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A ‘Wicked’ Problem: David Eby on Housing Fixes and Frustrations

Time for the province to get tough? Our Hot, Hot Housing interview with the minister.

Christopher Cheung 15 Apr 2022TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

What’s up with David Eby? The B.C. housing minister is full of fighting words these days.

He blasted a recent report that claimed local governments were building enough homes as being “disconnected from lived reality.”

He then went on CKNW to say that this attitude “flabbergasted” him, and told the Canadian Press that the “status quo is not acceptable.”

And to all those skeptical about the need for more supply? His reply in the Globe and Mail, “I’ll be sure to mention that to all the people sleeping in their cars, and lining up to find rental units; that we are going to study the problem more.”

It’s left some wondering whether Eby has changed his tune on the roots of the housing crisis. Just last week, he spoke to the Real Estate Board of Vancouver in an event titled “Increasing Housing Supply.” The Georgia Straight called it a “remarkable about-face” for Eby, who focused on cracking down on foreign speculation back when he was housing critic during BC Liberal rule.

We called the minister himself to ask what’s on his mind.

‘Wicked’ housing this way comes

Eby called housing an incredibly “wicked” problem.

That doesn’t mean it has anything to do with evil or witches. “Wicked” is used by policy-makers to describe complex, ever-changing problems that cannot be solved, only addressed. And wicked problems need to be addressed on all fronts.

Which is why Eby says he’s not looking for any one silver bullet.

“I believe strongly, our government believes strongly, and I know our premier believes strongly that we need to address both toxic demand as well as the shortage of supply,” he said.

Eby says he hasn’t done a U-turn. He says he still cares about tackling speculation. In addition to the measures his government has already introduced — the vacancy tax, the doubling of the foreign buyers’ tax and the registry that will log the names behind trust and corporate ownership of land — he believes the province can do more work to regulate Airbnb and is waiting to see how the federal government’s newly announced flipping tax will play out.

But the province’s rapid population growth cannot be ignored either.

Last year, Statistics Canada found a net 100,767 people moved to B.C. in 2021. It’s the highest annual total since 1961.

“The numbers have changed,” said Eby. “You just need to build a lot more housing.”

And that goes for everything from social housing to rentals to units for purchase.

“The issues that we are seeing right now of dramatically escalating rents, vacancy rates below one per cent, people living in cars, people with jobs living in shelters — those issues are going to get worse unless we respond.”

Whose job is it, anyway?

Every year, housing providers wait to see what relief might come from the federal government.

This is because it’s been three decades since the federal government, with Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien at the helm, dumped their affordable housing responsibilities. While funding has been ratcheted up in recent years under the Trudeau Liberals, it still pales in comparison to the spending and programs delivered between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“There are a lot of people who predicted that we would come to this moment, where we could no longer rely on the [stock from that era] built under federal tax shelter programs, and they were right,” said Eby.

That offloading of affordable housing responsibility onto provinces and cities continues to weigh heavily. And so they’ve been relying on partnerships with everyone from non-profits to First Nations to private developers to try and deliver the desperately needed units.

That’s why Eby was upset when he saw that the Union of BC Municipalities had recently released a report that said local governments in the province are already building enough to meet population growth.

“I feel like we took a giant step backwards with that UBCM report,” he said. “I thought up until that point that we were on the same page: that we needed to really dramatically increase the supply and availability of housing, especially rental housing, given the population increases we’re seeing.

“The frustration that I have is that when I’m in communities, I can see people who are desperate for rental housing lining up for the one basement suite available. I hear stories from people who are trying to buy an affordable family townhome, and they go to the open house and there are 50 people walking through, and there’s a 20-offer situation that bids it up thousands of dollars over the asking price. I just don’t know why that isn’t evident to the proponents of that report. These realities are very clear…. We need to be building more housing and work together to do that.”

Eby’s also vexed that municipal approvals for new housing are so slow and can be stopped entirely when neighbours protest. He gives a shout out to the local politicians who sit through some of these multi-day public hearings, calling them “heroes.”

Eby’s been doing some advocacy of his own: phoning mayors, meeting with city councils and writing letters of support for developments that he believes are desperately needed or BC Housing is supporting.

“I think that people sometimes just aren’t aware of the importance of these projects to the broader provincial housing market and the lived reality of people in the region,” said Eby. “And so it’s sometimes helpful for me to call or write a letter for a really important project, [reminding them] this is not just your community: this is a broader provincial issue, and I really hope you approve it.”

Eby considers new policy teeth

Back in 2019, the province required local governments to complete Housing Needs reports every five years to help them set goals on the kind of units they need and how many.

The problem? The reports were only intended as a learning tool.

“There are no teeth,” said Eby.

He’s in talks with Minister of Municipal Affairs Nathan Cullen about how local governments are handling their housing responsibilities.

“Municipalities need to be meeting targets that they’re setting for themselves,” he said. “If not, we will have to look at legislative options.”

Because those conversations are still happening, we won’t know how the province might be wading in on the municipal level until the fall session of legislature.

Eby has offered some clues of what’s on the table though, such as policy to speed up local housing approvals and set minimum housing targets for municipalities.

It might sound unusual for a provincial government to be wading into the traditional purview of municipalities, but this kind of overriding action is becoming increasingly common.

His policy team is also looking at how American jurisdictions like California have tied local infrastructure spending to those communities’ housing targets. This is something Premier John Horgan alluded to back in 2019. He was frustrated because the province was giving transit money to Lower Mainland cities, but he thought those cities weren’t doing enough to add housing near their renewed transit corridors.

Land use might traditionally be a municipal responsibility, but last year, New Zealand’s federal government passed a rare cross-party bill that applies to its five largest cities. Owners of detached houses would be allowed to build up to three units of housing and construct up to three storeys on their lots. They would still need to seek a building permit, but not one to rezone the property. Eby is also interested in this.

On the ‘boogie man’ and a progressive head-scratcher

Eby has been the minister on this “wicked” portfolio for about a year and a half now.

Aside from the crafting of fall legislation — not to mention his double duty as the province’s attorney general — he’s got another project in the works: a review of BC Housing ordered by his own government, conducted by Ernst & Young auditors.

“When we took over government, BC Housing did a very limited number of housing projects [before becoming] very entrepreneurial, I guess, if I was to put that spin on it,” he said. “Whatever they could find an opportunity to develop or use an opportunity to develop or use their existing assets to build something — they did it. But now, they’re operating a bank essentially that’s worth $2.8 billion.”

BC Housing’s budget increased by $600 million in 2020-21 to almost $2 billion.

“They’ve grown very rapidly,” said Eby. “I wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t be facing situations where something got missed, like deadlines or delivering a certain number of units of housing in a contract, for example. Making sure those controls are in place, making sure there’s good review and that there’s transparency and all these other positive things that you would expect in a multibillion-dollar corporation…. I wanted a third party to go in to have a look and find opportunities to refine BC Housing’s processes to make sure taxpayer’s dollars are protected.”

Eby says he never wants to see a situation like Little Mountain happen again, a “boogie man” still in his mind. The BC Housing site was sold in 2008 by the BC Liberal government to developer Holborn, who bought the property with a $211-million taxpayer-funded loan with no interest. The developer still hasn’t replaced the 224 units it demolished.

The review of BC Housing will be released before the summer.

While handling these responsibilities, the minister has been musing about the shifting political nature of housing discourse.

“It’s interesting: what’s the progressive position on housing?” asked Eby. “I think for me, it is that a broad group of people have access to places like Vancouver and Victoria: the people who work and make their cities run… that we’re responding to the climate crisis by letting people live near their jobs so that they don’t have to spend time commuting.

“I do get a bit frustrated when there seems to be a sense among some people that it’s progressive to oppose the development of badly needed housing, that it’s a sell-out to deep-pocketed developers. I think we can do it in a careful and responsible way… in response to these desperate needs that we have in the community.”

🔥🔥🏠

Hot, Hot Housing is a reported column on the housing crisis in Vancouver and beyond, published in The Tyee every Friday. Got housing stories of your own? Whether it’s market hijinks, tenancy horrors or survival tips, you can email us at housing@thetyee.ca.  [Tyee]

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