Angry residents and concerned social-action groups are increasing pressure on governments to find solutions to the region's housing crisis – a movement that many say is aimed at putting pressure initially on the province in next year's election.
The left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is issuing a report on Wednesday that calls for massive increases in direct government spending on low-cost housing, as well as new restrictions on foreign ownership and a new tax on unusually high capital gains that homeowners get when they sell.
"We can't wave a magic wand and fix this overnight. But my hope is that we've hit a tipping point in this debate and we can at least have this conversation for the next year," said Marc Lee, an economist at the centre who wrote the report.
As well, two local residents have started petitions – one by a Burnaby resident sponsored on the federal parliamentary website by Burnaby South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, a second by a Vancouver man on change.org – with nearly 8,000 signatures on the first and 1,500 on the second.
Even though the two petitions are directed at the federal government, asking for more information on foreign investment and possible restrictions that could be placed on it, Mr. Stewart said the issue is likely to hit B.C.'s government first.
"I expect this issue will dominate the provincial election."
And a group called Generation Squeeze held its first meeting Tuesday to begin planning for a campaign to make housing a central issue in the provincial election. "With the B.C. election coming up, we're launching a housing-specific campaign," said Eric Swanson, who organized the meeting.
The two petition organizers – a Burnaby resident named Raymond Wong and a Vancouver resident identified only on Facebook as S.J. Hill – are focused exclusively on the problems caused by foreign money.
"The driving factor behind these super-inflated housing prices has been resoundingly attributed to a massive influx of foreign money predominately from mainland China," writes S.J. Hill in the petition document, adding that he finds it troubling to hear about "fraudulent methods that a growing number of extremely wealthy foreigners are using to transfer their money into Canada."
But others trying to exert pressure say there are other factors and solutions to the housing crisis, although they believe the federal and provincial governments should take action on foreign investment to make sure that doesn't add to an already bad housing situation.
"Unrestricted non-resident ownership of local real estate is neither inevitable nor desirable," Mr. Lee wrote in his report, called Getting Serious About Affordable Housing.
"For the most part, the local real estate market should be limited to those who live and work in the city most of the year," Mr. Lee wrote.
He said public-opinion surveys have shown that even people who are benefiting from the current real estate escalation are willing to see new taxes – especially on speculation – to limit profits and to help make the city more accessible for less-wealthy people. The centre's recommendations go further than those recently proposed by University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University professors.
One of those two academic proposals suggested extra taxes on vacant houses unless they were rented out or the owners could prove they had local incomes. Another suggested progressively higher taxes on expensive homes unless, again, the owners could prove they had local incomes.
But besides recommending increasingly higher property-transfer and yearly property taxes for expensive homes, Mr. Lee also said all homeowners should have to pay capital-gains tax if they make more than a certain amount of profit on their home in the time they own it.
"With windfall gains, some portion of that should be taxed," said Mr. Lee. He also recommended the provincial and federal governments put up to $2.5-billion a year into 10,000 units of low-cost housing in the region.
Mr. Stewart, although he is sponsoring Mr. Wong's petition asking the federal government to take more action on foreign investment, said that blaming foreign investment only is a "knee-jerk reaction." He said the larger problem is supply – but not just any supply. Like Mr. Lee, he said new supply needs to get support from governments and be aimed at low– and middle-income earners, who are increasingly being shut out of the housing market, even in Burnaby. He said local employers in the high-tech, film and animation industries are all telling him how concerned they are that they are going to lose employees because of the housing problems. "It's becoming a universal cry," he said.