BC promises ‘action’ as municipalities struggle to deliver housing

Written By Northern Beat staff

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon had scant details for local leaders at the annual Union of BC Municipalities conference about what exactly is coming in his housing legislation when the session resumes next month, but it sounds like push is coming to shove on some fronts as far as the province and local governments go. 

Kahlon told reporters he expects some communities will “think it’s fantastic,” while others won’t like the changes. 

Kahlon said the housing crisis is province-wide, not just confined to larger cities. “It’s every type of community that’s facing this pressure. We’ve heard that loud and clear.” 

“The time of talking is over. We need to get to the action.”

Ravi Kahlon

BC government’s previous housing “refresh,” announced in April, commits to forcing approvals for up to four units on standard single-family lots. There will also be blanket approval for secondary suites and forgivable loans to homeowners who build them, along with a new flipping tax and likely expansion of the speculation and vacancy tax. 

L to R: Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whitseide, Finance Minister Katrine Conroy and BC Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon participate in an UBCM conference forum on housing. [Photo UBCM]

“We need to do something and frankly, the time of talking is over. We need to get to the action,” Kahlon said. 

Which sounds a bit like BC United Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon’s main line of attack for a few years – the NDP is a lot better at announcing programs than implementing them. Falcon repeated the theme Thursday during a brief speech to delegates. 

Community leaders at the UBCM conference also called for action in one-on-one conversations.

Cheap land where people want to live

Urban councils face not-in-my-backyard-type opposition to high-density housing projects, while rural councils often find themselves in perpetual catch-up mode, scrambling to keep infrastructure capacity at pace with new housing demands on sewer, water treatment and roads. Some communities like Kitimat or Valemount, are flush with economic prosperity and able to apply their resources to next level community improvements.

Not so in Clearwater, where 275 new subdivision lots are approved for housing with either a builder or modular house poised to break ground.

“We can build houses on cheap lands in a community where people want to live, with a hospital that’s fully stocked with doctors, and all sorts of good recreational things for people to do. [But] we’re another small town that cannot afford the sewer and water infrastructure to make that happen,” said Mayor Merlin Blackwell.

“We’re another small town that cannot afford the sewer and water infrastructure to make that [housing] happen.”

Merlin Blackwell

With an annual municipal budget of about $3 million, the town would have to borrow four or five times that to lay sewer and water lines needed to connect to the homes. “And we just can’t do it.”

Even if they could, the town would hit a debt cap that could paralyze the community’s ability to deal with other emergencies.

“We can’t afford to be maxed out. But we also can’t continue to put these things off, because people want to build and people need housing.” Never mind construction costs that are rising 15 to 30 per cent year-on-year, he said. 

Five million, a drop in the bucket for small city infrastructure costs

Frequently, municipalities provide land for new supportive housing projects, while the province purchases or leases the building and covers operating costs. In Terrace, the city needs more social housing in its downtown core but has already provided its properties to previous supportive housing and shelter projects.

And despite an infusion of $5 million from the province’s $1 billion Growing Communities Fund in March – the money went to overdue remediation work at the community’s closed landfill site – the city, with its modest property tax base, is still struggling to pay for additional infrastructure needed to serve expanding subdivisons to house new residents.

Terrace may be up for a reprieve soon. The city is part of the Resource Benefits Alliance, a group of 21 northwestern communities currently negotiating an agreement with the province to keep a greater portion of revenue generated in the region.

Alliance members are hopeful an agreement will be reached in time for inclusion in B.C.’s 2024 budget.

Competition for housing grants can be brutal

In Clearwater, Blackwell said more federal and provincial grants are needed. “And we need those grants not to be three to five times oversubscribed.”

Competition for grants is a deal breaker for small communities. But help is on the way, according to Premier David Eby, who announced a new $61 million fund in the last minutes of the UBCM conference on Friday to help local governments create housing proposals.

Mayors are “at their wit’s end,” Eby acknowledged to municipal leaders, explaining the fund will help “ensure that your housing policy is the best it can possibly be to support your communities, give people a chance to find a place they can rent, a place that they can actually potentially get into market. And you can be responsive to what we’re asking. 

“And we can actually have a true partnership on this critical [file].”

Former UBCM President Jen Ford called earlier for a complete overhaul of how all levels of government handle housing and all the infrastructure that comes with it.