The leading candidate to be B.C.’s next premier says his recent tour of the province’s Northwest opened his eyes to the unique challenges of housing in the region.
BC NDP leadership candidate David Eby said a two-day trip to Smithers, Terrace and Prince Rupert, where he pitched the merits of his housing plan, also left him acutely aware that a province-wide housing strategy dictated from Vancouver won’t cut it in rural and remote communities.
“One of the things that became clear… is the issues in smaller communities in the province may look very similar – both Prince Rupert and Smithers are grappling with a shortage of housing, and Terrace as well – but the underlying causes that need to be addressed are quite different,” Eby told Northern Beat.
“It’s really obvious in visiting these communities in particular that each one is going to need support, but in different ways, to get housing built.”
Eby’s housing plan, introduced earlier this month, proposes a two-year tax on flipping properties, legalizing secondary suites across the province, boosting provincial partnerships to build housing on public land, and government “intervention” for municipalities that fail to approve the type and quantity of housing identified for their region.
While the plan has specific provisions to force the densification of single family lots in urban areas, some rural mayors have worried the plan is too focused on Metro Vancouver – where cities can take years to approve projects – and not flexible enough to support the services smaller communities need, like the water, sewer and roads necessary to accommodate density.
“There’s not an easy solution here, and if David Eby becomes premier it’s going to take real resources driven down into communities, with a little bit of opportunity to be creative,” said Smithers mayor Gladys Atrill, who met Eby at a housing development where a contractor was building four-plex structures.
“It isn’t the same solution for each community. We have unique challenges.”
Eby said that difference became clear in the three communities he visited on the trip.
Boundaries and bogs
In Smithers, the challenge is a lack of available land for future developments, and the multi-year consultations with First Nations that would be required to expand the city’s boundaries onto Crown land to accommodate more housing, said Eby.
But in Prince Rupert, Eby said he heard about the challenge of muskeg, or bog, that has to be removed from some sites in order to stabalize the land for construction. That’s led to a shortage of developers, he said. It’s also a city in which the province owns numerous properties that could be better leveraged as potential housing, added Eby.
“Both Smithers and Prince Rupert, the current mayors and elected officials I met with were really clear that they work really hard to approve any housing proposals they get because the housing is so desperately needed,” he said.
“They are very fast in their approvals when those approvals come forward, which is quite different from the Lower Mainland.”
Atrill said she was grateful Eby took the time to visit and understand the complexities of issues like the lack of affordable rental units in a community where private-sector development is so expensive.
It also gave her the chance to bring up the other component of the community’s housing needs: More shelters and supportive housing spaces for the homeless community.
That became a familiar theme as well during the two-day tour, though it was not entirely unexpected given Eby’s previous post as Attorney General and minister responsible for housing and homelessness.
Eby said at a town hall in Smithers he heard from a librarian about an unhoused tent encampment near the library where staff have “taken on this almost social work advocacy role to respond to the realities of what they are seeing.”
In Terrace, the mayor-elect personally drove Eby past a tent city as well.
The Opposition BC Liberals have said the continued worsening in homelessness, crime and housing affordability has proven Eby’s time as minister responsible was a failure.
They also point to the BC NDP government’s relative lack of northern MLAs as a blind spot for the party that has left it out of touch with the needs of rural and remote communities (Nathan Cullen from Stikine and Jennifer Rice from North Coast both accompanied Eby on parts of his trip).
Eby said he’s cognizant of that criticism, and if he wins the race to become premier he’ll put renewed emphasis on the relationships needed to understand the realities of the province’s North.
“It is harder in areas where we don’t have a sitting MLA,” he said. “It required extra effort and extra time, which is a challenge. But it’s certainly a necessary one for us to meet, in order to be able to deliver across the province.”
Eby said he prioritized meeting with local politicians on the trip “because I firmly believe the personal relationship with these folks on the ground will assist me very much if I’m successful in the leadership bid.
“My experience in politics is a lot can get done if you have a good personal relationship with people, even across party lines,” he said.
“I’m doing that work now.”