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Unpacking the housing numbers: Interview with CCPA's Seth Klein

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Seth Klein

Seth Klein is the Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, B.C. office.

Q -- The CCPA-BC just released its report, "Unpacking the Housing Numbers: How much new social housing is BC building?" When you went in to look at the numbers, what were your main findings?

The strength of our report is that it relied entirely on the government's own numbers. We went back to BC Housing's own annual service plans for the past five years, and lined them up so we could track the trends.

The B.C. government has been keen to present the perception of a lot of activity on the housing front (and there is no shortage of regular government news releases on housing). But what we found is that, while there has been a lot of activity in some areas -- notably the purchase of existing low-income hotels, the opening of new emergency shelter beds, and the 2006 introduction of a rent subsidy for some low-income families -- there has been decidedly little activity when it comes to building actual new non-market housing stock. And therein lies the problem behind our housing and homelessness crisis.

Our report found that while the number of households assisted by provincial housing programs increased by 11,530 since 2006, most of this assistance does not represent actual new social housing units. Of the 11,530 additional households assisted:

-- 63% (7,270 households) represents rental assistance to families through the Rental Assistance Program, while another 1,010 are individuals assisted through the Homeless Rent Supplement.
-- Another 1,420 of the total increase are new emergency shelter beds (not housing units).
-- 1,550 of the "new" supportive housing units for homeless people with mental health and addiction problems are in purchased SRO hotels (renovations/replacements of existing housing rather than additional low-income housing supply).
-- While there has been growth in some types of social housing, in
particular supportive housing for the homeless and housing for frail seniors, there has been a larger decrease in traditional low-income housing units.

Taken together, the government's own data indicate an overall net increase of only 280 new housing units over the past five years, a sobering and concerning finding.

Q -- A significant portion of what is considered "new housing" under the province's definition is covered by rent supplements. What is your critique of rent supplements? 

Rent supplements can play a valuable role, but there are design problems with B.C.'s Rental Assistance Program for low-income problems, and if you aren't simultaneously building new supply of low-income social housing, you are actually undercutting the potential of rent supplements to help.

The reason is this. If a family lives in a community with a decent size vacancy rate, the rent supplements can be a real help. But in communities with a low vacancy rate (which is the case in BC's largest cities), there is every reason to believe the rent supplements are just driving up the rents and the benefits are going to landlords -- it just means that the same number of low-income households are chasing the same inadequate number of housing units, only now some have rent supplements (so if you don't qualify for the rent supplements, you may actually be worse off).

In the case of B.C.'s program, families on social assistance don't qualify for the rent supplements, nor do families with total household income of $35,000 or more (which is still very low in an expensive place like Vancouver).

Q -- What is the waiting list at B.C. Housing right now?

I don't know the latest numbers. In 2008 it was over 13,000. The key point from our research is that, unless things change, if you are simply low-income (meaning, you aren't a frail senior or a homeless person struggling with addiction or mental health issues), you will languish on social housing wait list for many years. All the new units being built are specifically for those will special supportive housing needs. To be clear, we desperately need such supportive housing. But in recent years, it has come at the expense of traditional low-income social housing. It has quite literally been robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Q -- Historically, there were far more units of social housing being built in B.C. How much would it cost to increase the supply of social housing to historic levels?

Yes, between the mid 1970s and 1993, B.C. used to bring on stream between 1,300 and 1,500 new units of social housing per year. And that didn't include co-op housing, which saw a lot of activity back then. When you include the co-op housing, the annual increase was often closer to 2,000 units. We still live with the legacy of that era, but it has been a long time since we were matching those numbers.

But that's what we need to once again do if we are ever to truly tackle the homelessness crisis we face. We estimate (again, using the government's own numbers) that building 2,000 new units per year would cost about $500 million. We ought to be able to afford that. That's about 1% of the provincial budget.

Q -- The Auditor General has already called for a provincial action plan on homelessness.  What is your message to the provincial government?

We join with the Auditor General in calling for such a plan, and indeed we need that to be part of a broader comprehensive poverty reduction plan.

Without a coordinated housing plan with clear targets and timelines, we will not get ahead of this crisis. A plan is needed to ensure our efforts are not working at cross-purposes, and that the full continuum of need is being met.

And we also need a national housing plan to compliment these efforts. Back in the era when we were bringing on stream 2,000 units a year, about two-thirds of the funding was federal. So it takes a partnership like that.
 
Q -- Report after report is showing that the affordability crisis in Vancouver is not only about homelessness, but also affecting people who are paying an increasing percentage of their paycheques for their housing. Why are affordability issues in Vancouver particularly so intense?

Again, we need a coordinated plan in which all the policy tools are reinforcing one another in a positive way: new social housing, supportive housing for people with special needs, requiring that private developers create a certain percentage of non-market and co-op housing units, incentives to encourage the building of new private rental buildings (something that hasn't happened for years; instead we've seen the market focus on high-end condos), and rent supplements. All of these measures represent a piece of the solution, and if all were in play, we could start to address the overall housing affordability crisis in Vancouver.

Another piece, on the other side of the affordability equation, is the stagnation in wages, particularly at the low end of the labour force. So increasing minimum wages and adopting the living family wage is also part of the solution (see www.livingwageforfamilies.ca).

Q -- Anything else?
 
There is nothing inevitable about the rise in homelessness. We used to be much better, as a society, in bringing new low-income housing on stream every year. It's not rocket science.

Click here to read the CCPA's report "Unpacking the Housing Numbers: How much new social housing is BC building?"

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