In the last few months I have spoken to hundreds of people about their ambitions and concerns. One issue that keeps coming up with increasing urgency is the cost of living – the affordability crisis.
MSP premiums, big increases in BC Hydro and ICBC rates, new costs for supplies for children at school – the list goes on and on. Nowhere is this crisis worse than when it comes to finding and keeping a decent place to live.
Constituents reach out to my office almost every day asking me urgently to help them find affordable housing.
So it is no surprise that the just-released 2016 Vital Signs report by the Victoria Foundation cited housing and homelessness as the most important issue to residents in the Capital Region. Cost of living was the top issue last year.
The lack of affordable housing affects people of all ages. Approximately 20 per cent of seniors are renters and many more live on a fixed income. The cost of living and housing is not fixed, however, creating a vise of poverty for too many elderly people. It is a vise that tightens as they age and become more vulnerable. It is also a crisis for young people. Up to 10,000 UVic students need housing with the start of each school year and face a market that has a vacancy rate of 0.6 per cent. That is the lowest rate in the country.
The situation is extremely dire for low-income people of all ages. People working full time at B.C.’s poverty-level minimum wage ($10.85 an hour) would need to spend half of their total income just to pay the rent for an average-priced bachelor apartment, if they were lucky enough to find one. If you are unable to work and trying to make do with social assistance the situation becomes close to impossible. It is as unsurprising as it is unacceptable that we saw a tent city rise this summer in the province’s capital.
It is important to remember three points.
First, this is a long-standing social challenge happening in large part because the provincial government has failed to advance solutions despite holding the reins of power for more than 15 years. Until very recently they even denied there was a problem at all.
Second, these promises are predicated on revenue from taxing the housing bubble. But this revenue is unreliable. This unexpected windfall is also being used to “balance” the budget and cover other promises as we enter the “silly season” of politics. British Columbia estimates it will bring in $2.2 billion this year from taxes on the sale of property. This housing tax revenue would generate more than the revenue from forestry, mining and energy combined. If — or more likely when — this bubble collapses, the government’s house-of-cards budget will come tumbling down with it.
Third, now that we are in the final lap of this government’s term we would be naïve to take their recent housing funding promises at face value. Believing they will fulfil their promises to build housing is like believing their promises at this time four years ago that liquefied natural gas was a pot of gold that would provide billions of dollars in tax revenue and make B.C. debt free. (Reality check: B.C.’s debt is higher than ever at $66 billion and their grandiose LNG promises have evaporated into thin air.)
The B.C. Liberal government finally clued in to the extent of the problem this summer. They responded by rushing through slapdash and inadequate legislation in a very short ‘emergency’ summer session. (They then cancelled the traditional fall session when we could have thoughtfully debated this matter.)
The Official Opposition has been demanding action on this issue for years and has put out many thoughtful and well-researched strategies to address it.
For example, in terms of addressing skyrocketing housing prices, we have proposed measures to close the loopholes used by property speculators, advanced the view that those who come to this province to live and work should not be faced with a punitive tax when they buy a home, and proposed increasing that tax on property purchasers who don’t pay income tax in the province.
The Official Opposition also continues to reach out widely to hear the views of experts and B.C. residents as to what should be done. For example, yesterday my MLA colleagues David Eby, Rob Fleming, Carole James and I held a town hall on this subject: we brought housing experts Marika Albert and Jake Fry to Saanich for a public forum to discuss the problem and the solutions with our community.
Affordability including affordable housing is profoundly important to our shared quality of life. I will continue to work on this file and I welcome your feedback.
Lana Popham is the MLA for Saanich South.