Province responds to calls for action on affordability with pledge for $355-million housing investment

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      In recent months, B.C.’s Liberal government has faced mounting attacks for its lack of action on a runaway real-estate market that’s sent prices sky-high across the Lower Mainland.

      This morning (February 12), Premier Christy Clark responded to those calls with a promise to invest $355 million in housing across the province over the next five years.

      The money will provide for the creation of “upwards of 2,000 new affordable housing units across British Columbia”, according to a media release.

      A number of key questions about the investment remain unanswered.

      The government describers the 2,000 new units as “affordable housing”, but has not defined the term or detailed what range of housing options it might encompass.

      While the Lower Mainland and especially the City of Vancouver have experienced the sharpest increases in property values, the province has not said how many of the 2,000 units will be built in Vancouver and its neighbouring cities.

      It’s also unclear how many of the 2,000 units (if any) may appear in other counts for affordable-housing programs for which the province could provide funding. For example, on February 2, the City of Vancouver announced it was taking a proposal for more than 2,600 affordable-housing units to Ottawa, and would also seek support from the province for that project.

      The $355 million will come from an asset-transfer program the government launched in 2014. That initiative has so far seen the province sell more than 110 parcels of government land to nonprofit groups that manage social-housing operations. In total, it is expected to see the province turn over ownership of approximately 350 Provincial Rental Housing Corporation properties in almost 100 communities for approximately $500 million in revenue from those sales.

      Calls for the province to invest earnings from the asset-transfer program actually began some time ago.

      The B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), for example, initially supported the program. But in June 2015, it raised concerns.

      “BCNPHA had understood that the funds generated through the Non-Profit Asset Transfer Program would be new funds to invest in provincial affordable housing initiatives, which would have been a much needed cash infusion during times of austerity,” reads a statement the BCNPHA released on its website. “It was surprising to learn that so far, the income from the sales of Crown property is being used to fund previously announced commitments with no new money for housing.”

      The investment announced today will begin with $50 million allocated in 2016-17, the same amount spent the following year, $75 million in 2018-19, and then $90 million in 2019-20 and another $90 million in 2020-21.

      “This is the largest single social and affordable housing investment in the province’s history,” Clark said quoted in a media release. “A strong, growing economy gives us the ability to make investments in critical services that build on our track record of increasing affordable housing across B.C. and ensuring more British Columbians have access to a safe and affordable place to call home.”

      Today's announcement comes barely a year before the next provincial election.

      It also follows a week when the B.C. Liberals were hammered for failing to act on calls for the government to study the issue of rising property values and to produce better data about foreign money and other factors that may be driving the market.

      On February 8, Peter Fassbender, Liberal MLA for Surrey-Fleetwood, announced that the B.C. Real Estate Council will investigate allegations real-estate agents have used assignment clauses to profit from sales in ways that may be inappropriate.

      In the Victoria legislature on February 11, David Eby, NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, criticized that response and called for a review that was truly independent.

      “The minister says that the Real Estate Council takes its responsibilities very seriously, and he believes that they do so,” he said. “He believes this, even though last year, they received 536 complaints about various realtors, and they held one investigation hearing in the entire year.”

      In the past, Clark has rejected requests for the province to intervene in housing markets, arguing doing so could cause existing homeowners to lose equity.

      “It is important that we consider any actions carefully to make sure we are helping first-time home buyers get into the market while protecting the equity of existing homeowners—not just simply raising more taxes for government,” she wrote June 2015 letter to Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson.

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