B.C. lacks political will to tackle housing prices
The sad fact is there aren’t any leaders in B.C. who are both ready and willing to deal with housing prices, writes Kate Webb.
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Would the politicians who are ready right now to roll up their sleeves and tackle the problem of Metro Vancouver’s real estate affordability crisis please stand up?
The sad fact is there aren’t any leaders in B.C. who are both ready and willing to deal with it, which leaves a lot of millennials — this writer included — and other regular, non-mega-rich folks feeling pretty uninspired about who to support in the next provincial election.
The “solutions” the Liberals put forward in last week’s budget fall laughably short. They promised to start collecting data on foreign ownership — though it is unclear whether their methods will have loopholes — and bring in a full exemption from the property transfer tax on newly constructed homes up to $750,000. Oh, and build 2,000 units of new affordable housing — a drop in the bucket for Metro Vancouver’s house-hungry masses.
But the NDP is just as hesitant to propose more drastic policies like those used in other white-hot markets, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia.
Reached after the budget announcements last week, NDP Housing Critic David Eby said the Official Opposition is in the midst of intense internal debates over what potential remedies to include in their 2017 platform. It’s a tactical nightmare, I’m sure, given that the Liberals are ready to scream bloody murder over anything that could threaten the home values of those poor souls who recently bought property and are now mortgaged to the hilt (a minority more likely to vote for the Libs than those still hoping to buy their first property).
“What would the correction be that it would have to be to become affordable?” Eby asked. “I mean, really, 30 or 40 per cent, and that is a pretty devastating blow for a lot of people who, if you look at the debt figures for Vancouver, are highly, highly leveraged, just hanging on, so I would have a really hard time supporting that.”
(A note – according to a Vancity study released last year, between 2001 and 2014, Metro Vancouver housing costs increased 63 per cent, while salaries only rose 36.2 per cent. I would argue that allowing housing costs to rise at that rate is an equally devastating blow to those who hope to ever own even the tiniest slice of property.).
Eby said there are only three possible ways to address Metro Vancouver’s abysmal price-to-income ratio, which is 11-1 — nearly twice the national average. Prices could come down, wages could go up, or governments could subsidize more affordable ownership options, such as government-owned leaseholds (where you own the home but not the land it’s on).
He likes — but stops short of necessarily supporting — what he sees in Singapore: a 15 per cent tax on purchases by non-residents, combined with plenty of subsidized housing for the working classes and a seven per cent tax on anyone buying a second home. But he says the NDP needs more time to study policies used around the world before the party can say definitively how it would address the problem if it were to win power.
The important difference between the NDP and Liberals, Eby argues, is that the NDP promises to hold a public inquiry into housing prices, while the Liberals are essentially supporting business-as-usual while making a few soothing noises to try to placate unhappy urban renters and buyers.
A public inquiry would be a really good start, but I want to see the Opposition get familiar sooner than later with all the solutions, and put forward a concrete vision ASAP on how to reverse the trend that has made Vancouver the third least affordable city in the world. Waiting until just before the election to explain their plan is a surefire way to leave voters confused and susceptible to last-minute fear-mongering by the ruling Liberals.
But enough of this blame-the-politicians stuff, which gets tired. If B.C. is ever going to get a mandate for change, it’s going to have to come from the voters. Now is the time to tell our leaders if you want to see major changes, like those recently implemented in other unaffordable cities around the world.
Kate Webb is an unapologetic muckraker and political junkie who lives and writes in Vancouver.