Vaughn Palmer: Eby again signals he will wield stick if BC cities don’t accelerate housing starts

Opinion: Housing Minister David Eby says federal immigration plans and expected refugees from Ukraine add urgency to constructing housing

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VICTORIA — Housing Minister David Eby is again blaming local government for slow progress on housing approvals, this time citing delays with the NDP government’s ambitious housing plan.

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“We have committed $7 billion to opening new housing, but many of these housing units are challenged in municipal approval processes,” Eby told reporters Thursday.

“We have projects that have been in the pipeline at the municipal level for far too long.

“People can’t move into them, but the inflation that we are seeing around construction costs impacts the budgets and the very viability of these projects.”

The housing minister, who is also BC’s attorney general, was reacting to a recent progress report from the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives on the NDP promise to build 114,000 units of housing over 10 years.

“Overall, the BC government’s performance is still far too modest to make a real dent in housing affordability,” wrote the center’s Marc Lee. “Housing assets can pay for themselves over time, so there’s no reason for the government not to build.”

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Lee found that fewer than 10 per cent of the promised units had been completed in the first three years of the plan. Another 12 per cent were in progress, though Lee noted that many of those units were merely classed as “initiated,” rather than under construction.

In response, Eby faulted the left-of-centre think-tank for not giving the government enough credit for progress in housing the homeless.

“Sometimes groups that are enthusiastic about housing, like the CCPA and others, can hope for perfection,” said the housing minister.

Still, he didn’t dispute that it was “fair comment” to say that the government was falling short of the overall target for completed units.

Eby said he and Nathan Cullen, the new minister of municipal affairs, “are working in partnership with municipalities to accelerate those approvals and get those doors open so that people can move in.”

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While Eby continues to talk up partnerships with municipalities, he’s also dropped strong hints about using provincial power to override those that won’t co-operate.

“The bottom line is that municipalities are not approving enough housing for our population growth,” Eby told Dirk Meissner of The Canadian Press last month. “I think it’s quite possible that we’re going to need to be more prescriptive. … The status quo is not acceptable.”

Eby indicated he would likely bring in legislation to expedite approvals in the fall session of the legislature.

“I do think we’re going to have to ultimately prescribe some minimum standards for municipalities,” he said. “But right now it’s a very active conversation and a lot of policy work as we prepare for the fall session when we hope to introduce some legislation on this.”

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The threat of a provincial override drew some pushback from local government leaders.

Craig Hodge, a member of the Union of BC Municipalities executive and a Coquitlam city councillor: “Certainly, UBCM is very concerned about that. I’m also concerned that this could take away the local autonomy from locally elected governments who represent the electorate in those communities.”

David Screech, mayor of the provincial capital suburb of View Royal: “I am chilled by the minister’s comments that the province will consider using its supremacy to force housing an elected council may oppose.

“Minister Eby, I plead with you to respect your local government partners and to enter into collaborative discussions where we can collectively find solutions. And the forum for those discussion is the Union of BC Municipalities, not legislation being prepared without our involvement.”

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If anything, recent events have heightened Eby’s determination to get on with increasing the housing supply.

On Thursday, he cited the need to house the 25,000 newcomers who came to BC from outside the country and from other provinces in just the last three months of 2021.

Plus there’s the likelihood that BC will get a disproportionate share of the almost one million immigrants that Ottawa plans to welcome to Canada over three years.

“Even before the possibility of literally thousands of people from Ukraine moving to BC, I feel a huge sense of urgency to get as much housing approved and built, especially rental housing, as we can,” said Eby.

He said he has “very little time for arguments” like the one that arose in Burnaby regarding a major rental housing project, “that’s affordable, that has child care” and someone complained about the affect on parking in their neighborhood.

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“I’m very grateful to those mayors and those councilors who are hearing this message,” said Eby. “I see it in their changing processes to move faster to get more housing open. … It’s right for those mayors to say, hey, we’re trying to get this done and we share your concerns.”

You could tell there was a “but” coming from Eby.

Sure enough he moved on to talk about taking on city councils that don’t have the cooperative perspective.

For now, the province is working with the UBCM and local governments on how to “encourage” delivery of housing.

“It might be legislation, it might be something else,” said Eby, leaving the door open to a mix of incentives and disincentives.

I’m guessing he doesn’t want to provoke further backlash at the local level in a civic election year.

But once the votes are counted on Oct. 15, I expect he will be ready with legislation to unclog the pipeline for housing approvals.

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