There are few topics more sprawling, or of more importance, than the state of real estate in British Columbia.
In the midst of all the differing opinions about root causes, Band-Aid fixes and competing data sets, however, I fear we are losing sight of the fundamental question that underpins everything – what do we want our communities to look like in coming years?
On July 25, the B.C. Legislature was reconvened with two weeks’ notice to pass a bill that would give Metro Vancouver the ability to design and implement a vacant homes tax. Since the announcement, neighbouring municipalities have raised concerns that the Vancouver-specific focus would lead to a disjointed collection of regulations across B.C. and questioned the viability of an empty homes tax altogether.
Some regional councils, including Oak Bay, are also seeking provisions that would allow restrictions on, or taxation of, non-resident ownership to directly tackle the issue of foreign investment.
A vacancy tax, if implemented broadly, may help. A non-resident tax might too. But we cannot rely on any one policy to fix our current affordability crisis. We need a co-ordinated approach involving all levels of government and across all communities. The issue of affordability is beginning to reverberate throughout B.C. as people get squeezed out of their communities and are forced to move. The longer we wait to intervene, the worse it will get.
The provincial government’s arrogant refusal to tackle the affordability issue seriously is threatening a fundamental right by reducing people’s very ability to find a home. This is not just a “Point Grey” problem as the government previously joked. When I questioned the minister of finance about what he was doing to address the housing crises last July he said, “The average price of housing in Vancouver is actually lower than many people think. You can still purchase a home in Vancouver for under $400,000.”
This summer, the premier said we need to protect the dream of homeownership for the middle class. Sounds nice, but in reality prices in Vancouver’s real estate market have been rising 30 per cent year on year, the average house price sitting at $1.8 million, and the markets in multiple other jurisdictions are following suit. The divide between the housing reality in B.C. and the government’s understanding of the situation is staggering.
We are long past the threshold of affordability. Skyrocketing real estate markets across the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island are dragging the rental market with them. Given the severity and reach of the housing crisis, a vacancy tax for Vancouver alone amounts to little more than blowing out a birthday candle in the midst of a house fire.
Reflecting back on my opening question, B.C. faces a choice; do we want our real estate market to provide homes for people who want to live in and contribute to the wonderful communities around our province? Or, should we continue to fuel a bubble economy fuelled by the influx of foreign investment in our real estate sector?
To me the answer is clear. We should not let homes in B.C. be turned into safety-deposit boxes for the global elite. British Columbia is more than just the playground for the wealthy.
We need to close the loopholes being exploited by people with ultrahigh net worth, get tax cheaters out of our market, clamp down on questionable real estate practices, increase rental stocks and put in place regulatory and taxation frameworks for non-resident ownership.
A sluggish, piecemeal approach is not enough. It does not ensure that our communities will be livable, that small businesses will thrive, and that the next generation will see opportunities to start families in our cities. And I think that needs to be the government’s priority.
Andrew Weaver is the MLA for Oak Bay – Gordon Head.