Housing affordability crisis finally takes centre stage in B.C. Legislature

Premier Christy Clark announced March 18 that the Province of British Columbia is taking further action to address “shadow-flipping.” | Photo courtesy of the Province of B.C.

Premier Christy Clark announced March 18 that the Province of British Columbia is taking further action to address “shadow-flipping.” | Photo courtesy of the Province of B.C.

The Lower Mainland’s crisis of affordable housing will be a major issue in the next provincial election in British Columbia, which is scheduled for May 2017.

This is a big deal, and a most welcome development. After years of simmering rage, and heated discussion at the municipal level, the debate about Vancouver’s out of control real estate market has finally boiled over to the provincial level.

The opposition NDP has recently turned up the heat on the affordability emergency, and the governing B.C. Liberals are scrambling to cool things off again and to convince the public they are finally going to take action.

Last week, David Eby, the NDP’s housing critic and MLA for Point Grey, held a town hall style meeting about the outrageous cost of putting a roof over one’s head in Vancouver. The turnout was huge, with over 600 people cramming in to make their voices heard. The forum was more than just a venue for Eby’s constituents to blow off steam; the NDP followed it up the next day with two proposed pieces of legislation to address issues related to housing market speculation. They also indicated that similar town hall meetings would be organized throughout Metro Vancouver and beyond.

Last week’s events and announcements can be understood as the provincial NDP serving notice to Christy Clark and the BC Liberals that they would be making the housing emergency a key plank in their public outreach efforts leading up to next year’s election.

This is a most welcome, and long overdue, development in B.C. politics.

For years, the majority of discussion of this crisis has been confined to Vancouver City Hall and the smaller pool of media that cover municipal politics. Activists have, justifiably, criticized Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver for their financial backing from big developers and for a failure to use all the leverage at their disposal to create more affordable housing. But overall Premier Clark and her government have not faced enough pressure for their laissez-faire approach to the housing market.

Clark is now feeling the pressure, and it’s coming from many directions, including her party’s traditional allies.

After the boisterous town hall, even the Vancouver Sun editorial board felt compelled to issue a stern warning to the BC Liberals: “Clark’s Liberals are also failing to pick up on the depth of the anxiety felt by many about housing affordability. With 60 per cent of British Columbians living in the Metro Vancouver area, the party is exhibiting a politically perilous sensitivity gap, one that opposition New Democrats are only too happy to capitalize on. Housing is a basic need, and with the price of single-family homes soaring beyond the reach of those who ‘don’t have a million,’ and centrally-located condos becoming prohibitive as well, Liberals should be more concerned.”

The day this public scolding by the Vancouver Sun, Clark convened a news conference to announce that her government planned to take action on “shadow flipping,” the unethical practice of carrying out multiple sales on a property to escape taxes and, in some cases, launder dirty money, which was exposed earlier this year by the Globe and Mail.

Even at her news conference, however, Clark showed she still doesn’t get it. In defending her concern for the equity held by private homeowners, she, according to CBC reporter Richard Zussman, “[compared] buying a home in Vancouver before the boom to investing in Google at the ground floor.”

That type of thinking is the problem. Housing is a human right, not a privilege, nor an investment, nor a commodity. That basic idea was enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Canada signed on to this foundational document nearly seventy years ago. Article 25 of the Declaration says:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

When something is a universally recognized human right, we don’t sit back and shrug our shoulders when the market fails. We have a responsibility as citizens to demand that our governments – in Metro Vancouver, in Victoria at the provincial level, and Ottawa at the federal level – step up to ensure everyone’s right to a safe and dignified home is respected.