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David Eby – poised to become the next premier of British Columbia – started his working life as a lawyer-activist who fought for homeless people on Vancouver’s hardscrabble Downtown Eastside.

He became attorney-general in 2017, after the NDP formed government, and added housing to his portfolio in late 2020. His activist instincts stayed prominent. Watching cities in the province fail to build enough housing, Mr. Eby advocated for a “massive housing boom,” wrote letters in support of civic projects, appeared at municipal council meetings and has threatened greater provincial control over housing if cities don’t act, similar to moves in California and New Zealand.

Two weeks ago, when Mr. Eby launched his leadership campaign, following Premier John Horgan’s planned resignation, housing was his central plank. (Mr. Eby appears to be the likely victor in December, with the backing of most of the NDP caucus.)

During five years in power, the NDP focused on low-income housing and new taxes to temper demand. But with a long-standing shortage of housing in B.C., common across North America, real estate prices have kept rising – up 40 per cent in Vancouver since mid-2017.

Mr. Eby’s new promise is one big step further – to use government’s heft to build “housing for the middle class on public land, using public resources.” He calls it “the opportunity that I see that we haven’t fully developed yet,” and says “we can’t just leave it up to the private sector.”

Mr. Eby sees housing as economic policy. He understands how expensive homes holds cities back, making it prohibitive for people to move there.

It stymies everything from businesses that want to expand, to the province itself in its desire to hire more health care workers.

A half-century ago, governments got housing built. The mid-1990s austerity ended all that. Ottawa, under the federal Liberals, has partially moved back into housing, with low-cost loans to developers, but with less ambition than in decades past.

Amid a continent-wide housing crunch in cities, the idea of the need for governments to intervene in a more significant way has emerged. It starts with density. Cities must allow much more housing on the swaths of land where building is artificially restricted by zoning. But further policy is needed. In February, an Ontario government housing report helmed by a bank executive partially concluded, “We cannot rely exclusively on for-profit developers nor on increases in the supply of market housing to fully solve the problem.”

During Ontario’s spring election, the Liberals and NDP both proposed a new government entity to “finance and build” affordable housing.

Analysts have made the case for how governments can finance housing that’s more affordable than the private sector. In the United States, a bill in the California legislature to create a state housing authority to build publicly owned mixed-income homes passed the state assembly before stalling in a senate committee.

The need is clear. In June, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said the country needs several million new homes this decade, on top of the usual rate of construction. “The housing supply system,” CMHC said, “is broken.”

One vision among housing advocates calls for two- and three-bedroom apartments in townhomes, and small apartment buildings near the centre of cities that are well served by transit, where detached homes currently dominate. New zoning is the start of all change.

As interest rates rise this year, real estate is wobbling. There are fewer home sales and prices have ticked down – but they remain high. Prices could fall further, but even if they decline to prepandemic levels, averages in the Vancouver and Toronto regions would still be closer to $1-million than to anything affordable. Interest rates propelled a mania, but the long-term supply shortage is what really needs to be addressed.

B.C. has been at the fore of the housing story for years. Mr. Eby, in his mid-40s, was recently a renter with his wife and children, like the majority of Vancouver households, before his family this year bought a townhouse. If he becomes premier, it may mark a generational shift in housing policy, a new vision that could spark real change. It is work that will take years, after decades of inaction.

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