The number one issue in every corner of B.C. this year is affordable housing. However, that is a big term that means different things for different people. Here are the 10 things we will be watching for in 2017.
1. The B.C. Election: In May British Columbians will head to the polls with a rising class of young people wondering if they'll ever own a home, Gen Xers considering leaving B.C., and seniors telling their seniors advocate that housing is the number one issue for them. Homeless counts are at staggering heights around the province while rental vacancy rates drop to historic lows. And homeowners don't know what will happen to housing prices this year. Expect housing to be the focus of political platforms, doorway conversations and debates.
We'll be looking at all data closely in 2017 and will also get the results of homeless counts and the resurrection of purpose-built rental housing.
2. The National Housing Strategy: Expectations are that the 2017 federal budget will include funds to support a national housing strategy. Starting under the Pierre Trudeau era to the early 1990s, Canada built over 600,000 units of non-profit and co-op housing, and incentivized the creation of private market rentals. However, for a generation we've largely sat on our hands and that has led to a national crisis. Justin Trudeau seems poised to make housing affordability his key domestic priority in 2017, but it will take both specific supports for renters, new supply, innovation, and a homelessness strategy.
3. The Fentanyl & Overdose Epidemic: Why is this on the list? Well, social housing and shelter staff are on the front lines of a national crisis of massive proportions. On a daily basis workers are saving lives and watching people die. It's traumatic for everyone involved, including emergency workers. This has put a spotlight on our need to address things like addiction, mental health and housing more holistically. Somebody is likely knowingly killing hundreds of our neighbours, and we'll all be watching to see if there's a break in this crisis in 2017 or if it spreads to other major cities.
4. Data: Data made headlines in 2016: from foreign investment to our first year back to the mandatory long-form census. We'll be looking at all data closely in 2017 and will also get the results of homeless counts and the resurrection of purpose-built rental housing. At Housing Central we are compiling a bunch of data to create an Affordable Housing Plan for B.C. that can help identify what we need to build, where, and for whom, and how much all this will cost.
New condominium towers are seen under various stages of construction in the Yaletown district of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada November 19, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Helgren)
5. The B.C. Budget(s): There's a chance B.C. could end up with two provincial budgets in 2017. Likely, one in early 2017 that funds the government's housing plans should Christy Clark's B.C. Liberals be re-elected. Should John Horgan win, it's likely we'll see a different budget in the fall. Both seasons ended up being important to housing in 2016 as nearly a billion dollars was announced for new affordable rentals, tax breaks for people buying homes up to $750k, implementation of a 15 per cent foreign buyers tax, and a new lending program for first time home buyers was introduced.
6. Co-operation: Thom Armstrong, Executive Director of the Co-op Housing Federation of B.C. will tell you this is the most important thing that needs to happen in housing. In his words: "The big question we need to ask is whether the various levels of government are finally willing to coordinate strategies, resource allocations and priorities to do something about housing (Thom Armstrong, Housing Central Conference 2016). As cities like Vancouver, New Westminster and Victoria get aggressive in contributing land and cash to housing projects, the power dynamic between each level of government and the non-profit sector is starting to equalize, leading to more collaboration between partners.
We seem to have unlimited money for expensive jails, shelters, hospitals and treatment centres, but not enough for the cheapest and best option: social housing.
7. Housing Central: This innovative partnership includes a new shared office for B.C.'s affordable housing sector and ownership of a private mutual fund company that serves the sector, called Encasa. Buffy Ste. Marie and Shelagh Rogers also created an unforgettable kickoff for over 1,200 delegates at the first "Housing Central" conference last year. Look for this partnership to expand in 2017, examining the use of land trusts to preserve affordable housing for renters and potentially homeowners. Is B.C. ready for partial home ownership? Collective living? Tiny Homes? More modular and container homes? Let's innovate and see what works.
8. Northern Exposure: There's no urban-rural split in suffering during B.C.'s housing crisis. Gord Downie has raised awareness of what's happening in indigenous communities, but most Northern municipalities are also facing troubles. Some are packed with job seekers and speculators that have filled up their deteriorating rentals and hotels. In Prince George, homeless shelters are full, even in the summer, and in Terrace, where 11,000 people live, over 100 are now homeless. Conversely, in places like Fort St. John, Alberta's struggles have led to a vacancy rate exceeding 30 per cent.
9. Tent Cities: As B.C.'s homeless population climbs into the thousands, tent cities have become a dramatic visual symbol of our housing crisis. We seem to have unlimited money for expensive jails, shelters, hospitals and treatment centres, but not enough for the cheapest and best option: social housing. Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness believes we need a by-name list of everybody who is homeless, sorted by urgency like we would do in an emergency room, and then help the most vulnerable person get a home now, and start building our way out of this.
A general view of the tent city in Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver October 15, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Ben Nelms)
10. Millennials: Some of B.C.'s biggest companies are saying they can't retain young workers due to the rising cost of housing. Students can't find enough campus housing, and youth homelessness is surging. A whole generation of people are wondering if this province has forgotten about them. UBC's Paul Kershaw has created Generation Squeeze to funnel some of this discontent into advocacy, but can he tap into the many different types of frustrated Millennials? If the economy tails off here or picks up elsewhere, more young parents, students, artists and innovators may set down roots elsewhere.
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