Social housing group left wanting more from both Libs, NDP on ‘urgent’ crisis

Published in The Tyee | April 3, 2013 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers

Social Housing Coalition activists (from left) Ivan Drury, Herb Varley and Dave Diewert speak with BCFED president Jim Sinclair outside last night's NDP fundraiser in Vancouver. Photo by David P. Ball

Social Housing Coalition activists (from left) Ivan Drury, Herb Varley and Dave Diewert speak with BCFED president Jim Sinclair outside last night’s NDP fundraiser in Vancouver. Photo by David P. Ball

Although the BC New Democrats have not released their election platform yet, the party’s housing critic is pushing for the province to take a “leading role at the table” on affordable housing, including direct investment in new social housing units.

But activists with the Social Housing Coalition accuse the party of not taking B.C.’s housing crisis seriously enough, and last night they pamphleted with a banner outside an NDP fundraiser in Vancouver, a performance they’ll repeat at another party faithful event tomorrow in hopes of garnering concrete commitments in imminent campaign promises.

Joe Trasolini, NDP Critic for Housing, Construction and Business Investment, said the housing strategy he’ll put forward will bring together federal and municipal governments, non-profits, housing advocates and private interests, with the province taking a leading role to increase housing stock across B.C.

“We need new supply. Whenever there is supply that comes on the market, it relieves the pressure on vacancy. When you don’t have enough vacancy… landlords can get away with a lot more than when there is more supply of rental units. I’ve met with a lot of housing advocates who have shovel-ready projects that have been reviewed by BC Housing staff… and they’ve been found to be very much needed, qualify for government partnerships, but nothing is happening. They’re told that there’s no money,” he told The Tyee.

The BC Liberals have made new housing-related announcements almost every week over the last several months, with press releases lauding new investment and hundreds of units in seniors housing, emergency homeless shelters, and single room occupancy (SRO) renovations.

And while critics claim the province and feds alike are not “at the table” to the degree they would like, in March the B.C. government announced a new federal partnership to help “vulnerable” people with housing in the province, dubbed the Federal-Provincial Housing (FPH) initiative.

Funding for that affordability program totals roughly $155 million, the government said, plus $45 million through a variety of measures such as contributions for capital costs, exempting some fees for development, and property tax breaks.

“The B.C. government believes in strong partnerships and with shared funding from the federal and provincial governments, as well as local governments and community organizations,” Housing Minister Rich Coleman stated. “We’re increasing the number of housing options available to people most at risk across the province.

“The funding made available through this program is already contributing to affordable and supportive housing solutions to help those in need.”

While Trasolini said that the government’s initiatives are only enough to maintain — not expand — B.C.’s housing stock, outside his party’s fundraiser at Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery last night, coalition activists questioned whether the MLA for Port Moody-Coquitlam or his party are treating the housing crisis as “urgent.”

They launched a petition for social housing in B.C., and chief among their demands is that the province build “10,000 units of good quality social housing per year”; prioritizing housing for vulnerable or marginalized people such as indigenous people, seniors, and immigrants; enforcing maintenance laws on cheap rental hotels; and increasing taxes to fund more social housing.

The housing activists hope “to push for the NDP, or whoever gets into the provincial leadership, to do something about it,” one pamphleteer told The Tyee.

“We’ve hit the NDP on a few occasions,” said Dave Diewert, with the Social Housing Coalition. “They completely waffle on the housing front… they are very non-committal, and don’t seem to have a very strong sense of urgency around this issue, and will probably not do anything. From what they’ve been saying, it sounds virtually like the status quo. That’s just not acceptable.”

That status quo is what the coalition is calling one of the province’s greatest crises, one that Diewert argued has been “mystified and played down” by all parties.

“There’s a sentiment that we’ve taken care of it all, that we’ve built a ton of housing and everybody’s okay,” he explained. “It’s missing a huge sector in the province who not only live in poverty, but also has to struggle on the housing front — indigenous people, new immigrants, temporary foreign workers, youth, seniors, women. Across the board, there’s a huge need.”

Trasolini told The Tyee he is committed to re-investing financially in social housing if the NDP wins the election, as well as working with the private sector, municipal and federal governments, and non-profits to increase the stock of both rental and supportive housing. But as for 10,000 new units built a year as the coalition demands, those levels may be “accurate” in terms of need, he said, but they are unlikely to be met regardless of which party forms government after May 14.

“Insofar as saying that any government could come up with 10,000 units in one year, it might be a stretch,” he said. “There has to be a start — a comprehensive plan that we undertake a step at a time, starting right away — and doing as much as we can in one year, and making a commitment for following years.

“It’s probably an accurate number of need. Nobody’s going to argue about the need. I’ve seen it first-hand.”

For Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour — one of roughly 150 NDP donors attending last night’s fundraiser, alongside representatives of the construction industry, energy firms, unions and others — housing should be a priority for the party.

Sinclair said he hopes the NDP lives up to its past commitment to build new social housing, even if it costs taxpayers to fix the problem. He also criticized the BC Liberal government’s record on the issue.

“They’ve bought some Downtown Eastside hotels, but that didn’t increase the number of units. It just saved some of the units that were there. It’s going to take money. The big challenge that we’ve got as a province is (that) we’re going to have to fix these problems by paying for them.”

The Social Housing Coalition has planned another pamphleting rally outside the BC NDP’s Business Leader dinner tomorrow at the Molson Brewery, as well as at the premier’s fundraising dinner at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Monday.

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