B.C.’s New Democrats are promising more low-cost housing for the province by using government reserves and land if they are elected.
But it would not be exclusively the old-style, government-subsidized social-housing units that the NDP built by the thousands per year before they were tossed out of government in 2001.
Instead, the NDP has promised it would move to a more market-oriented approach that adopts some elements of what the B.C. Liberals have been doing.
That has some advocates worried, but has Liberals convinced the NDP would still lean towards spending millions to put people in strictly government-funded housing.
In an interview this week, NDP housing critic Joe Trasolini said his party would kick off new efforts to build 1,500 low-cost units by repurposing the $250-million Housing Endowment Fund the Liberals created to encourage new ideas and support innovative housing solutions.
As well, he said, the province has $800-million in valuable land it is trying to sell to balance its budget that could instead be leased out for low-cost projects.
But the NDP would also look to the private sector, cities and non-profits for help, he added.
“Some municipalities have trust funds. Others have grants. And there are partnerships with private developers.”
Those partnerships would result in complexes that are a mix of subsidized housing, low-cost unsubsidized rentals, and market units, he said.
Finally, Mr. Trasolini said the NDP would not get rid of the rent-supplement system introduced by Housing Minister Rich Coleman, which gives families with incomes under $35,000 a year a subsidy for rent in private units.
All of which prompts Mr. Coleman to say the New Democrats could do little that his government has not already accomplished.
“We have the most aggressive housing strategy in the country,” Mr. Coleman said. He reeled off numbers on Wednesday to make his case: 6,000 fewer homeless people today than five years ago, according to counts; 5,400 families and 8,300 seniors in Metro Vancouver getting rent subsidies; 1,500 units of subsidized housing built or bought in the past five years.
As well, the Little Mountain social-housing site, which the province sold to a private developer, will generate $300-million for other housing projects, in addition to seeing the 274 units that were on the land rebuilt and integrated into a more mixed development.
Mr. Coleman said the NDP seems to want to sink even more money into government-supported housing rather than tapping into the private market.
“Every time we’ve talked, they said they opposed that rent-supplement system.”
He warned that if the NDP did not get the partnerships but still tries to reach its goal, it could end up costing $300-million to $400-million to build 1,500 units a year for five years.
Certainly, Mr. Trasolini talks about providing more money for projects that are on the waiting list at the province’s housing agency, B.C. Housing. But a group that has been trying, mostly in vain, to draw attention to housing issues in the election campaign expressed doubt about what the NDP is really saying.
“Rather than building the housing needed, the housing generated through the NDP plan will be limited to projects that support the interests of private developers or which find sympathy from charities or foundations,” says the pessimistic analysis on the website of Social Housing Now. That group is a coalition that includes the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, some non-profit housing organizations, and many small social-justice groups.
The NDP platform is also promises to “strengthen and rebalance the Residential Tenancy Act ... to better protect tenants and landlords.”
Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert said what that means, specifically, is enforcing the current law, and clarifying the rules that have allowed rent increases based on what is happening in a specific area rather than on the general cost of living.
One West End advocate said that, whoever is elected, renters need more supply and more protection.
“We had a senior who used to come for lunches here, but he’s been gone now for two weeks,” said Ana Maria Bustamente, community development co-ordinator at Gordon Neighbourhood House. He had not been able to get a subsidy and his rent kept increasing, so he had to leave the community where he had lived for decades. “He said, ‘I just cannot make it any more.’”