Will junking public ownership of BC Housing make things better for low income people?: By Jean Swanson and Harold Lavender
The BC Government is selling about 350 parcels of land and 9 public housing buildings that it owns and operates. Two of the buildings are major social housing projects, Stamps Place and Nicholson Tower in Vancouver. They haven’t revealed the others yet. BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay told the Carnegie Community Action Project that government estimates the value of these assets at about half a billion dollars.
The BC Government’s decision to sell off its housing assets to non-profits has raised major fears amongst residents. Residents haven’t been involved in the decision to sell and about 14,000 people are on the wait list for BC Housing units. The major maintenance costs of old buildings will be passed on to the new provider.
But will junking public ownership make things better? Or will it just make things worse for the people with lowest incomes?
Will we really get more housing if the assets are sold?
The federal decision to get out of investing in social housing made low-income people’s lives much more stressed and difficult. Now the BC government is following the same model of pro-market, pro-privatization of public assets (called neo-liberalism by some). The government is framing the sales as “strengthening the non-profit sector.” And many non-profit housing providers, represented in the BC Non Profit Housing Association, wanted this change. BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay claims any money made selling government-owned land and buildings to non-profit groups will be “reinvested back into social housing to create more housing and to maintain the existing stock.” Until recently there was a page in the BC Housing Service plan that laid out how much of the $500 M from the sale of the assets would be spent in each of the coming 4 or 5 years, but that page seems to have mysteriously disappeared from their website. It didn’t say how many units would be built or how the money would be spent. BC Housing has revealed no business plan, no commitment for a certain number of units, no timeline for when they will be built, not even one announcement of any new building to be built with the new money from the sale of assets. Ramsay promises, “There will be no change to rent levels. Tenants on income assistance will continue to pay the shelter component.” But documents about the sell-off reduce the minimum number of low-income people expected to be housed under non-profit management.
Non profit run units could have richer tenants
After a meeting and extensive email correspondence with Shayne Ramsay, the folks at the Carnegie Community Action Project were concerned that, although more units may be built, a much lower number will go to those most in need. For example, according to BC Housing documents, 188 of the 351 households at Stamps Place are on income assistance and 77 are on pension. Fourteen have zero or unknown income. This means 79% of the current residents probably have a very low income. A proposed operating agreement for the asset sale says that only 51% of the units have to rent below market rents. Market rents are way above what people on welfare and basic pensions can pay.
So while some existing tenants may keep their housing subsidy, when they move, someone who can pay more is likely to get the unit. According to a sell-off document you will be considered “low or moderate income” (and eligible for a one-bedroom apartment) if your annual family income is below $65,000-a-year. If maintenance costs increase, and this is likely because the buildings are old, non-profit providers could gradually increase the percentage of higher paying tenants just to be able to make ends meet. If this happens where will people on welfare, disability and pensions be able to live?
What happens after 35 years?
There is no guarantee that the housing will remain for low-income people when the mortgage is paid off in 35 years. The non-profit will own it outright. It will be able to sell the housing or raise rents and change tenants. Only the private board of the non-profit will be responsible, not the government. The sale of BC Housing assets is putting the market in charge of housing for low income people when what we really need to solve the housing crisis is to take housing out of the market and make it a government priority, paid for with tax money generated from corporations and the wealthy.
In the short term, the BC Liberals will claim they are meeting priority number one: to keep taxes low for the wealthy while offering money for housing. For low-income residents the BC Housing sell-off will mean fewer options, fewer affordable places to live and more homelessness.