Vaughn Palmer: Eby’s promise on middle-class housing comes at a huge price

Opinion: The cost of 10,000 homes, barely a dent in Metro Vancouver’s need, could cost $1 billion. And that’s just for housing.

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VICTORY — David Eby launched his campaign for the leadership of the NDP this week with an ambitious promise to build government-funded housing for the middle class, due to a private sector market failure.

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“We can build affordable housing on public land for the middle class,” Eby told supporters at a Vancouver-Point Gray drive-in rally Tuesday night.

“What drives a lot of people crazy is that they can afford housing, they have good jobs, but the housing they can afford just doesn’t exist.”

Eby acknowledged that his proposal would be important to this or any other BC government.

“Building public housing on public land for middle-class families was never something the government needed to do when I was a kid; in general, the private sector took care of that”.

But he said he agreed with the NDP’s history and principles to intervene where the private sector fails.

“The NDP has never shied away from providing a public answer to a struggling private market, whether it be health care, pharmaceutical care, child care and even insurance,” he reminded the crowd. “We can’t give up on those successful responses now when it comes to housing.”

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Eby resigned as housing minister and attorney general on Wednesday, under Prime Minister John Horgan’s rule for ministers seeking party leadership.

He provided some details of his plan for government-backed middle-class housing in his speech and subsequent interviews.

“We can do it alone, in partnership with indigenous peoples and in partnership with the private sector,” Eby said. “We can build rent-to-own, long-term lease, and affordable rental housing.”

He also promised that government-sponsored middle-class housing would be privatization-proof: “We can structure it so that if the government ever changes hands, the new government can’t sell it to pretend the budget is in balance.”

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He also pointed out that the projects would be spread throughout the province.

“It’s not just an urban problem,” Eby told The Vancouver Sun’s Katie DeRosa. “It is a rural issue. It’s in Prince Rupert. It’s on the terrace. It’s on Trace. It’s in Nelson.

As housing minister, he has pushed local governments to speed up approvals, praising those who accept and criticizing those who don’t.

He made no apologies for doing the job of housing minister as he sees it: “Sometimes that means saying things that are true: that local governments have to approve more housing; They have to be faster.”

At the same time, he conceded that the province must be willing to address the legitimate concerns of undecided municipalities.

When a local government says, “We’re worried about infrastructure, we’re worried about traffic, we’re worried about the lack of parks, pools, and community centers,” Eby believes the province has to help deliver the infrastructure that will make the community feel feel more comfortable with growth.

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“Certainly, we have to deliver more housing,” Eby told DeRosa.

“And there is an opportunity for the provincial government to reward and recognize those communities that provide that housing, with the services that make those communities truly livable.”

Those rewards could include community centers, swimming pools, trails and the like.

The promise of rewards was designed to reassure municipalities that feared Eby’s housing push was all stick, not carrot.

However, he did not rule out provincial legislation to override reticent municipalities where affordable or rental housing is at stake.

“I hope we don’t have to do that,” he told CBC’s Stephen Quinn.

“I hope that by addressing your concerns about growth and how we make it livable, we can work together.

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“But at the end of the day, we need these homes built across the province.”

Much remains to be determined about Eby’s plan to develop publicly funded housing for the middle class.

One question involves BC Housing, the beleaguered agency currently overseeing the government’s multibillion-dollar commitment to low-income and other social housing.

Eby recently replaced BC Housing’s board after an independent review by Ernst & Young pointed to two dozen failings in oversight, controls, accountability, standards and documentation.

“There are some really serious recommendations in that report,” Eby acknowledged in the CBC interview.

He described bringing in current and former senior civil servants and a former deputy auditor general “to really make sure this happens quickly.”

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BC Housing has “grown dramatically” under the NDP, making it “one of the largest developers in North America and certainly in Canada,” he says.

Given the failings documented in the Ernst & Young report, this is not the time to undertake another ambitious expansion, particularly in an area where, by Eby’s own admission, the government has not ventured before.

He did not say anything about the costs or funding of his proposal.

I was told it could cost between $500,000 and $750,000 per unit to build housing for middle-class families in Metro Vancouver.

For 10,000 units—which would barely dent the need in the region—it’s between half and three-quarters of a billion dollars.

Never mind the additional cost of Eby’s promises to reward cooperating municipalities with infrastructure financed by the provinces.

Or the challenge of aligning workers and materials in the oversold construction sector.

“Delivering results is very important to me,” Eby said this week.

It remains to be seen how many of his proposed middle-class housing units will be up and running by the next election.

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