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BC Politics

What’s in the BC Budget for Renters?

A long-promised $400 grant is coming, but advocates want to see tougher protections against eviction.

Jen St. Denis 26 Feb 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

An advocate for struggling tenants says she welcomes a $400-a-year tax rebate for renters that will come into effect this year, but is disappointed B.C.’s budget doesn’t include funding to boost protections from eviction.

Amanda Burrows, the executive director of Vancouver’s First United, says she still hopes the government will introduce legislation to reduce “bad faith” evictions, unjustified evictions where landlords aim to escape rent control and charge a new tenant sharply higher rent.

Statistics Canada data has shown that B.C. leads the country in no-fault evictions, and First United has been campaigning for changes to B.C.’s rental laws.

While action on bad-faith evictions was promised in the throne speech days before the budget was introduced on Thursday, there was no mention of the promise in the budget.

“Saying something in a throne speech is great, but until we see it reflected in a budget and reflected in legislation, those are empty words,” Burrows said.

In the same throne speech sentence that promised help for evictions, government also committed to help “first-time buyers get on the ownership ladder.”

That promise was reflected in the budget. The NDP government increased the value of a home that qualifies for the first-time buyer’s exemption from the property transfer tax to $835,000. That could result in savings of $8,000 for the first-time homebuyer who is able to purchase a home worth over $800,000, and will cost taxpayers $37 million in 2024.

The $400 renters’ rebate has been a long time coming. In 2017, the NDP campaigned on a promise aimed squarely at renters: if elected, they said, the party would introduce a $400 tax rebate for renters, similar, but much less than the established grant for homeowners.

That promise took seven years to materialize. It was announced in last year’s budget and finally takes effect this year. Renters will be able to claim it when they do their taxes this spring.

The election promise is finally becoming reality at a time when high inflation has slowed the economy, including home building, and the government is planning to run a record $7.9-billion deficit.

The budget mostly holds the line on existing social programs rather than expanding spending on items like child care and housing, but it includes a range of one-time payments to help families and businesses weather high costs caused by inflation.

Tom Davidoff, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business who studies real estate, said the renters’ rebate directs money to people who need it to stay housed, in contrast to the help for homeowners that both provincial and federal governments have doled out for decades.

“Transitioning from renter to owner is nice to have, but a roof over your head is ‘need to have,’” Davidoff said.

The renter rebate still pales in comparison with the long-standing homeowner grant, a benefit of $570 to $1,045, depending on where you live and how old you are. The homeowner grant applies to homes worth up to $2.26 million, while the renter rebate is available in full to households making incomes of $60,000 or less. Households earning between $60,000 and $80,000 can get a partial rebate. The provincial government says around 80 per cent of renters will be eligible for the rebate.

The homeowner grant will cost the government three times as much as the renter rebate: government will spend $907 million on the homeowner grant in 2024, compared with $267 million for the renter rebate. There are 1.3 million homeowner households in B.C. compared with 663,000 renter households, representing an average of $697 for each owner compared with $402 for each tenant. That’s despite the fact that owners sit on valuable real estate assets: the average dwelling in B.C. is worth $983,000, according to the 2021 census.

“Politically, most people are homeowners and most voters are definitely homeowners,” Davidoff said. “So, I think government is somewhat constrained in that way, but obviously the people who need the most help are people who are not yet able to own a home.”

But Burrows thinks renters and people who care about the state of the rental market might be gaining more political power, simply because rents have risen to the point that they’re leading to widespread hardship and homelessness.

“There’s going to be a groundswell, because everybody recognizes how not sustainable these rents are,” Burrows predicted. “No one can afford to live here.”

When the NDP formed government in 2017 after 16 years of BC Liberal rule, housing was a key election issue. Prices had spiked between 2015 and 2016, and rents had also gone up sharply. While the BC Liberals (now known as BC United) had initially been reluctant to tax speculators and foreign buyers, the NDP introduced a suite of new or increased taxes aimed at high-priced properties, foreign buyers and speculation.

But the NDP’s 30-point housing plan, first introduced in 2017, also called for 110,000 units of housing to be built across the province, with an emphasis on non-market and affordable units. In recent years, the NDP has pivoted from tackling the demand side of the housing equation with taxes to boosting supply. The government now claims that 78,000 units of housing “have been delivered or are underway throughout B.C.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, housing costs across Canada zoomed upward again in both large cities and small towns, and homelessness has visibly increased across the country. B.C.’s housing crisis is by no means fixed, and more communities than ever before have been hit by high rents and rising homelessness.

Last fall, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon pushed municipalities to open up more land for denser housing, with new legislation that permits up to four units in single-family zones and an end to public hearings for rezonings already compliant with community plans.

Earlier this month, the government also unveiled details of BC Builds, which promises a mix of 8,000 to 10,000 rental homes over the next five years supported by provincial and federal funding. Government is promising all those homes will rent at either 20 per cent below market rent rates or at 30 per cent of tenants’ incomes.

In a commentary for The Tyee, economists with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives warned that was still not enough affordable housing for B.C.’s actual needs. The province needs to be building around 25,000 units every year, they warned.

Davidoff is not a big fan of the continued taxpayer support for home ownership, a policy habit governments just can’t seem to quit. But, he said, the legislation allowing up to four units in single-family zones is “a monumental achievement.”

“If the scoreboard is ‘Is housing affordability better than when they came in?’ the answer is no,” Davidoff said.

“I think the right scoreboard is ‘Is housing affordability better than it would have been, had they not taken the steps they had?’ The answer is probably yes — but we’ll never know.”

With files from Christopher Cheung and Andrew MacLeod.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Housing

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