launch an independent review to decrease congestion in the city.

In response to a question on a perception that society is becoming less tolerant of diversity, Sim called out politicians he said have been scapegoating groups to score political points.

“I am not saying foreign purchases do not affect housing, but when we point to a group … that starts a slippery slope,” he said, adding there are other factors that affect affordability, including interest rates and red tape in the city.

“I’m calling on everyone to knock it off,” he said. “We’re dividing people and it’s hurtful.”

Chen said it is important to be able to discuss issues out in the open rather than bury the problems.

“People are having these thoughts because there is fear,” Chen said. “You need to speak to people. you need to challenge that.”

Sylvester said she has noticed an increase in the level of racism unlike anything she has seen in the last few decades.

“Hate crimes are on the rise, and we are not alone. There are forces in our communities that are trying to divide us,” she said, emphasizing her experience working with various groups and bringing people together.

Later, in response to a question about how to preserve Chinatown’s culture and history while making it a vibrant community, Sylvester said she has been in discussions with B.C. Assessment to see if it can create a subcategory for small businesses struggling with dramatic increases in costs due to soaring property values — a problem plaguing small businesses across the city. 

“If we do that, we can create a different mill rate for small businesses and not have them lose their shirt because of rising property taxes,” she said.

On many issues, Stewart, who served as a Burnaby MP for seven years, touted his experience in Ottawa and his ability to work across the aisle as a selling point.

If elected, he pledged to immediately establish an emergency task force to deal with the opioid overdose epidemic.

“It’s gotten out of hand and has overwhelmed communities in Canada,” he said. “We cannot have the number of deaths happening.”

Sim said his party has already been studying the issue for the last four months and that the problem in the Downtown Eastside, the epicentre of the overdose crisis, isn’t the lack of money or human capital, but a lack of co-ordination and political will.

As mayor, he said “I will have political courage to articulate recommendations and I will make a stand … so we can make a significant impact for the first time in the Downtown Eastside.”

Young, who is running on a law-and-order platform, said one of her priorities will be to clean up city streets, including in Chinatown.

“This city has gotten dirtier and grittier all over, starting in Chinatown,” she said. “There’s needles everywhere. There’s defecation everywhere. We are one of the top 10 cities in the world yet it’s embarrassing to have people come visit. We need to clean up our city.”

chchan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/cherylchan

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