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‘We’re So Far Behind, We Need It All’

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon talks rentals, building costs and worries of unaffordability at a conference with mayors and councillors.

Christopher Cheung 22 Sep 2023The Tyee

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

Will the province consider implementing rent control for individual units? What to do if companies won’t come to small towns to build housing? How to speak to homeowners worried that new highrises will transform their communities, from renters crowding roads to towering shade that could kill their tomatoes?

This week, these questions were asked by hundreds of mayors and city councillors from across the province as they packed a ballroom at the Union of BC Municipalities conference in Vancouver.

They were eager to learn what relief might be coming from the province at a time when soaring rents, inflation and construction costs are hampering efforts to build and preserve affordable housing.

The conference arrives on the heels of a number of big housing announcements.

On the federal level, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau recently said that GST will no longer be applied to new rental construction. Also, communities that want to access federal financing for affordable housing projects need to loosen up their zoning.

There are many provincial announcements as well. The annual allowable rent increase this year was capped at 3.5 per cent. A new service will streamline the provision of homebuilding permits, a process once handled by multiple ministries. Secondary suites will be legalized provincewide, and come spring, forgivable loans of up to $40,000 will be offered to homeowners adding a new suite or coach house on their property. So far, there has been more interest in this from rural homeowners than in cities.

B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, who took over the file from David Eby last December, went onstage to share information about the provincial projects already in the works, what’s to come and what he wants to see from municipalities and those who work in housing.

“Government has to be in the game,” said Kahlon. “Gone are the days where we could just say, ‘The private sector will solve this problem.’ They will be the first ones to say, ‘We can’t do it all.’”

For about 45 minutes, he answered a volley of questions that elected officials were firing onto a virtual screen, touching on everything from new ways of building (“I talk about mass timber all the time”) to the land bank in the works (a list of all publicly owned lands where affordable housing could be built at lower cost and on expedited timelines).

Here are highlights from Kahlon’s responses.

On whether the province will implement vacancy control, a solution recently touted by the BC General Employees’ Union:

“At this point, we are not contemplating vacancy controls to the unit. We had a housing taskforce that reviewed this… and recommended to us that that may inhibit more purpose-built rental to be built. When you bring advisors together to give you advice, you should take it."

On housing and immigration:

“I’m a big fan of immigration. I’m for immigration. We need people in British Columbia as our population gets older.

“I’ve proposed to the federal government… let’s do it in tandem. We need the federal government to come into housing in a bigger way. Our message to them is: we don’t need you to be leaders in this space, just match us dollar for dollar.

“In order to be successful, we need to have the two things [housing and immigration] linked.”

On rural communities struggling to attract companies to build housing:

“Just recently I was talking to a community that BC Housing is providing some dollars to, and they got money from the Ministry of [Education and] Child Care, and they got some dollars from [the Ministry of] Health. And what they did was pool all three projects together and tried to bid on them together so a company could come in and do all of it.

“Amazing. Innovative. These are the types of things we have to do to create that scale for a large company to come in and say, ‘Yes, this is viable for us now to do.’”

On the province’s $500-million Rental Protection Fund that offers grants for non-profits to buy old apartment buildings, announced earlier this year:

“Not only do we have to build housing, we also need to protect housing as well…. If a rental building comes on sale, they’re going to go in and buy the property. So protect the tenants, protect the building and keep it in the not-for-profit or the co-op hands.

“There was a concern that we’d be competing with the private market, etc. We’ve had unbelievable response from folks saying, ‘I’ve had this building, 20 tenants in the building, for however many years. I would rather that be protected in the non-profit world and go elsewhere, and so we want to sell to you.’ There’s a lineup. In fact, the REITs [real estate investment trust] association from across the country met with me to say, ‘We have a lot of housing stock, I think this would be a good fit.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if we see other provinces go in that direction in the near future. The federal government as well.”

On the recent federal announcement about the waiving of GST from new rental projects:

“We were advocating for the federal government to make that move because too many projects were not pencilling [financially feasible] and so we’re very pleased they took that step. B.C. is the only province in the country that doesn’t charge PST on purpose-built rental… and so our program’s already aligned with them. They do provide a rebate for some of the GST with that announcement, so we’re doing a bit of analysis on what does that rebate mean.”

On the $394 million allocated in the provincial budget earlier this year for buying up property near rapid transit:

“For a long time, we had a law in place that said we’re not allowed to buy any parcel of land within a kilometre of transit hubs that was going to be used for anything beyond the transit itself. So we changed that last year. And now, the Ministry of Transportation is actively buying land opportunities where we can put child care, we can put health-care facilities, we can put affordable housing above. This is the future.”

On his worries as housing minister:

“I am really worried about the future generation. I’m really worried about young folks, young families right now. They come to me and they’re like, ‘I’m thinking about leaving the province.’ We already have a limited talent pool and you have people considering leaving the province because it’s unaffordable? Alarm bells are going off everywhere.

“Some people say to me, ‘What kind of housing do we need? Should it be co-ops? Should it only be not-for-profit?... The private sector?’

“The truth is, we’re so far behind, we need it all. We need market rentals. We need affordable units. We need shelters. We need supportive housing. We need all of the above. This whole debate about which is better? That’s a conversation you can have when you have the luxury of housing. We are not in that position. We need everything right now.”  [Tyee]

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