The B.C. government posted a self-congratulatory news release at the end of 2015 touting its work on affordable housing. More than 13,000 beds were funded last year to help shelter the homeless, and almost 30,000 low-income seniors and families received rent assistance.
The provincial minister responsible for housing, Rich Coleman, called it "a busy and fulfilling year" to help more people find a safe and affordable place to call home. Doubtless it was.
But there are some telling statistics that were not included in his ministry's year-end report that show how much more there is to be done. Although there are affordability challenges in many B.C. communities, here is a snapshot for Vancouver:
The vacancy rate for rental housing, at last count, was 0.6 per cent. There are roughly 4,000 families and individuals who are on a waiting list for social housing. Fourteen per cent of renters are living in conditions that are too small for their household size and composition. And, despite the rental subsidy program, one in four renters spends more than half of their household income on rent and utilities.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says the affordability gap in his city is "an intractable challenge" that is not being met in the province's housing strategy. Since 2012, the province has drifted away from building new social housing in favour of rental subsidies for low-income earners. But those subsidies of up to $765 a month don't go far enough in a city where a two-bedroom suite is deemed "affordable" at $1,600 a month. A vacancy rate near zero demonstrates the private sector is not meeting the demand.
"Visible homelessness is the tip of the iceberg. We know there is an enormous lack of affordable housing beneath that," Mr. Robertson said in a recent interview.
Mr. Coleman has held the province's housing portfolio for a decade, and it is his very deliberate policy shift to divert capital from social housing to the most marginalized and hardest to house. As a result, there is more support for providing emergency shelters and supportive housing for the homeless – a remarkable accomplishment, given his government's track record of trimming most social services to the bone. His policy direction has not done much, though, for social housing. With an annual budget of slightly more than $400-million for housing, the province put $26-million toward new social housing units in Vancouver in 2015.
Vancouver's mayor is quick to compliment Mr. Coleman for his efforts to tackle homelessness. The two levels of government have co-operated in creating 1,500 units of supportive housing. "It has been essential for catching up on the homelessness crisis," Mr. Robertson said.
But he says that shouldn't come at the expense of social housing.
What happens in 2016 will depend on which side of the argument the federal Liberal government lands on.
Mr. Coleman is lobbying Ottawa to move away from government-constructed housing in favour of tax changes that would encourage more private-sector construction of rental housing. "Then, if you are going to build something," he explained in an earlier interview, "let's concentrate on the most vulnerable populations."
Mr. Robertson says the tax incentives are a good idea – the city has offered a similar program – but he is calling on the federal government to embrace publicly funded housing as well.
"I'm saying we need both," he said. "We need tax incentives for rental housing. But we also have to have a new supply of social housing and supportive housing; we don't have enough. We can't just get by with rent supplements and tax incentives. The problems are deep and wide."
If the federal Liberals deliver on all of their election promises, both B.C. and Vancouver could win.
The Trudeau Liberals promised $125-million a year in tax incentives to increase and renovate rental housing across Canada. They have also promised to prioritize "significant new investments" in affordable housing and seniors' facilities, as part of a 10-year investment plan for $20-billion in social infrastructure.
To maximize the benefits of that injection of federal cash for social housing, the B.C. government would need to come to the table. For those in pressing need of affordable housing and those desperate to get off the street, the investments would be good news, no matter who gets to cut the ribbon.