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BC Politics

Minister's Boastful Housing Claims Prove Shaky

Rich Coleman touts BC's record, but his bold statements have weak foundations.

Andrew MacLeod 18 Jun

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

To defend the British Columbia government's record on housing, Minister Rich Coleman has been making some big claims.

"Six years ago, there were 6,000 more people homeless in British Columbia than there are today," Coleman proclaimed in the provincial legislature on May 5.

"We live in the jurisdiction with the most successful housing strategy in North American history," he subsequently declared.

But neither claim stands up to scrutiny.

To start, the government has never made the effort to count how many people are homeless throughout the province and has argued it would be an expensive exercise, said David Eby, the NDP's housing critic. "That's fine, but don't expect me to believe you've reduced homelessness by 6,000."

B.C. also faces big challenges with expensive rentals and an inflated real estate market, he said. To say the province has the best housing strategy in North America ignores the loss of social housing in Vancouver, the growth in homelessness, and the stunning rise in home prices, he said.

"Regardless of what piece of housing you're looking at, I'd say we're in a state of crisis."

Everybody housed?

Strangely, Coleman's figure of 6,000 fewer people who are homeless exceeds the number of people he admitted were homeless in interviews six years ago.

In January 2008, a time of much debate about the true number of people who were homeless in the province, Coleman told The Tyee: "The estimate I have from BC Housing is that between 4,500 and 5,500 are homeless at any given time in B.C."

In March 2009, Coleman said that he believed the total number of people who were homeless in the province had dropped, adding the province had housed 2,600 people over the year.

Starting with fewer than 5,500 people homeless in 2009 and reducing the number by 6,000 would suggest the problem has been solved. But that's clearly not the case.

The 2014 Greater Vancouver homeless count found 2,777 people who were homeless. It found the number had risen four per cent since 2008.

David Hulchanski is a University of Toronto social work professor who specializes in housing and recently visited Vancouver, where he taught from 1983 to 1990 at the University of British Columbia. "It's quite appalling," he said of street homelessness in the city today. "The Downtown Eastside was frankly quite pleasant in the 1980s."

While the neighbourhood was low income back then, there wasn't the same degree of chaos on the streets that exists now, he said.

Other communities in B.C. have persistent numbers of people who are homeless, said the NDP's Eby. Terrace recently counted a record number of people who are homeless, and Maple Ridge was in the process of dismantling a camp of women who are homeless, he said.

The Tyee asked a spokesperson for Coleman's ministry for more detail on how the minister arrived at his number, but did not receive a response by publication time.

Successful strategy?

Coleman's claim that B.C. has the most successful housing strategy in North American history is equally dubious.

Evidence for that success, he said in the legislature, includes the province's efforts to reduce homelessness, the fact that 20,000 families are on rental assistance, and that outreach workers connect people to health care and services. He also cited housing projects in Sechelt, Campbell River, Victoria and Kamloops.

That the minister called B.C.'s record on housing a "success" at all seemed odd to Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia. "I think it's too early to declare victory," she said.

Without comparing B.C. to other jurisdictions, Copas questioned Coleman's claim. "I think we could declare success once we've ended homelessness. I don't know how you declare it before that... I would say we still have a pretty big homelessness problem."

The Ontario government now requires municipalities to have a Housing Action Plan and a homelessness strategy, she said. "It would be great to see British Columbia follow that."

Poverty reduction strategies, which every province in Canada but B.C. has, also address the root causes of homelessness, she said.

Other jurisdictions have won accolades for their housing successes. In Medicine Hat, Alberta, Ted Clugston has been widely described in media stories as "the mayor who ended homelessness."

And in Utah, the government has reduced the number of people who are homeless by 72 per cent over nine years, to 300 individuals. The state is reportedly on track to end chronic homelessness by the end of the year.

Comparing B.C. to other jurisdictions in North America is limiting, Hulchanski said, pointing out that many countries in Europe have done a much better job at preventing homelessness and supporting housing.

Canada doesn't have much to brag about on housing either, he added. While the federal government built about 20,000 public housing units a year between 1964 and 1993, he said that number has since plummeted. A return to that level would "chip away" at the housing crisis in B.C. and other provinces, he said.

Even deeper problems

While homelessness might be the most visible sign of B.C.'s housing failures, the problems run deeper.

Of the 517,000 households that rent in B.C., 70,000 of them spend 50 per cent or more of their income on housing, Copas said. That level of spending makes a household vulnerable, she said.

The number of people in that situation has been rising in recent years and includes 13,000 seniors, she said. "I would say we haven't necessarily gained ground at all."

While the government cites rental assistance as a key way it helps people, Eby suspects the supplements get eaten up by higher rents and that ultimately people are no further ahead. That's money that instead could be spent on housing for seniors, he said.

As with any social problem, the government should do the research to identify the size of the problem and use that information to plan, Eby said. The province needs a real measure of how many people are homeless, a goal for how many housing units need to be added, and a plan for evaluating progress, he said.

B.C. is suffering from the withdrawal of the government from involvement in the housing sector, Eby said, noting that many of the places that remain affordable to rent in Vancouver are the result of government programs decades ago. "We're having to learn the lesson again that the housing market will fail the majority of people without government intervention."

B.C. real estate has become an investment vehicle for the super rich, he said, and when Premier Christy Clark and Finance Minister Mike de Jong say they don't want to intervene in any way that would bring prices down, they seem to support that. "It's a radical position, and it needs to be discussed as such."

Even people who own high-priced real estate recognize the situation is bad for communities and the city, he said.

Hulchanski wrote a report in 1989 that found Vancouver's rental market was "collapsing," with the city's stock of good quality apartments in decline.

"I think that report was a very specific warning about what was happening," he said. "After 26 years and 'the most successful housing strategy in North American history,' how many of the negative trends [and] problems have been taken care of?"  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Housing

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