B.C.'s housing crisis – from homelessness to the price of houses soaring past the million-dollar mark – will be the burning topic when the province's local politicians gather next month for their annual convention. "Those issues are affecting everybody and are having a ripple effect throughout the province," said Surrey Councillor Bruce Hayne. "Obviously, the Lower Mainland is being hit extra hard. But larger interior communities – Kelowna, Kamloops, Prince George – are feeling something."
Mr. Hayne is the Vancouver Metro representative for the Union of B.C. Municipalities, whose fall convention is always a barometer of the issues that are permeating life in the province's cities, towns and villages.
Housing and homelessness have been top issues in many cities in the last year, as local councils grapple with increasing numbers of homeless people, renters who say they're being evicted with no place to go, and working couples who can't afford to buy anything a family can live in as prices soar.
Last month, the province brought in a new 15-per-cent purchase tax for foreign buyers in the Lower Mainland residential market, in an effort to slow the spiralling cost of real estate in that region.
But it's clear that people at the UBCM convention, which will be held in Victoria the last week of September, won't be satisfied with just that.
Among the dozens of resolutions that they will vote on at the convention, at least a dozen are related to housing.
Communities from Revelstoke to Radium Hot Springs want better regulations for short-term vacation rentals like Airbnbs, which are seen as eroding the availability of local rental supply. West Vancouver wants more measures to discourage real-estate speculation. New Westminster and Burnaby are concerned about lack of protection for tenants. Ten cities want the province to develop a poverty-reduction strategy.
Provincial politicians of all parties typically show up en masse at the convention and it's been an off-and-on tradition for premiers to make announcements on the last day about new initiatives.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, whose city has gone through turmoil trying to figure out what to do about a homeless camp in the centre of town, said everyone will be looking to provincial leaders at the convention for something beyond what the B.C. government is already doing.
"B.C. has the strongest economy, but we're in a housing crisis," said Ms. Helps, whose residents and would-be residents have also been seeing housing prices climb at a startling rate. "We need the provincial government to help us." She said she would like to see the amount of money allotted for rent among people on social assistance raised from the current $375 a month.
"No one can rent in Victoria for $375."
As well, she said cities across the province would like access to all the tools available to try to curb demand from investors or speculators, including measures such as the 15-per-cent foreign-investor tax on property purchases, which currently only applies to the Lower Mainland.
As critical as it is, housing isn't the only problem cities are facing.
They're also seeing their residents die in alarming numbers after taking fentanyl, an additional scourge on top of the challenges cities have had with mental illness and drug addiction in their populations.
"The overdose crisis is one that's hitting all communities," said Councillor Kerry Jang, the Vancouver representative at the UBCM.
Vancouver Coastal Health, the agency that runs health services for a large part of the Lower Mainland, recently announced it would keep the city's supervised-injection site open 24 hours a day during critical times to try to prevent overdoses.
Surrey is being pressed to start its own supervised-injection site, but its councillors are arguing that they want a more comprehensive approach, with front-line nursing and treatment.
Added to that, there are a couple of resolutions going to the convention from municipalities asking that local governments get part of any revenue that is generated from soon-to-be-legalized marijuana businesses.
"Regulation and enforcement for medicinal marijuana retail dispensaries will likely fall to the local governments once the law changes," argues a resolution coming from the Vancouver Island town of Duncan.
Therefore, any tax money collected by the federal or provincial governments should be shared with them.