The question is what, if anything, will Ottawa do? writes Rob Shaw
Fast-built modular housing for B.C.’s rural and remote communities, tax breaks for rental construction buildings and freeing up government land for public housing projects were just a few of the ideas pitched by provincial housing experts, and B.C. government officials, to Canada’s deputy prime minister during a housing roundtable Thursday.
Premier David Eby said he organized the meeting, which included two academic experts, representatives from the homebuilder and nonprofit sectors, the Union of BC Municipalities, as well as federal and provincial housing ministers, at the request of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“I think her goal was to hear firsthand about some of the challenges but also some of the opportunities in British Columbia to address the housing crisis that we face,” Eby said in an interview.
“The federal government is seeing the same thing that we’re seeing here in British Columbia, which is that the housing crisis faced by British Colombians looking for a place to rent, or even a chance to get into the housing market itself, is profound, and calls for some pretty urgent action at all levels of government.”
It’s far from the first time provincial officials, and housing experts, have urged Ottawa for help to speed up housing construction and better-align support programs with on-the-ground projects. But this time, Eby said he felt the discussion was more specifically focused on ways the federal government could actually act quickly.
“I think the reason that the Deputy Prime Minister wanted to meet with us is that the federal government is looking for ways to have more impact on housing,” he said. “And I’m glad to see that.”
BC pushes for more modular and on-reserve housing
Although the meeting was held in Vancouver, there were topics canvassed about rural and remote communities in B.C.’s interior and north.
“There was a good discussion around the table of how modular housing construction could really address some of the skilled trade shortages that make it even harder to build in rural and remote communities,” he said.
Officials pushed Ottawa to do more for on-reserve housing, which is technically federal jurisdiction. B.C. is the only province in Canada currently funding on-reserve housing, because Eby said it’s not acceptable for First Nations communities to wait.
If Ottawa was willing to match homeless shelter funding in small communities, that too could have a large impact, added the premier. Smaller communities in particular are wrestling with limited resources, and shelter spaces, for disruptive homeless camps.
Funding needs to keep pace with immigration influx
Affordable housing will be one of the topics up for discussion at next week’s Council of the Federation meeting with premiers in Manitoba. But each province has slightly different wants from Ottawa on the issue, making consensus harder to obtain amongst premiers.
“The major commonality is the fact that there are population centres that are growing exponentially quickly, under the federal immigration targets,” said Eby. “And as these areas grow, we need the housing infrastructure to match.”
Canada intends to boost immigration targets to 500,000 people annually by 2025 — many of whom are expected to settle in B.C.
B.C. has in the past pitched tying federal housing support funding to immigration levels, but Ottawa has not been receptive to the idea.
In the meantime, there is room for Ottawa to better-align its housing support programs to complement the ones offered by B.C., said Eby.
For example, a federal mortgage lending fund for rental housing, which provides cheaper rents, isn’t aligned with a provincial program to help finance the construction of rental housing at a lower rate.
“We’ll help you build it, the feds will help you operate it, but these programs are not coordinated,” said Eby. “And so as a result, the affordability in the buildings that both programs build isn’t as deep as it would be if they were put together.”
Feds should support BC’s new municipal housing targets, says Premier
The premier also cited his new housing target legislation for municipalities, which will force them to show progress on construction of new housing types or face intervention from the province. That should naturally pair with Ottawa’s housing accelerator fund, which lets municipalities apply for federal money to help build, top-up or add affordable housing to local projects.
“It seems to us very obvious that matching up the target cities with housing accelerator funding would support them in ensuring they have the infrastructure they need,” said Eby.
“That’s not currently how the program is structured.”
The premier said he repeated his call for Ottawa to use public land, including military land for housing. And there was discussion about the impact of the federal taxes on rental housing, such as GST, and whether that could be improved, he said.
The question now though is what, if anything, will Ottawa actually do?
Eby said he intends to take the discussion into next week’s meeting of premiers to try and drum up support. But after repeated attempts to push Ottawa into actual action, he said the province will proceed alone on his housing plan until it hears otherwise.
“We can’t wait, and we’re not waiting for the federal government,” he said.