VICTORIA — Premier Christy Clark unveiled her government’s latest fix for the Lower Mainland’s housing affordability crisis Monday — a plan that was big on funding, short on details and all but ensures a series of further feel-good housing announcements for her government in the run-up to the May provincial election.
Clark said she’ll use $500 million in tax profits from the real estate sector to identify and approve construction of 2,900 rental units by March 2017. That coincides with the end of the provincial government’s fiscal year, but perhaps just as importantly, ensures a rush of new project announcements in the two months before voters head to the polls on May 9.
“This is by far the biggest amount that any government has invested in British Columbia’s history in affordable housing,” Clark told reporters. “And now is the time.”
The funding follows her government’s decision to institute a 15 per cent tax on foreign buyers in Metro Vancouver’s real estate market in August.
The government provided few details on where the new rental units would be located and how many would serve different categories of low-income renters, saying it will depend on what kind of partnerships it forms with municipalities, non-profit groups, community organizations and private developers to actually build, convert or re-purpose apartments and townhomes into rental suites.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman said one scenario could see the government use public funds to invest in a private developer’s project, in the process securing a number of units that provincial agency B.C. Housing would then rent at below-market rates to at-risk tenants such as seniors, students, First Nations, transitioning youth, the disabled, and women and children fleeing abusive relationships.
Coleman said his ministry has already cuts similar deals, but the difference now is the amount of funding available.
“Five hundred million is a tonne of money to move out into the marketplace between now and the end of March,” Coleman said. “By March 31 we want them to be able to identify the project, where it would go, what the zoning is and move ahead with new construction.”
The plan was quickly panned by the Opposition New Democrats.
“That’s transferring public wealth into private hands,” said leader John Horgan. “Those are the same developers financing the B.C. Liberal Party for the past decade, and now on the way out the door they are getting a top up.” Horgan said the NDP would reveal more of its housing solutions before the election.
Clark said the $500 million adds to $355 million announced in February to create 2,000 new affordable housing units. The federal government has also promised to spend $150 million on affordable housing in B.C.
Kishone Roy, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, described the announcement as “momentous,” and said that the funding infusion is exactly what’s needed. But he estimates that the province needs about 3,000 new subsidized units on an annual basis.
“We probably need an announcement like this every year. I would suggest to the government that what we need is a permanent program for affordable housing,” Roy said.
B.C.’s seniors advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, said she was pleased to see that the plan specifically addresses seniors living in rural areas, where she noted in a May 2015 report that appropriate housing can be hard to come by.
However, she’s still waiting for news of increases to seniors’ rental subsidies, something she had hoped would be in this year’s budget.
“These new units are important, but the majority of seniors that are renting are using the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters subsidy and there is a challenge with it in the Lower Mainland, where the cap is quite low compared to what rents actually are,” Mackenzie said.
Thomas Davidoff, a University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business professor, said that while the new rental housing will help, 2,900 units “is not going to make Vancouver affordable.”
“I’m not sure it’s the best start you could make with $500 million, but it’s something, absolutely. To the extent that it’s affordable homes, a decent roof over the head of battered children, First Nations, I have no problem with it at all.”
However, Davidoff believes it might not be very efficient to spend $500 million on 2,900 units and provide what is effectively a $172,000 per unit subsidy.
“My concern is that’s too much of a subsidy, too much money per unit,” he said.
Anne McMullin, president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, said it was a “huge first step” but that municipal governments now need to accept growth and density in their communities to help create the supply.
“The development industry is ready to deliver even more affordable housing, but municipal red tape and restrictive zoning regulations must be addressed,” she said. Clark also called on municipalities to move faster on approving zoning changes.