Max Fawcett: The BC Liberals have picked their side—against affordability

Why the province's latest budget does nothing to address the real challenge posed by Vancouver's soaring housing market

February 17, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Thomas Quine

In recent weeks, as new housing data confirmed that Vancouver’s already hot housing market has been set on a roiling boil, there have been some useful contributions to the debate around affordability in this city. But the one offered up by BC Liberal MLA Laurie Throness in the legislature on Monday was not one of them. In the course of debating a motion on affordable housing, he argued that people who can’t afford to live in Vancouver should simply choose to relocate elsewhere. More appallingly, he implied that anyone who did have the temerity to complain about the ever-expanding gap between incomes and housing costs in the city is just whining. “I wanted to live in Vancouver, so I explored that option. I didn’t even explore the option of buying a detached home, but I looked for condos and soon found I wasn’t able to afford to live there,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I didn’t go to the papers. I didn’t complain to government. I didn’t complain to the opposition. I didn’t go to the Human Rights Tribunal. I bought in Abbotsford.”

Anyone who finds themselves priced out of the market, he said, should consider doing the same, and he even argued, bizarrely, that companies and jobs would follow them to their new destinations. That’s probably news to the high-tech companies that have set up shop in Vancouver over the last few years, or the mining companies that have their head offices stationed in the downtown core. It would also be news to just about any economist on earth, who would surely wonder what these people would be expected to do while they waited for their companies and their jobs to follow them—and only them—to their new community.

Boneheaded comments, of course, are nothing new to politics—and for some politicians they’re practically a stock-in-trade. But Throness’s comments are more insidious than that, because they appear to be representative of an attitude that the BC Liberal government has toward the issue of housing and affordability in Vancouver. In short, their policy appears to be as follows when it comes to the effect rising home prices are having on affordability: like it or lump it. “We can’t change what I would call the major structural elements of the Vancouver housing market,” Throness said Monday. “In fact, I would say that many homeowners are very happy about the rising value of their homes.”

But as the SCMP’s Ian Young said in his interview with Vancouver Magazine last month, that choice to sacrifice housing affordability in the name of protecting the capital gains enjoyed by homeowners sends a message to younger Vancouverites. “Is it fair that people be prioritized because they are home owners and they feel like they need to protect their capital gains over people who feel that they are entitled to an affordable city, and have done absolutely nothing to deserve being priced out of it in the way that they have? I think that’s a fundamental social justice issue—the biggest social justice issue in this city.”

And in case it wasn’t clear whether the BC Liberals had decided to choose the protection of capital gains over the promotion of affordability and accessibility, well, the recent throne speech should have removed any remaining doubt. “Your government will work carefully to protect the savings and equity that existing homeowners have painstakingly placed in their homes,” the premier said.  That certainly sounds like a priority to me.

Sure, it’s a politically defensible one, given that homeowners tend to be more reliable visitors to the ballot box than young renters. But it could also be a catastrophic one in the long run for a city that depends on its ability to attract and retain talented people. It’s not that they deserve to be able to afford a house in Vancouver—or, as Mr. Throness said, that they have “a God-given right to live in a particular place.” It’s that the cost of them not being able to live in that particular place is incredibly high—for all of us.

Yes, the budget included $355 million over five years for affordable housing, an investment that’s expected to create up to 2,000 new spaces. That’s great. But by the sound of it, most of that money isn’t going to young people who can’t afford to live in Vancouver. Instead, as the premier said, it’s going to seniors, people struggling with addiction, and mental illness and other marginalized groups. (Well, seniors are technically among the least marginalized groups in society, but that’s another issue altogether. And, of course, they vote.)

But even if some of those 2,000 additional spaces weren’t being allocated on the basis of the political utility of their prospective tenants, they still wouldn’t do much to make Vancouver a more affordable city for the rest of its residents. And as Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes argued in an op-ed recently, the affordability crisis—and yes, it’s a crisis—is a big problem for all of us. “Unaffordability is emptying Vancouver of one of its most valuable assets—young people who grew up in the city and who are invested in it.” It’s awfully hard to stay invested in your city when you’ve been told by a representative of the government that you need to put on your big boy and big girl pants and move out to Agassiz. Sure, it’s probably a nice place to live. But it’s not where the vast majority of young Vancouverites—and aspiring Vancouverites—want to live. And if they can’t afford to live here, near to where they work and play, they’re going to go somewhere else. And I can promise you this: it won’t be Abbotsford.

Max Fawcett is the editor-in-chief of Vancouver Magazine

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