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NDP Leader John Horgan argues that Liberal Leader Christy Clark’s focus on helping people buy homes, rather than help them with renting, treats renters like ‘second-class citizens.’Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s provincial candidates have made it no easy task for Vancouver renters to decide who to vote for based on their party's housing-affordability promises.

Renters listening to a News 1130 radio debate between the three party leaders on Thursday heard BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark continue to tout her government's support for first-time home buyers – a position that leaves aside the city's significant population of renters unable to scrape together a down payment for a home amid stratospheric real estate prices.

While the NDP has offered a $400 subsidy per rental household, NDP Leader John Horgan appeared to change course somewhat during the debate, suggesting the allowance wouldn't be universal.

The issue of affordable housing has been a key concern leading up to the May 9 election.

Ms. Clark summarized the parties' significant differences: "Really, it's a difference in philosophy," she said. "Our government has said we want to help people get into homes that they own."

The BC Liberals have focused on increasing housing supply, expanding the home-renovation tax credit and increasing the threshold of its First Time Home Buyers' Program.

"I think we all want our kids to own the home that they live in, rather than just be a renter for the rest of their lives," Ms. Clark said.

That perspective treats renters as though they are "second-class citizens," Mr. Horgan said.

"That's so disrespectful to people that have spent their lives on rental housing because they can't afford anything else," he said in the debate. "Help is on the way for renters that are struggling right now."

The "help" includes the NDP-proposed $400 rental subsidy, which would be given annually to rental households. However, while the party previously suggested this subsidy would apply to all renter households, regardless of location or rent, Mr. Horgan seemed to suggest the allowance was not meant to be universal after all.

"That was the interpretation," he said when pressed on the impression left by the party's platform announcement on the subsidy last week.

Mr. Horgan provided no further clarity about who would be eligible to receive the subsidy if the NDP is elected.

The latest data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. put the average rent in the City of Vancouver at almost $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment and about $1,750 for a two-bedroom, meaning a $400 subsidy would make up just a small percentage of the average renters' housing costs in the city. At the same time, vacancy rates in the city, and throughout the region, are less than 1 per cent.

The Green Party's plan for affordable housing includes introducing a provincial housing plan for affordable rentals, protecting the rights of renters through changes in the Residential Tenancy Act and raising the foreign buyers' tax to 30 per cent across the province.

"[Housing] has gotten out of hand here because the issue of affordability was ignored," BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said during the debate.

For Thomas Davidoff, associate professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, none of the parties focused enough on zoning or balancing low property taxes and high income taxes.

"The message we're sending to the world, but for the foreign buyer tax, is you should come invest in real estate in British Columbia but we don't really want you living and making a living here," he said. "That's a very valuable asset, a home in Vancouver. A lot of it is loaded to the future."

Also on Thursday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced an expansion of private rental controls in her province and a 15-per-cent foreign buyers tax, similar to the one introduced by the BC Liberals last year.

But for Prof. Davidoff, the focus of housing affordability should ultimately not be based solely on home ownership.

"I think there are many people that can make a go of it renting here but will never have enough wealth to actually own an entire home outright," he said. "I think, as a profession, economists don't have a very happy opinion of encouraging home ownership as opposed to just making sure there's a roof over everybody's head as a first priority."