In recent weeks the British Columbia government has introduced a flurry of bills it says follows through on its plan to fix the province’s housing crisis.
The opposition says the government is desperate and won’t succeed. A housing policy expert says the government is on the right track, but it’s true there’s a long way to go to make homes affordable and the province may still fail to get there.
“All the policy pieces were announced as part of our housing strategy earlier this year, and all of them actually work hand in hand,” Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said last week about the changes. “We simply won’t be able to build the housing we need unless we reform the entire system, and that’s what we’re doing.”
At the end of October the government passed a law to restrict short-term vacation rentals in hopes of making them available for longer-term tenants. There are also bills in front of the house when it resumes sitting Monday to take zoning decisions out of the hands of municipalities and encourage small-scale multi-unit homes, and to increase density near public transit.
Earlier in the fall the government began setting targets for 10 municipalities based on their predicted housing needs.
To BC United Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon, though, the government’s plan is insufficient and the sheer pace is a sign of a government that’s desperate to be seen to be doing something after six years in office.
“They're nowhere near meeting any of the commitments or promises they made,” Falcon said, noting the 2017 election promise to build 114,000 units within 10 years. “It’s a failed policy. And now, my concern is because they're desperate a year out from an election, now they’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall hoping that something sticks and that people will actually believe their latest announcements that they're actually going to get a different result. They won’t.”
B.C. has the most unaffordable housing prices in North America and the highest average rents in Canada, and the recent bills won’t do anything to change that, he said.
The NDP knows housing affordability is a major problem and has made it a focus since it formed government, and particularly in the year since David Eby took over from John Horgan as premier.
On a recent visit to Newfoundland, Eby joked that he’d been sending real estate listings to his wife, though he knew people in that province are finding prices high. The lesson from B.C. is to act early, he said, and not ignore the crisis as the former BC Liberal government did for 16 years in office. “The market will not solve these problems by itself, so government needs to show that leadership role,” Eby said.
Falcon was part of that BC Liberal government for 12 years, serving in key roles including finance minister. He left in 2013 to work for a company that finances real estate development, then returned to politics in 2022 to lead the party now known as BC United.
It’s easy for Falcon to criticize, said Kahlon. “Kevin Falcon has offered no solutions to housing,” he said. “All we’ve heard from him is ‘no, no, no’ and maybe giving tax cuts to a few developer friends. Our focus is going to continue to do the things we need to do to get the housing built and we’ll let him continue to oppose every single solution that comes forward.”
Falcon said he will present his own housing plan by the end of the year. “I have said publicly many, many times that the answer to the housing crisis is to flood the zone.... We need more townhomes, condos, apartment rentals, market rentals, non-market rentals. We need more of everything.”
To Sonia Furstenau, leader of the BC Green Party, the government is still over-relying on the market to provide affordable housing.
“I sure would like to hear more from this government about non-market housing,” she said, “because continuing to do more of what has been done to get us here, which is more and more market housing, more and more commodification of housing, hasn’t created different outcomes.”
She worried that making it possible to add units to single-family properties would strain resources in many communities. She gave the example of Mill Bay, where summer droughts have made well water scarce.
“We turned on our taps several times this summer and no water came out,” Furstenau said. “If we had three other houses on our lot, we’d have no water all summer long. There’s no way that our well could do that.”
There’s definitely a desperate need for more housing, Furstenau said, but the province needs to be careful about where it is located and what type of housing is built. “What we lack hugely in this province is non-market housing and I’d like to see this government acknowledge that, instead of what I’ve heard from Minister Kahlon, which is ‘Don’t worry, the market is going to deliver.’”
There also needs to be more effort to fix the social safety net to keep people who are housed from becoming homeless, she said.
Tom Davidoff, director of the Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate at the University of British Columbia, said the government is taking the right steps but that it still may not ultimately succeed at making housing more affordable.
“I think it’s very clear that they’re solving a problem and they have a strategy,” Davidoff said, stressing that taking away municipalities’ control of zoning is a positive move. “I’m extremely happy.”
He said it makes sense to set housing expectations for municipalities and to move away from the focus on single-family homes that are unaffordable for most earners.
But the government is swimming against a powerful tide, Davidoff said, noting that between immigration and the children of baby boomers entering the housing market, there is rapidly increasing demand. Even with the province’s new rules, he said, high costs of construction and interest rates will limit the number of units that actually get built.
The next election is scheduled for October 2024 and housing affordability will likely be a key issue yet again. The government will be able to say it has done a lot to bring prices under control, and the opposition will say the measures haven’t made housing more affordable. Both will be correct.