Skip to main content

B.C. cities are diligently approving enough housing construction to keep up with population growth, so the provincial Housing Minister should stop blaming them for housing problems, says a new report from the association representing B.C. municipalities.

Attorney-General David Eby, who is also Housing Minister, has said he is considering provincial legislative options to override municipalities that refuse to approve social housing or housing near transit. That prompted the Union of BC Municipalities to respond Wednesday with a report concluding that’s not a reasonable option when looking at everything cities have done.

“The notion … that there is a crisis in the supply of housing relative to population growth is not supported by evidence,” says the report, which includes graphs showing how housing production has been at its highest level in recent years in B.C.

“Given that local governments have also approved record amounts of new homes over the past several years, it is evident that the data does not support a mandate for wholesale change to the development approval process, but instead continued streamlining.”

Mr. Eby and various housing experts pushed back against the report Wednesday, continuing the long-running B.C. debate as to whether a lack of supply or out-of-control and predatory demand by investors and speculators is at the root of the province’s problems.

Mr. Eby said the province has done a lot of work to control the demand side, introducing a speculation tax, a foreign-buyer tax and possible limits on vacation-rental activity. But it’s clear to him that building more is an important part of the solution as a massive wave of newcomers from other provinces and abroad is hitting, along with another wave of new tech workers.

“I don’t understand how this report could be so disconnected from lived reality. We are at a peak of in-migration that we haven’t seen in 30 years,” said the minister, who has been a renter himself his whole life until this month.

He said the reality is that renters are in a Hunger Games competition to get any kind of place to live, while families are lined up 20 deep to bid on the rare affordable townhouses in their cities. “This report will provide cover for the municipalities that don’t want to do anything. And it’s not sustainable for me to keep calling up city councils asking them to approve new housing.”

But the president of the municipalities’ union said that’s far from the intent: Local government politicians thought it was important to set the record straight on what they are doing.

“We know there’s a housing supply issue,” said Laurey-Anne Roodenburg, also a councillor in Quesnel. “But the minister’s comments do not give sufficient credit to what municipalities are doing.”

She acknowledged that there are some municipalities that are “outliers” who have generated a lot of news coverage because they have voted against specific projects. But she said most are not like that.

“You can’t paint every local government with the same brush.” And, she said, “it seems like it’s about shifting the focus from the province’s housing plan.”

That plan, introduced by the NDP shortly after they came into power in 2017, was to see 114,000 affordable homes built in the province within 10 years. The province does not appear to be on target to get that done, despite massive spending on social housing.

Ms. Roodenburg said there are many other factors leading to problems with housing supply, including some of the province’s own regulations, a shortage of labour and supplies for construction, and a lack of action from the federal government.

Mr. Eby has been unusually vocal for a cabinet minister in pushing for more housing supply, going so far as to call city councillors personally or request media interviews to show his support for a particular project.

Several economists and statisticians who have done research on housing issues also raised concerns about the report, saying it gives an inaccurate impression of what is going on.

The report had several charts and statements indicating that the number of homes built has matched or exceeded population growth since 2016, something they say is a fundamental misunderstanding of how population ends up being limited when housing is also limited.

“The overly naive analysis comparing housing to population growth to declare the adequacy of our housing supply fails to understand that housing and population growth are intimately related,” said statistics analyst Jens von Bergmann, a regular decoder of housing statistics for Vancouver and Canada. “It’s a slap in the face of those who have been pushed out, or those who failed to move here, because of the unavailability of housing.”

He and many others pointed out that population increases are limited if housing is in short supply because many won’t move to a place where prices have soared out of reach and those already there may decide to move.

As well, cities may need more housing, even if their official population doesn’t increase, as the dynamics of households in their cities change, with larger numbers of international students arriving, older children moving out of parents’ homes, and millennials wanting their own spaces instead of shared houses.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.