All eyes on NDP’s provincial budget – Drastic measures needed to fix B.C. housing crisis

It’s budget week in B.C., and the expectations on the NDP provincial government couldn’t be higher. Under the Liberals, housing costs grew out of control in a wildly overheated real estate market. The result was windfall profits for the former government’s corporate donors, and increased precarity for renters and middle and low-income people.

All eyes are on Premier John Horgan, Finance Minister Carole James and Housing Minister Selina Robinson as they introduce the budget in the legislature.

The government has already telegraphed a number of important steps in the right direction: anti-speculation measures designed to cool the demand side that has seen the housing market turned into an international casino; a series of revisions to tenancy law that will give renters stronger protections against so-called renovictions and demovictions; additional money for child care spaces; and new initiatives to build more temporary modular housing and permanent social housing.

All good steps, but more drastic and systemic measures are needed. To see the bigger picture, we need to understand that for the past four decades there has been a sustained attack on the idea of using progressive taxation against the rich and corporations to fund a broad and expanding range of important public services.

This philosophy of shrinking the public sector’s share of the economy, of diminishing our expectations, is called neoliberalism and the tepid nature of most proposals even from the NDP shows we’re still in its grasp.

Premier John Horgan. | Photo courtesy of the Province of British Columbia

B.C. is a fantastically rich corner of the world. There’s no excuse for the fact that we allow homelessness and inequality to worsen amidst such plenty. In a recent op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, Alex Hemingway of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives put things in perspective: “B.C.’s economy generates $276 billion annually. If we dedicated the same share of our economy to public spending this fiscal year as we did in 2000, we could make additional investments of more than $6 billion per year.”

Nowhere is the gaping hole in public investment more evident than in housing. All levels of government bear responsibility for leaving almost everything to the market and failing to build sufficient public and social housing. The federal government effectively abandoned the field back during the austerity years of Finance Minister Paul Martin in the 1990s. Trudeau recently announced a new “national housing strategy,” but it’s still heavy on market solutions and it’s unclear how much truly social and affordable housing it will help deliver. Much of the federal plan depends on matching funding from the provinces.

With so much riding on how the provincial NDP tackles the housing question, activists from numerous groups came together on Feb. 18 to hold a rally at Vancouver’s Jack Poole Plaza in hopes of putting some last minute pressure on the NDP to take stronger measures in the budget. The rally organizers issued an ambitious call to action: “Unregulated global capital and widespread real estate speculation have driven up housing prices and driven out long-time residents. Empty houses dot our landscapes while homelessness levels continue to climb. Whistleblowers pointing to corruption emerge almost daily. Enough is enough. All of this has to change.”

Where can this overdue change start? One important way that the government could raise more revenue for necessary public investments in housing would be to implement a progressive property tax. If applied at the right levels and combined with anti-speculation measures like new taxes for flipping properties, this could both generate revenue for social housing, and other non-market housing, and cool speculative activity in the market.

In the municipal by-election, both OneCity and Jean Swanson’s campaign promoted versions of a progressive property tax. Swanson called hers a “Mansion Tax,” and even held a rally outside the $75 million dollar home of billionaire Chip Wilson on Vancouver’s west side to highlight the need to make the rich pay more of their fair share. The BCGEU, one of the province’s largest public unions, is advocating a land value tax.

All these proposals point in the right direction, and hopefully the B.C. government will have the courage to implement some variation of a progressive property tax sooner rather than later. B.C. can’t afford to wait to fix this housing crisis.