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B.C.’s focus on housing misses the broader problem of affordability

Anxiety about real estate prices, particularly in Metro Vancouver communities, is going to consume a lot of oxygen in the cavernous hall where B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong will lay out his government's budget to reporters and stakeholders on Tuesday.

Affordability, in many parts of British Columbia, is a much broader issue than the price of urban real estate. It's the cost of child care, it's rising food prices, it's the challenge of finding a place to rent in cities where vacancy rates hover just a hair's breadth above zero.

Mr. de Jong has spent months researching the best approach to bring the real estate market back to Earth, but for the growing number of British Columbians who use a payday loan to buy basic necessities, the budget priority probably doesn't involve adjustments to the exemption threshold of the Property Transfer Tax.

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In a section of the Throne Speech last week devoted to real estate issues, the B.C. Liberal government promised to ease the pressures of the cost of living increases, because "all British Columbians deserve to share in the benefits of a growing economy."

Any relief from the rising cost of living should include the 180,000 residents on provincial income assistance – the government hasn't raised the rates for nine years because it has put the goal of a balanced budget ahead of addressing the pressure on social programs. Those frozen rates mean that a family of four is expected to find a place to live on a maximum shelter allowance of $700 a month.

Michelle Stilwell, Minister of Social Development, sidestepped questions last week about whether it is time for a rate increase.

"It's not just about the actual rate, it's about the comprehensive social safety net that we have, the other programs that we offer. Whether that be subsidized housing or the child-care subsidies or the free MSP that is offered for about 800,000 individuals."

But imagine, minister, trying to find your family a place to live in Vancouver on those shelter rates. It is not just those on welfare, but the many low-income earners and pensioners who are feeling the squeeze. A study published last November by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association found one-third of single mothers and one-third of seniors spend more than 50 per cent of their gross income on rent, while 23 per cent of immigrant households are overcrowded.

"I certainly recognize the challenges those individuals face as they try to find accommodation," Ms. Stilwell said, "but my focus is on trying to ensure they have what they need to get back into the work force because we know that the best solution to poverty is a good-paying job."

That sounds like the government will once again pass over a rate increase in favour of targeted initiatives, such as the program rolled out last fall to give single parents on income assistance the financial support – including transportation costs and child care – to get skills training for in-demand vocations.

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The New Democratic Party finance critic, Carole James, said those kinds of programs may help the individuals who can take advantage of them, but they don't add up to a strategy to tackle poverty and unaffordable housing.

"What I'm looking for in the budget is, does the Premier just tinker around the edges, or is it a real commitment to make change," she said. "To address affordability for families is a good economic plan."

Vancouver prides itself on being ranked among the world's most livable cities. But it's a hollow pride if only one class of citizens can afford to live there.

Premier Christy Clark, speaking in the legislature last week, said British Columbians can count on a good-news budget now because the provincial economy is strong. "It won't just be issues with respect to affordability of housing. There will be a range of measures that we will be funding and addressing because – guess what – when British Columbia is No. 1, we can afford it."

The government is cautious about major new programs that require continuing commitments because the province's trade-dependent economy is still vulnerable to a downturn. But that can't be used as an excuse to forever freeze social programs. Mr. de Jong is expected to introduce his fourth consecutive surplus budget on Tuesday. Being No. 1 should include a measurable attack on poverty.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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