On September 19th Premier Christy Clark announced a new pledge of $500million to build 2,900 units of “affordable” housing throughout British Columbia. While the fact that they have announced both the budget and the number of units to be built suggests the government already has a specific plan, these plans have not yet been made public. So while any provincial spending on non-market housing is better than the usual BC Liberal policy of “we don’t build housing,” here are some questions we should ask about the government’s housing announcement.
What’s the rent? Premier Clark says the units will be “affordable,” but affordability has become the weasel word to beat all weasel words. Who exactly will they be affordable for? We need specific language and real numbers. All 2,900 units must be affordable to people on welfare or basic pension or they will not have any meaning for those most in need.
Who will own the buildings? Housing minister Rich Coleman said that one of the government’s strategies for building this housing could be partnerships with private real estate developers. If the housing is built on a “social mix” model, which mixes for-purchase condos with non-market rental units, it could mean many of the 2,900 units are not rental or “affordable” at all. It could also mean that the buildings could not come with the ongoing operating money needed to protect the low-income affordable units from rent increases while keeping them in good condition. All 2,900 units must be social housing funded by and operated with tax dollars and a public budget, not farmed off to non-profits that will have to scramble and raise rents to keep the buildings operational.
Is that it? In 2008 the BC Government agreed to building 1,200 units of social housing at what became known as Vancouver’s “Fourteen Sites.” This housing, built under pressure of the coming Olympics, was the last significant investment in social housing from the BC Liberals. The last of these fourteen sites opened just last year, nine years after they were announced. These buildings were built painfully slowly, announced ten times over, and often felt more focused on boosting BC Liberal (and Vision Vancouver) press releases than on providing needed low-income housing.
Even if all 2,900 units of new housing were available to people on welfare and pension, they would not scratch the surface of the housing and homelessness crisis in BC. Alliance Against Displacement estimates that there are one hundred thousand people living in forms of homelessness in BC, and calls on the state to build ten thousand units of social housing in BC every year in order to earnestly tackle this crisis. This $500million pledge must be the beginning of an ongoing revitalized social housing program, not a one-off.
We anxiously await the release of the details of this housing announcement so we can crunch the numbers and assess whether this new housing will help alleviate the horror of homelessness that coerces our communities. Until then, we’re not counting BC Liberal homes until they hatch.