Promises, promises—here's the dope on housing in B.C.'s election campaign

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      Early in the B.C. election campaign, the leader of the B.C. Greens expressed concerns about her rivals’ propensity for making promises. In an phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Sonia Furstenau questioned whether it is appropriate for leaders to visit different constituencies and announce what goodies they’ll deliver there.

      “I think we should really question this notion that political campaigns—that election campaigns—are times when leaders go into ridings and suggest that this is the time that you’re going to get the infrastructure that government owes you,” Furstenau said. “I think that we need to be better than that.”

      Try telling that to NDP Leader John Horgan or B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson, who have each made billions of dollars of campaign promises. Like carnival barkers, they’re making bold pitches to voters practically every day. More recently, Furstenau has joined this chorus, albeit with a more tempered platform.

      Horgan’s target is tenants, long a crucial part of the NDP’s base. For them, he has promised to freeze rents across the province to the end of 2021. This comes after a sharp increase in sales of multifamily apartment buildings in the first quarter of 2020.

      According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, the total sales of these properties reached $623 million in the first three months of the year, up a stunning 904 percent over the same quarter in 2019. Yes, the REITs—a.k.a. real-estate investment trusts—have discovered the joy of owning rental housing in Vancouver and life will never be the same again for tenants. Unless, of course, politicians like Horgan cap their profits.

      In addition, the NDP has revived its 2017 promise of a $400 annual grant to renters, but it won’t go to those in households earning more than $80,000 per year.

      It’s a clever election pledge because the B.C. Greens, then under Andrew Weaver, kiboshed the $400 annual grant to renters promised by the NDP in 2017.

      By reviving the renters’ grant, Horgan is reminding people that the B.C. Greens haven’t always been tenant-friendly. Horgan also reinforced his brand as the renters’ premier with a pledge of new rent supplements for residents of supportive housing. That’s designed to encourage them to move into independent-living units, freeing up supportive housing for others.

      NDP Leader John Horgan thinks it's good public policy to freeze rents until the end of 2021.
      B.C. NDP

      Furstenau responded by promising a means-tested grant to tenants. In addition, the B.C. Greens have declared their support for a new housing office to help youths aging out of government care, as well as people with disabilities.

      To boost their appeal to the NDP base, B.C. Greens also pledged to extend leases for co-op housing projects, accelerate investments in social and supportive housing, and establish a capital fund to support nonprofits that want to buy and maintain rental housing.

      Horgan’s party, on the other hand, is promising low-interest loans to nonprofit and co-op-housing providers.

      Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberals are bragging about their plan to “dramatically increase affordable housing and supply across BC with the most comprehensive housing strategy of any jurisdiction in North America”. Whew!

      There are new ideas, such as creating a new residential-property subclass for rental housing with three or more units. In addition, Wilkinson’s party has promised to create an incentive fund to reward municipal governments that “enable demonstrable increases in the construction and supply of new housing”.

      B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson wants to waive hearings for projects that are compliant with official community plans.
      B.C. Liberals

      The B.C. Liberals also appear to think that keeping citizens out of public hearings can be beneficial. That’s reflected in the party’s promise to waive hearings for projects that are compliant with official community plans.

      Moreover, the B.C. Liberals have proposed “a digital tracking tool to allow municipalities and applicants to track the progress of individual applications and identify roadblocks”.

      On top of that, the B.C. Liberals intend on replacing the NDP’s vacancy tax, a.k.a. the speculation tax, with a condo-flipping capital-gains tax.

      The NDP, on the other hand, has claimed that this speculation and vacancy tax has brought $115 million into the treasury and led to the occupancy of 11,000 previously empty condos.

      And Horgan’s party has claimed that if Wilkinson were leading the government, he would roll back protection for renters, leading to higher shelter costs.

      All in all, it adds up to a whole lot of promises.

      Wilkinson appears most eager of the three to force municipalities to facilitate the development industry’s wishes, whereas Horgan seems determined to cap rent increases to please his core supporters. Furstenau is choosing a middle path, minus rent freezes and minus provincial government sticks that will be used against mayors and councils.

      Don’t forget to vote on Saturday (October 24).