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B.C Premier Christy Clark says thousands of new rental units announced earlier this week as part of the province’s response to Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis will be offered at subsidized below market rates.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Premier says thousands of new rental units announced earlier this week as part of the province's response to Metro Vancouver's housing crisis will be offered at subsidized below market rates.

Before next May's provincial election, the province will approve half a billion dollars in projects to create 2,900 rental units for what Premier Christy Clark described as a broad cross-section of society that includes social-assistance recipients as well as some middle-income renters.

The initial announcement was short on details, but on Tuesday, Ms. Clark told The Globe and Mail that B.C. will partner with the non-profit sector to provide a range of housing that, in Metro Vancouver, will be protected from rapidly rising rents that – like home prices – have become detached from local incomes.

"It'll be a range of housing, so it will include supportive housing for people who are mentally ill, addicted; it'll be housing for senior citizens who can't afford market rate, for families and single parents," Ms. Clark told The Globe. "But we usually do almost all this work with the non-profit sector and we provide the capital and the operating funds and they operate it. "And it's all going to be below-market."

A spokeswoman for Rich Coleman, the Minister Responsible for Housing, said the new units will target the province's most vulnerable groups, but also provide some affordable rentals for those households earning less than $96,000 a year.

Ms. Clark's government has spent the summer rolling out policies to address the housing crisis, particularly in the overheated Metro Vancouver market, where house prices jumped by more than 30 per cent in a single year. B.C. has already announced a tax on foreign buyers, legislation to allow Vancouver to tax vacant homes and an overhaul of how realtors are regulated and disciplined.

The Liberals' official list of housing priorities begins with "ensuring the dream of home ownership remains within the reach of the middle class," but those households earning less than $71,000 a year likely can't afford to pay market rents either, according to Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C.

"I honestly don't know what the term [middle class] means, rents and incomes have become disconnected from each other," he said.

Mr. Armstrong said B.C.'s new investment could create many more units of affordable rentals in the region – which has a vacancy rate of just 0.8 per cent – if it purses community land-trust projects. He pointed to what he said was a successful example of this strategy: a four-site project approved by Vancouver this summer that will allow a consortium of non-profit and co-op housing organizations to produce 358 subsidized rentals on properties provided by the city.

"It's a portfolio of housing where you pool the risk and achieve economies of scale – both capital and operating," he said. "The assets can stand there and they will be affordable housing in perpetuity."

David Hutniak, chief executive officer of the LandlordBC trade association, said it is good that the provincial government is making investments in social housing, but only the federal government can jump start the wider creation of more than 5,000 rental units that regional planners predict Metro Vancouver will need each year for the next decade. He said Ottawa can ease the rental crisis by exempting developers from paying GST on purpose-built rentals.

Mr. Armstrong expressed hope that B.C.'s move would prompt Ottawa to be equally generous when it finalizes its national housing strategy later this year. The federal Liberals government ended spending on any new housing projects in 1993 and the intervening two decades saw many provinces scale back their own investments in the sector.

B.C.'s NDP government at the time continued ambitious efforts to build social housing, reaching a peak of about 1,200 units a year in the late 1990s. The B.C. Liberal government elected in 2001 killed off the social-housing program, but started to bring back spending a few years later as homelessness skyrocketed throughout the province.

It has since fluctuated in its spending, pouring millions of dollars into acquiring hotels in the Downtown Eastside prior to the Olympics and investing tens of millions into 14 large social-housing projects in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, B.C. New Democrat Leader John Horgan said Wednesday that the provincial government has exacerbated Metro Vancouver's current rental crisis by hamstringing local postsecondary institutions from building student housing. Since 2003, the Liberals have refused to allow universities and colleges to finance student housing with mortgages, a policy that resulted in only the University of B.C. being able to create student housing, he said in a news release.

With a report from Frances Bula