As municipal election campaigns get underway all across British Columbia, the concerns of the province’s residents have moved away from the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions about the key challenges facing the province now revolve around housing, homelessness and poverty.
A recent survey conducted by Research Co. for the British Columbia General Employees' Union (BCGEU) reveals that one in four British Columbians (25 per cent) are not devoting a cent of their income to housing. Universally accepted guidelines call for households to allocate less than 30 per cent of their earnings to cover rent or mortgage payments. At this stage, only 36 per cent of British Columbians are safely within this bracket.
This leaves almost two in five of the province’s residents (39 per cent) who are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing. Among those who are renting, the proportion rises to 59 per cent. Put differently, almost three in five people who rent their primary residence are paying so much that the possibility of saving for a rainy day, or a down payment, is greatly reduced.
It is disheartening to find out that half of British Columbians who are not homeowners (50 per cent) do not think that they will be able to eventually buy a property. This dejection rises to 53 per cent in southern B.C., 54 per cent in Vancouver Island and 57 per cent in the Fraser Valley. It is clear that housing woes are no longer exclusive to Metro Vancouver.
There is plenty of appetite for policies that will change the status quo. More than seven in 10 British Columbians think three levels of government should do more: municipal (73 per cent), federal (78 per cent) and provincial (81 per cent). While we have consistently seen the immense popularity of the foreign owner tax, these numbers suggest that British Columbians are aching to see governments work in tandem on housing, just as they do on issues such as transportation and infrastructure.
The survey also tested four ideas to address affordable housing. For just over three in four British Columbians (76 per cent), one of the solutions lies on implementing stronger provincial and federal investments in non-market public housing. This is the type of policy that could help incumbent politicians who are seeking to rekindle with voters.
More than two-thirds of British Columbians (67 per cent) are in favour of inclusionary zoning, which entails municipal governments requiring a mandatory number of below-market rate housing units when properties are rezoned for development. Unfortunately for those who want new projects in their neighbourhood, the process to authorize housing units can take weeks and months. The leaflets dropped in mailboxes from groups purporting to represent “the community” only cause confusion.
More than three in five British Columbians (62 per cent) are in favour of vacancy control as a measure to address rental housing affordability. There are limits on how much a landlord can increase rent annually to the same tenant, but no regulation on how this number can change between tenancies. This loophole can lead to windfalls for property owners, but make things more complicated for those seeking rental accommodation.
The level of support is lower for a land value capture tax (47 per cent). This policy would let local governments charge fees or taxes to developers, raising revenue that can then be directed into affordable housing.
We can see that British Columbians are support two of these ideas: increased investment in non-market housing and a move towards inclusionary zoning. The former will require government co-ordination; the latter one can be dealt with directly within council chambers.
There are examples of how daunting the process can be.
In Surrey, for instance, a plan to build a 91-unit project aimed at providing homes to adults with disabilities was voted down by council, following some complaints about the size and look of the proposed building.
A change at the helm of the provincial government may also expedite processes. There is an extremely high chance that, before the end of the year, the province’s new premier will be David Eby. This will mean that a politician who has been in charge of the housing file for a few years will be in a direct position to steer policy at a provincewide level.
Late last year, Eby hinted at taking a different approach to motivate municipalities to increase the housing supply. A clear mandate to foster non-market housing investments and zoning changes would be a winning strategy. It may even result in a reduction in the number of renters who now feel that owning a home is not within their reach.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from June 29 to July 1, 2022, among 804 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.