Vancouver fumbles the ball on its affordable housing funding

Rarely do governments throw around such money between budgets: $500 million announced last week by the BC Liberals to build 2,900 units through BC Housing.

OK, we get it. Pre-election, trailing in the polls, a surplus to use, with housing affordability the main issue for voters.

Still, good on them for answering the call.

Only wish Vancouver could answer the call, too.

It is very likely that when the 2,900 units are approved by the end of the provincial fiscal year by next March, only about 10% of them will be built in Vancouver.

Why? We’re not ready.

We are more talk than walk on housing – as the ranchers call it, all hat and no cattle, less like City Hall and more like Fort Fumble.

We bleat for help from senior levels of government but don’t have our acts together when they do. We focus on empty homes rather than the preparations necessary to create full ones.

After all, money occasionally falls from the skies.

It was surprisingly large spending, a redirection of the soaring provincial revenue from home purchases, including the extra bounty from foreign buyers.

Even more surprising, though, was what housing analysts subsequently told me: that Vancouver, arguably with the greatest need for housing for those in greatest need, has not done the advance work on the mission. That includes the rezoning, the provision of land and the necessary project preparation to meet BC Housing’s conditions.

In a province of 4.6 million, Vancouver can’t expect a lion’s share of the units, but other municipalities are more ready and will get what we could have had.

The approved Vancouver-based projects are more likely to come from those without the city as a sponsor because they are more able to meet the BC Housing template.

One analyst told me the city will only get an uptake to use any of its sites if it a) relinquishes its originator/operator control-mindedness to BC Housing and b) decides not to try to recover the land value provided. It is hard to believe these cultural features will change in a matter of months.

BC Housing has before it many proposals that are project-ready. It earlier called for them following the provincial budget and now can stamp more approvals.

The province will focus on nine types of housing, and in this respect it deserves credit for going where it is needed and not necessarily where its political fortunes will be rewarded.

The deepest subsidies, in which all of the capital costs will be paid through grants, will be for housing for indigenous people, for women and children fleeing abuse, for youth in transition and for non-rural seniors. It is interesting that the province also identified for this subsidy specialty housing for high-functioning adults with developmental disabilities and for youth aging out of care.

The shallower subsidies will attend to housing for students and rural seniors, strategic acquisitions to protect affordable rental stock and purchase of some affordable rental projects from developers or the market.

The political critique from NDP leader John Horgan – that this was a parting gift from a dying government to the developers who fuel the BC Liberal coffers – was not so much a cheap shot as a weak shot. The money is hardly large enough to be a payoff, most units will be developed by the non-profit sector, and if I had to guess where an NDP government would first plant the flag in a housing investment, it would be copying and pasting much of the press release.

We will hear much more about housing in late November, when Ottawa returns to the stage after an absence of two decades with a national strategy. It is unlikely it will announce immediate funds between budgets as the BC Liberals did – there is no election looming, after all – but the two initiatives are likely to complement one another in their effort to help those most in need.

We’ll have to hope Vancouver is not left out of that one, too.

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development