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BC Politics
Municipal Politics

The Case for a Public Option for Housing

Our COVID-19 recovery is a chance to tackle various crises, while creating good jobs and more resilient communities.

Christine Boyle, Penny Gurstein, Matthew Norris and Jim Stanford 26 May

Christine Boyle is a Vancouver city councillor with OneCity Vancouver. Penny Gurstein is a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC. Matthew Norris is vice-president of the Urban Native Youth Association. Jim Stanford is an economist and director of the Centre for Future Work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities within our communities and across the country. Public health recommendations to stay home have reminded us how important our homes are, and highlighted the disproportionate impacts that crises have on those struggling with homelessness, on renters, on the elderly, and other housing-insecure communities.

This crisis has reminded us, in no uncertain terms, that our well-being is deeply linked to the well-being of all of those around us. Our success has been in responding together. Our economic recovery must emulate this.

Governments have taken rapid action to mitigate the impacts of this crisis on people and business. But there is no fairness in socializing the costs of the immediate response and then privatizing the gains of the long-term recovery. We need a just recovery that puts people and the planet before profit. That recovery should include addressing massive inequalities in housing security and affordability through large scale investments in public and non-market housing.

Now is the time to prioritize the public good, to focus public dollars on rebuilding and expanding public services, and investing in new public programs and infrastructure. Now is the time to rebuild together, harnessing the ingenuity among us toward an economic recovery that respects ecological limits, that confronts the injustices of racism and exclusion, that strengthens our common humanity, and builds resilient and inclusive communities.

Our economic recovery requires ambitious and innovative public works plans, to get people back to work, and continue to address the systemic inequities that this crisis has made so clear. The inadequacy of Vancouver’s housing market was clear before the pandemic. Now there is an opportunity to create something better. Part of our economic recovery plan should be a large-scale build out of publicly supported housing, in Vancouver and in communities all around the province.

The provision of housing initiated by governments has been used around the world as an effective mechanism to ensure a long-term sustainable supply of affordable housing. A public option for housing means housing that is developed, regulated and funded by the public for the purpose of providing affordable housing for the public. This should be done in collaboration with the community housing sector, which has grown remarkably across B.C. in recent years, and has important skills and insights to share. A large-scale build out of public and non-market housing would address many of our COVID recovery needs. Most obviously, British Columbia remains entrenched in a housing crisis. COVID-19 has made housing even more precarious for renters across the province, widening an already unequal distribution of housing wealth and security, and further marginalizing poor, working class and racialized communities.

British Columbia’s housing crisis has contributed to the abundance of homelessness in Vancouver, as well as the numbers of seniors, renters, Indigenous people, communities of colour and working families having to relocate out of the city, pushing up rents elsewhere, while extending commutes, increasing carbon emissions and decreasing recreational and family time. What was true before this pandemic is even more true now: people need homes — homes that are secure, affordable, beautiful and community-oriented.

The opportunity of a large-scale, geographically dispersed build out of public infrastructure could also create thousands of good jobs in all regions of our province. While people need homes, people also need jobs — dependable, family-supporting training and employment for those who this crisis, and a boom-and-bust economy, have left behind.

The importance of a strong and healthy public sector has never been more evident. It has been clear for years that the private sector alone is incapable of solving our housing crisis. In the realm of housing there isn’t enough overlap between profit and public good, and no amount of negotiation or incentive can resolve that tension. A public option for housing, including robust community and co-operative housing, is our only practical solution.

Additionally, the urgency of the climate emergency continues amid and beyond this pandemic, and good housing policy is also good climate policy. In urban and suburban centers, the bulk of carbon emissions come from buildings and from transportation. Zero-emission buildings, as part of complete, walkable, transit-oriented communities, are central to the carbon-free economy we need to transition to as quickly as possible.

With interest rates at a historic low, well below the rate of inflation, governments stand to make money by borrowing and building. Particularly as we would be investing in infrastructure that would pay for itself through monthly rents, likely even generating positive net public revenue, while creating jobs, lessening the housing crisis, and taking meaningful climate action. This economic context makes it an opportune moment to be borrowing and investing like never before.

As municipalities face difficult financial decisions, it is imperative that their land holdings be used to serve community needs and not be sold for short-term gains. Building publicly supported housing on land in municipal land banks will ensure affordable housing in perpetuity that will contribute to socially and economically sustainable communities. Local governments like Vancouver are already contributing public land for non-market housing. We can and should be even more ambitious in our land acquisition in order to create the amount of public and non-market housing that is needed. And if senior levels of government aren’t funding enough of it, we should give the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency the muscle and mandate to build it ourselves.

This is the time for ambitious, public investments in people and in communities. This is the time to invest in a public option for housing, across British Columbia.  [Tyee]

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