In this response to Bill 44: Housing Statutes (Residential Development) Amendment Act, 2023, I take space to discuss a variety of issues.
This is the accumulation of 15 years in governance and politics. I have been at both the local and provincial tables, involved in thousands of hours of meetings and conventions. I have been in the middle of land use debates, policy discussions, consultations with experts, academics, and stakeholders.
For the last several months my I have been growing increasingly anxious with the political narratives about the challenges we face and the proposed solutions that have been offered.
In this speech I discuss the historic government housing programs and services, and colonial land use and the subsequent zoning policy in our communities. I directly address the parallel histories of on-reserve and off-reserve housing policies in Canada and British Columbia, the social cost of individualism, stigma of renters and non-property owners, local government infrastructure deficit and much more.
30 pages and 12,161 words later… Many of these topics are challenging, striking at the heart of North American culture and expectations.
I rise to speak to Bill 44, the Housing Statutes (Residential) Amendment Act, 2023. I’m the designated speaker for the B.C. Green caucus.
It’s important that I frame my comments today in the experience I’ve had over the past 15 years as an elected representative of my community. First, I’m still the kid who grew up in W̱JOȽEȽP, Tsartlip Reserve, the young man that the people of Central Saanich elected as their district councillor and now the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.
This speech ranges across those many years, the thousands of hours of coffee meetings, community meetings, duly convened meetings, Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities conventions, Union of B.C. Municipalities conventions. This speech is the result of the cumulative work of those 15 years as an elected official in this socioeconomic system, this political system, this bureaucratic system.
This speech incorporates the conversations about form and character of neighbourhoods, the imbalance the settlement and land use patterns of past decades has created, patterns that largely excluded housing forms for people who couldn’t afford a mortgage, people who can’t afford to participate in the market housing system — all our friends, family and neighbours, who contribute to the fabric of our society, the front-line health care workers, construction workers, trades, seniors and our children.
I know my colleagues at the local government council tables across the province have been the easy target of senior governments, who need to look at themselves for propping up systems that have produced the exact results that we face today. It is troubling that we are so intoxicated with this belief that the socioeconomic systems that I’m going to talk about in this speech must be perfect, must be just one or two tweaks away from working as we envision them. If only we do a little bit more of what we are doing, without having to face the pain of immersing ourselves in the machinery, we’ll get different results.
I think the summary…. For those that don’t want to hang around here for the next two hours, the summary is we’re getting exactly the results of the system that we’ve created and nurtured.
My experience at these tables has me growing increasingly restless, feeling a desperation to speak to the housing affordability crisis that is a direct result of that economic system — a real estate market, a full, free market and the glorification of a toxic individualism that has been elevated above the village, the community, that drives much of the North American beliefs about our economy and how, for the sake of this specific speech, housing product is developed and distributed.
I’ve decided to prepare these remarks for this speech because I have quite a bit to say on this topic, and it is critical that they’re organized a little.
For example, I don’t think that it’s helpful for me to stand in here and use strong language like I did last week, “Decommodify the housing market,” without providing context as to what the internal philosopher has been ruminating on. I did that in my Bill 35 speech, and I regret that I ventured into the area without providing some context and some detail.
What I’m about to say here will likely be challenging for many to hear. Human civilization is facing existential threats. Climate change, extreme weather, soil-scorching wildfires, heat domes and atmospheric rivers are costing society infinite billions of dollars and countless lives, many who die in isolation, suffocated in the heat of their ill-equipped apartment, thousands whose lives were washed away when the river broke the 100-year-old dike that we knew, a decade ago, needed to be upgraded, that the local government prioritized but didn’t deliver enough votes for the province and federal government to pay attention to.
Whether we are prepared to admit it or not, the experiment of the last 150 years attempts to answer the underlying question: how much of the abundance of the earth can we take before it breaks? And another question: how long do you think it will take for humans to break it?
The collective connection and reverence our species had with the biodiverse ecosystems we lived in has been broken. The village has been abandoned and each individual unleashed to live their best lives. The village has been replaced with the strip mall, suburban cookie-cutter, stick-frame neighbourhoods that were never sustainable. The gluttonous fossilization of the land, urban sprawls, pipes and asphalt, filling the market with cheap, affordable housing for everyone.
In Victoria, we covered all the flat land quickly. If it wasn’t for the genetic remnant that the agricultural land reserve emerged from, all that land would be covered already too — so urban sprawls across the mountains. It creeps westward, deforesting and pulverizing mountains to push more pipe and asphalt, to fill more markets with more cheap, affordable housing for everyone, plus quite a bit of market appreciation and inflation.
The strawberry fields and salmon creeks that we built on in the 1970s and ’80s in Central Saanich, those formerly affordable houses that we’re living in today…. Well, they’re now 50 years old and each $1 million.
The anthropogenic ruin of earth’s critical functioning ecosystems, the willful destruction of the machinery that creates life-sustaining oxygen and clean water is driven by pride, elevating individual pursuits as the highest form of expression. That was really unlocked when our species became enlightened just a few hundred years ago.
Now we see the result — bureaucratized care replacing genuine human connection, corporatized human suffering hunched over in a doorway or bus stop by a crippling chemical concoction that is indiscriminately reaping a half dozen souls in our province every day. Here’s to chasing the North American dream.
In about a century we’ve smashed our spaceship, ransacked the treasury and turned the controls over to the most reckless narcissists. Unsurprisingly, we face a chaotic climate, deteriorating housing security, food security and public insecurity. The public health care system is in perpetual chaos, and the public education system is chronically underfunded.
We’ve known for decades that our public infrastructure is decaying, with scarce resources to properly maintain and upgrade our culverts, roads, bridges, dikes, dams, drinking water and wastewater systems. There’s no credible plan to pay for the infrastructure to support the hundreds of thousands of new people predicted to move into villages, towns and cities in British Columbia each year.
The philosophy and the systems that my great-grandparents’ generation designed and built are not serving us as they once did. We need to have a real conversation, not politicians talking with their mouths full of Okanagan apples, skirting the issue because they lack the courage to actually address what’s happening, because it’s uncomfortable for our collective constituents to hear.
It’s not helpful when members of this chamber forget our history, or wilfully try to rewrite parts of it, when we forget that our ancestors who sat in these seats signed agreements to share this land in a way they never intended to share it. This was long before there were subdivision lines drawn on the land surrounding these precincts, long before land use zones defined the small chunk of land inhabited by a settler who was beaten and starved out of their own homeland. The names of those colonial men are memorialized on the streets, Douglas and Blanshard. Only the despicable Trutch didn’t survive.
It’s not helpful when politicians leverage these complex issues for political gain, arguing against development cost charges, like I believe the Leader of the Official Opposition did recently, without clearly identifying how local governments are supposed to pay for all this new supporting infrastructure.
It’s not just the official opposition here in B.C. or in Ottawa whose silky slogans, soundbites and aviator sunshades are so convincing, though. Our own government is responsible for leveraging the suffering for their benefit as well.
Remember when the government was going to make life affordable again? That was Ambassador Horgan’s promise. When his consecutive $100 handouts failed to make a big enough dent on the grocery bill, they stopped talking about making life more affordable again. It’s gone from the playbook, gone from the message box.
As you might sense, the speech is going to get a little gritty. I’m going to name some stuff, because even if the consensus agrees that the issues I raise are not as dramatic as I argue them to be, I will have done my job as a member of the opposition in this House, raising the bitter and uncomfortable truths.
We’ve known for thousands of years that food and shelter are basic human needs, and the socioeconomic systems that produce and distribute food and shelter are the most rudimentary connective tissues holding human societies together. No matter where you come from on earth, when your ancestors secured food production and developed a reliable housing system that supported their way of life, human ingenuity was given space to flourish. Our creativity and innovation soared.
With the energy from full bellies and a sturdy roof over our head, we were able to focus the creativity and innovation of incredible human minds and bodies. Some humans dedicate their energy to intellectual pursuits, inquiring, processing and describing their understanding through theoretical models. Others devote their energy to practical pursuits, growing and refining understanding and expertise through hands-on craftship that comes with repetition and experience.
The technologies that our societies benefit from today are possible because our ancestors secured food and shelter. They didn’t work or live alone. Our ancestors were individuals within a collective. Each had a role in the survival of the group. We produced food security together. We shared responsibility for providing shelter together.
We raised and protected our young ones together. And we carried within our identities the law that ensured the collective or the public safety and security, with the foundational understanding of how fundamental food and shelter security is to our individual and collective survival, the recognition that flourishing is not possible without it. It is therefore critically important that our modern society develop systems grounded in this core belief that access to food and shelter should be a basic human right.
The Straits Salish people, where I come from, had an interesting system that we could learn from. If you were hungry, you would be fed. Families would welcome you in and feed you with no expectation of payment. Food to satiate hunger was available for friend and foe alike. But food also had value. You could exchange within your families as a way of balancing your immediate group. And for those who produced a lot of food, you could distribute it regionally for other much-needed products, and the excess could be shared with others, turning it into a capital of sorts by converting it into honour for themselves, their name and their family to be leveraged as needed later.
This is how a compassionate society looks after its people, by developing a socioeconomic system where food is free but not valueless. Today, food for hungry people is not immediately available, even though our planet has never had access to so much food, nor has it ever created so much food waste.
With respect to housing security in North America, the real estate market is responsible for creating unimaginable wealth for those lucky enough to own private property. But it is also responsible for producing affordable housing for everybody who needs it. An inherent conflict of interest, the desire to generate undesirable wealth, fuels decisions made in the real estate market. What did we think was going to happen when housing and food security as human rights were put directly in the way of a capitalist private property owner or business owner and their unlimited wealth?
When our legislative ancestors needed a silver bullet to recover from the Great Depression, they created a system to produce individual wealth for property and homeowners. It supercharged continental economic growth with more investment in real estate and jobs in construction. Across Turtle Island, there was a tremendous extraction of critical natural resources and the expansion of concrete, steel and glass urban infrastructure.
For the people born in the fortunate generations, times have been good. If you were born a boomer or a Gen X’er, you are extremely lucky. It wasn’t always perfect. Skyrocketing interest rates in the 1980s wiped out people financially. However, for those generations, it was a golden time. Those generations are the beneficiaries of a remarkable increase in the value of their real estate investments and their personal wealth.
I remember my grandfather lecturing his grandchildren to buy a home. Everyone needed their own home. Those who followed his advice were elevated and used as examples for the rest of us. From those days in the 1930s, we have entrenched in our political and social culture a trope that was useful in getting everyone to have the same North American dream of property ownership. Every individual needs their own single family home in a cul-de-sac with the green lawn, a white picket fence and a North American car in the driveway.
This was assured because of a cultural device that held up property owners in high esteem.
As we heard in here yesterday –– speaker after speaker from the United Party innocently repeating the social construct about renters, the character foil to the obedient individual homeowner in the storyline. Bluntly, renters are a blight in the neighbourhood, not to be trusted.
There is a much older proverb. Scholars believe it originates from Africa. We’ve probably uttered it ourselves from time to time: “It takes a village to raise a child.” It comes from our past, when we valued each other. When we relied on each other. Before we broke the complex interconnectedness of all the things. Before we sanctified independence. Before we, the enlightened thinkers, the economic philosophers of some 300 or 400 years ago began defining the individual as the sacred unit.
As I’ve shared about my W̱SÁNEĆ culture, we lived and worked together in an extended family. The village shared the responsibility to house, feed and protect each other. I have no romanticism about this. Despite the accurate anthropological descriptions of a much more egalitarian society that existed pre-contact here in the Salish Sea, it was far from perfect. We were and are human, after all. We warred and engaged in selfish pursuits. However, it was the exception, not the rule, like it is today.
Now, every child in the family needs to achieve the North American homeownership dream. The economic system depends on the majority buying into this story. It’s more than a story now, though. Deeply embedded in the fabric of our socioeconomic systems in North America, housing construction, real estate value and mortgage lending are economic indicators that are the engine of North American global dominance. So, we are reminded. Families living together — that’s uncivilized. It’s what humans did in the darker ages of human development, before we were enlightened and empowered with a sense of toxic individualism.
We confront the deeply established stigma against intergenerational living. For example, the middle-aged man living in his parents’ basement is mocked as a sign of incompetent parenting, a failure to fully realize an individual’s potential and even go so far in our culture as them being an early warning sign of a threat or danger in the community. Of course, this isn’t true, but in order for us to have as many people as possible participating in the housing market, these cultural narratives shaped our behaviour, our expectations, our actions.
If we dig deeper into the impact of these little mantras that we tell ourselves, the tentacles of toxic individualism slide into the cracks and undermine the social and cultural structures that have appeared solid for decades. As the children’s pursuit to live their best life force them to move further and further away from the parents, estranging grandchildren and grandparents, and as the aunties and uncles, the cousin siblings, the niece and nephew relationships grew more distant for the first time in millennia, the family unit was shattered.
The result is a century-old experiment that we are failing to critically analyze and learn from because we’re hoisted by our own petard. We’ve been so convinced that the sacred unit is the individual, when for all but a century of human existence, the sacred unit has been the family, and for good reason.
This government celebrates the billions of dollars that they’re pouring into a child care program. This government also defends the billions of dollars spent on elder care; long-term facilities where our seniors can spend the final days of their lives living away from their loved ones with other old people.
In order not to disrupt the economic systems that depend on this toxic individualism I’m talking about, parents are forced to farm the development of our children out to whoever we can arrange to do it — often, not the parents’ first or second choice. It’s often a desperate dash to find anyone who can do it so there can be a second salary to cover the shareholder expectations set up by the exuberant CEO’s promise of infinitely increasing corporate profits.
We are warehousing the care of our elders to facilities run by foreign for-profit enterprises more interested in pumping their annual returns to their shareholders than delivering the contracted care of care they committed to. Our elders are left lonely, medicated and forgotten — many of them — because of a heartless economic system that forces the offspring to work endlessly to placate envy, keeping up with the Joneses. Yet another of the North American references to a cultural notion that is used to keep individuals moving in a prescribed direction.
What would our ancestors say about us farming out the raising of our children and the warehousing of our elders? Before having our children, Emily and I never raised children. We had no idea what we were doing. But I know two people who did, and Emily knows two people who did. Those four people know eight people who raised children before them.
Whenever my children are having a hard time and I don’t have the answers, I bring in the Elders. Not only do they share the wisdom of years’ experience, but they also bring a calming warmth, a strength that is only accumulated through time.
And it’s not a one-way street. When my parents are having a tough time, when they’re tired and lonely, when their body hurts and they feel the wear of decades on their bones and muscles, why bring in the children? Not only do they have the innocence of youth, but they also bring a bright energy, an endless supply of joyful fuel that is only accessible by the unjaded, unblemished spirit of a child.
It’s not just the vertical relationships we’ve broken, but we’ve detached the horizontal ones as well. Where I come from, there’s a mysticism about big auntie energy, and not just in W̱SÁNEĆ territory. The magic of big auntie energy is embraced by my cousins and nations clear across Turtle Island and in Indigenous communities across the earth.
Big auntie energy ain’t no joke. They don’t even have to be your auntie to deliver big auntie energy. There are people in the generation ahead of you that you can rely on when your own parents are not reliable. When our children need to escape their intense and unrelenting parents, they go over to their auntie’s house. Joanie and Heather see the child needs support, put aside whatever they’re doing and just loves the child.
I feel the same responsibility to show love for my nieces and nephews, to support them in their development, to nurture them into adulthood. The emotion that I’m feeling today is the same emotion that I felt when I wrote this. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of the social strength that exists in these relationships.
I yearn for a society that is founded on this compassionate interconnectedness. Where we are connected to those ahead of us and those behind us. Where we are connected to those beside us. Multidimensional familial community connections.
The philosophy of toxic individualism has broken that. It has feasted on what my maternal grandfather called human nature. Grandda was a deeply religious man, and we all knew what he meant when he would go off about human nature and all the traits that may help us achieve our best selves but may not result in the betterment or the advancement of the group, however defined. And they’re named.
This toxic individualism has stolen our belonging. Who are you? Where do you come from? Not just the passport you carry, but who are you? Who are the people that you come from? What is your story?
With increased globalization and the fragmentation of the village around the child, including the land question in Canada and North America, a cultural wave of 21st-century settlerism has emerged. What are the social implications of losing belonging? I think we’re seeing it and feeling it in our society today. We have a different relationship to the place we are if we do not feel like we belong there.
ZIȻOT, my paternal grandmother, gave me this teaching. This visit with her was a pivot point in my life. I’ve talked about it. I was on a dark path. Looking up from her knitting needles, ZIȻOT gave me a job. She talked about all the people, the W̱ENITEM, people who are not from here, that have moved into W̱SÁNEĆ. She talked about how that was the future of our territory. She encouraged me to share a message to all the people who have come to W̱SÁNEĆ, who’ve set down roots going back to the first settlers, who’ve taken refuge from an atrocity in their own territory, or people who have just retired here from Alberta or Ontario.
ZIȻOT wanted me to encourage you to love this place like you belong here.
XÁLS, the transformer-creator of the W̱SÁNEĆ, created a worldview that honors multidimensional connections, relationships between the animate and the inanimate, the smallest creature to the largest mountain. And with each transformation, QEN,T TŦEN SĆÁLEĆE, you look after your relatives.
In a law intrinsic in each and every relationship, from all angles, a responsibility for each to look after their relatives, an agreement that your relatives share the same responsibility to look after you — the principle that is at the centre of the culture that makes food both freely accessible and the reason why you can accumulate great wealth and prestige.
If you are in W̱SÁNEĆ, then belong here in W̱SÁNEĆ. Fight for it. Be good stewards of it, as if it’s the place you belong. That’s the instruction of my grandmother ZIȻOT.
I’ve got to thinking about the impact of settlerism, as I will call it here. Clumsily, I’ll define it as a guilt-driven unwillingness to belong to the place you are, resulting in good ally-ship but void of the purpose and responsibility to actually submerge yourself into the social fabric of the community that has accepted you.
I’ll just leave a few questions here. What is the long-term implication of self-imposed settlerism rather than receiving the permission to belong? How are the current trends negatively affecting our ability to effectively build resilient communities?
Most of my grandfather’s grandchildren followed his advice, except for his status Indian grandchildren. More on that in the section to come. But honestly, though, has nobody ever stopped to ask what might happen if we leave food and housing security to markets that never account for the natural limitations of the planet?
At the core of our real estate market is this implicit expectation of infinite growth. But how is that possible? Most boomer and Gen X’ers have the future well-being fully invested in their real estate, just as successive governments, the people in these chambers, encouraged them to do. They did exactly what they were asked to do, and there is a generational assumption that the value of that investment is going to go up.
In the last 30 years, we’ve been accelerating towards a socioeconomic collapse. The very housing system we deliberately created, supported by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the system that was constructed to create immense wealth, paradoxically, is now creating poverty.
As fewer and fewer British Columbians are able to access stable, reliable, affordable housing in a community of their choice, or even the community of their birth, they’re forced to make decisions that benefit their individual situation in the short term but may be detrimental to a healthy, balanced society in the long term.
People suffering from housing insecurity, people that can’t afford their food, have to get a second or third job to pay the bills. They have little time to volunteer with their local community group. They’re less likely to be able to go to school and improve intellectually. They might choose to not have children.
People who are suffering from insecure food and shelter are more likely to suffer from deteriorating mental and physical health, constantly stressed out in search of a place to sleep, a bit of food to satiate hunger. We can see what the deterioration leads to already taking shape on the streets of our privileged and wealthy communities.
As people fight to secure their food and shelter, they become desperate. Perhaps their medication to dull the pain of some of their deeply buried trauma or burden of unmet cultural expectations becomes an addiction, and their numbers increase, overwhelming the social safety net. It becomes frayed, and more frequently people slip through. Public security erodes.
It used to just be in the Downtown Eastside, in Vancouver. The numbers of vulnerable people marginalized by a socioeconomic system that cannot deliver the promise of infinite growth are flooding to towns and villages across British Columbia, seeking some supper and a safe place to sleep. Our housing system that produced generational wealth for some is now creating poverty.
It’s because the people in this chamber are unwilling to address the reality that the socioeconomic system that is determining production and distribution of basic needs like food and shelter is not designed to ensure everybody has food and shelter.
Individual wealth creation has become more important than the health and well-being of our communities, and yet recent polling results are clear. The top priorities of the public are the cost of living and public safety and security.
Are we supposed to collectively pretend that the two are not inextricably linked so as to not impede on all the potential locked away in individual pursuits? This government is not prepared or well enough equipped to transform our socioeconomic system.
At what point does culture regulate this, evolving a social stigma against someone who squeezes every ounce of value out of their real estate? When will we elevate the person who sells for below current market rate, choosing to sacrifice a little for the good of the community?
In all the cataloguing of the issues I’m doing here today, I cannot skip an opportunity to drag our public health care system into this speech. The deterioration of our health care system should be of no surprise to anyone. It was never sustainable, and rather than allowing our leaders to dig into the system and fix it, we enshrined it and worshipped it. Those who designed it were pure in spirit. Nevertheless, the politically acceptable action was to spend more money on a tool designed to serve a different purpose. The system they designed was the best one they could negotiate at the time, not the best possible design.
If we want to see further proof that our economic system is suffering multifunctional failure, housing and food insecurity are symptoms to start with. Look next at the health care system that is designed to treat sickness, not promote wellness.
Poorly oriented, the health care system is left to carry the burden as best it can, pressure building on the social determinants of health overwhelming the physical infrastructure and human resource capacity that cannot keep up. Doctors and nurses come to my office exasperated because they are seeing patients with late-stage disease because of a lack of intervention by effective primary care. Remember Laozi’s proverb: “Treat a problem while it is still small.”
Acute care facilities, hospital emergency departments are understaffed and temporarily closing. The downstream impact of addressing sickness: hospital beds filled with people with hypertension and other conditions better treated in community because they have nowhere else to go.
The Health Minister is all too happy to celebrate spending $8.4 billion to get worse results and to maintain a health care system oriented to sickness when it should be focused on promoting wellness. Physical health is declining. Mental health is deteriorating. Depression and anxiety disorders drive marginalized and vulnerable people onto the streets. Self-medicated addiction, mental illness, brain injuries are all supercharged by poverty and a lack of secure shelter and food.
All things are connected, and yet 13,000 individuals, each with a critical role in the fabric of our society, have perished from toxic, illicit drugs because of a cold socioeconomic system that blames them for failing to succeed better.
We are seeing the poverty that our socioeconomic systems are producing. We know there is a widening gap between those fortunate enough to be well leveraged in their investments, those who won the real estate lottery and those who weren’t able to pull their socks up high enough.
In Canada, we know what happens once housing creates and perpetuates poverty. It’s not theoretical in Canada. I witnessed this firsthand growing up. If you grew up here, then you did too. You might not have seen it, but it does not mean that it has not been there in plain sight.
Our government has been experimenting with housing poverty for more than a century. Canada has been nurturing poverty through inadequate housing on Indian reserves delivered by the Department of Indian Affairs through the powers they gave themselves in the Indian Act to provide cover for the other system they created to generate unimaginable wealth on unsurrendered territories.
A. Olsen: That is a despicable reality of our country. It’s probably why, in recent years, we’ve seen Canada’s international reputation tarnish.
[J. Tegart in the chair.]
Despite Pierre’s assertion, I argue that the diminishment of our role in geopolitical affairs has less to do with our Prime Minister and more to do with the exposure of our history and about the way we handle our internal affairs.
That’s one of the reasons why I find the debate that’s happening politically, federally, right now so disingenuous. Two systems, side by side, in communities across the country. It’s our blemish. Where the federal government created personal financing mechanisms, initiatives to spur construction and building standards on the municipal side of the road, none of those policies were afforded Indians on the Indian reserve side of the road.
We’ve seen the awful outcomes of this terrible experiment. Historically, when societies did see it, it was fashionable to complain that the Indigenous people couldn’t look after themselves or do better with all the government handouts. “Look at how they take care of their houses,” they’d say. “Look at all their missing and murdered women,” they’d say. “Look at all their children in the child welfare system,” they’d say. Each is the result of a symmetrical assault on Indigenous people to cover for the lie.
The reality is that Indigenous people have experienced more than a century of a totally preventable systemic housing fiasco, the demoralizing impacts and effects of a system that continues to plague us to this day. We struggle every day to make the best with what we’ve got.
Every day, Canadians have failed to see the deplorable housing conditions on reserves and have explained them away as a poverty issue alone, as a First Nations issue. Both are blamed for the housing. But as the powerful work my mother, Sylvia Olsen, did in her doctoral studies, digging deep into the history of our heart-wrenching political and bureaucratic housing history in this country…. We’ve been wrong. Poor people don’t make bad housing. First Nations people don’t make bad housing. The inexcusable housing conditions in First Nations is a housing issue.
Ineffective housing systems, bad housing policy creates housing insecurity, inadequacy and unaffordability, which in turn makes poor and demoralized people. Canadians, British Columbians, would do well to take the current national housing affordability crisis seriously. When housing starts making poverty, things get out of hand quickly.
[S. Chandra Herbert in the chair.]
We’ve seen what happens in our society when a gap forms and widens on the socioeconomic strata between impoverished people and the wealthy. We know it is better to have a more diversified strata with a clear path of mobility for people. With a greater distance between the layers, there’s less mobility, more capital for those that already have, more demoralization for those that don’t. That is the toxic stew simmering in our province today.
When my parents moved back to Tsartlip, the housing policy of the day meant that my parents would have to have 100 percent of the money needed to build or purchase a house. Who else in our society in the early 1970s needed 100 percent of the money to create their forever home for their family?
My dad made too much money to get support to build a house on reserve, and there were no mortgages for Indians on Indian reserves at the time, because all that land was owned by the minister that was responsible for us. There were no building standards for what was built. Housing was distinctly not a commodity like it was on the other side of the road.
The House they brought me home to in 1976 was a double-wide trailer that was the result of a loan from my maternal great-grandfather. That’s it. Indians either had to be impoverished, independently wealthy or have a well-enough-to-do auntie or uncle to get a house in their community.
As my mother, Sylvia Olsen, asserts in her dissertation, housing on Indian reserves in Canada was designed to create poverty. The federal government deliberately delivered one failed housing policy after another. Now, why would they do that? I’ve alluded to it earlier. It was to cover for the lie. Politicians in British Columbia and Canada regularly trumpet, on behalf of the public, rule of law rhetoric, at the same time as promoting systems that grow tremendous wealth on vast tracts of land that were never ceded or surrendered.
Indeed, when ministers of this government, members from all parts of this chamber, acknowledge the Indigenous territories that we live and work in, the honour that we feel when we signal our virtue with words and when the Housing Minister tables legislation like Bill 44, perpetuating the zoning and land use system that dispossessed Indigenous peoples from their lands illegally, subdividing and zoning the lands and distributing them to settlers, who were previously starved and violently displaced from their own homelands, you can imagine that there’s a sour taste.
I’ve raised this issue with the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. I reminded him that the resource of our territory is no longer fibre from trees or nutrients from fish, minerals from the earth or even much food from the land. The resource in W̱SÁNEĆ is real estate.
The land he lives on, the lands that surround these legislative precincts, is unceded and unsurrendered. That is the central lie that I keep referring to. The promise governments make to all the individuals is made with land of questionable ownership by our own laws.
In 1975 a packet of documents was published, curiously titled Papers Connected With the Indian Land Question. Do you think the question was answered? Did our legislative ancestors do us a favour and answer the question they were asking in 1875? Even then, even in 1875, it was a land question. It’s a sleazy bit of history, really. You can imagine someone holding the packet of documents, handing it over, kind of one eye closed and a little bit of hesitation on their breath: “Well, you know, it’s not exactly legal, but it’s good enough, and we got what we wanted, right?”
James Douglas was a Hudson’s Bay Co. man, HBC chief factor. First, Douglas was a corporate man; then he was governor. Some folks have bristled at my characterization of this province as a resource colony — when I draw comparisons to the level of corporate reach into our legislative and political affairs, when I complain that our current government is being represented on political panels by corporate lobbyists, when I complain about how the government has been captured by industry. It has, because that’s how it was set up.
In 1849, Britain gave title of Vancouver Island to Hudson’s Bay Company for a decade. There was a condition: promote colonization of the territories. It’s sleazy, because James Douglas knew, when he was standing on PKOLS with my ancestors, that all he needed to do was buy himself enough time. With the W̱SÁNEĆ increasingly anxious about encroaching settlement, ironically irritated by tree-cutting and by the murder of one of our messengers, Douglas needed time. The settlers were on their way, and in the next 30 years, they would flood into this region.
When Douglas made the agreement with my ancestors to share the land — to share the land — it gave him the space that he needed to fulfil the requirements of the corporate agreement he had with Britain. Former Premier, now Ambassador, Horgan spoke clearly of his belief in Indigenous sovereignty. He talked about rights and title confidently, like he knew what he was talking about.
I reminded the minister that one way sovereign people recognize claim to land is through the right to tax. Since it was never surrendered, I asked the minister why the W̱SÁNEĆ would not be able to recover some of their sovereignty through the collection of revenue from the trade of the most valuable resource in our territory: real estate. Why can’t the W̱SÁNEĆ collect a portion of the real estate transfer tax?
The minister is a lawyer. He knows it is a reasonable request. He fails to recognize the elegantly simple solution that I offer him and the Finance Minister. If not just a basic recognition of humanity, it is a powerful act of reconciliation: the ability to capture a portion of the wealth-generating capacity of the lands of our unceded and unsurrendered territories. Until then, the minister must feel some responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the lie that there is no unanswered question over these immediately surrounding lands — and indeed most of British Columbia — not just for the sake of closure.
It wasn’t until 2008 that I and my relatives were able to borrow money for housing on our Indian reserve. That’s quite a head start that this government gave their settler relatives. Centuries-old, outdated ideas, rooted in our government, inform our systems — designed, nurtured and fiercely protected by growing administrative bureaucracies. They convinced those people, elected to these democratic institutions, that the only answer is to continue to perpetuate another lie: infinite growth on legally surrendered land.
All the political leaders across the country right now seem to agree on one thing, from Pierre Poilievre, Justin Trudeau, Premier Doug Ford to our Premier. They answer the question of how to fix the housing affordability crisis in the same way: build more supply. All we need to do to lower prices of housing is to build more supply than demand. In reality, we’ve not even come close to doing that. And so we’ve fallen behind.
Additionally, we expect hundreds of thousands of people to migrate and immigrate to British Columbia each year, adding to the demand of our insufficient housing supply. The way our local governments have been set up to deliver land use planning and zoning, a negative incentive existed for mayors and councillors who are mostly property owners and historically elected only by property owners.
It’s not in the interest of the people who currently own property and want the value of it to increase for there to be more supply than demand. In a profit-driven real estate system overtly driven by greed, why would the owners of a commodity want to devalue it?
People flock to public hearings at town halls to argue against increased density because it will change the form and character of the neighbourhood they were promised when they bought their property there. This past year people in a neighbourhood in Vancouver wrote to complain about a child care facility because they didn’t like the sound of children.
My friend, Central Saanich Coun. Bob Thompson, has a copy of one of the oldest maps of the Saanich Peninsula. It has no lines drawn on it. There are forests and wetlands, watersheds and prairie. It is the land before the first surveyor’s chain began slicing and dicing it into ever-diminishing sizes. The diminishing returns, fracking — each time a section is split, more value is unlocked.
The first settlers arrived to their large farms: Thomson, Verdier, Stelly — their names also memorialized on the neighbourhood streets. You can visit the Saanich Pioneer Society’s museum in Saanichton to glimpse back in time just 175 years ago.
In the decades that followed, community development patterns continued to be governed by zoning systems, shaped by governance systems that featured public hearings in front of locally elected officials who were responsible for managing the fence lines between one individual property owner’s rights and interests and their neighbour’s rights and interests.
The system that we have was not designed to create housing security operating from a central philosophy that housing is a human right. Up until now, our housing system has been maintained by managing scarcity. A confluence of factors include a decade of skyrocketing property values, high inflation, increasing interest rates. It has squeezed housing affordability in previously unimaginable ways to the point that people who own property argue opening the taps and creating more supply is necessary, obviously unconcerned that the conditions will diminish their property value too much.
Bill 44 is a remarkable piece of legislation because it fundamentally rewrites the underlying principles of our historic land use planning and development systems. The zoning creates wealth, and it protects the wealth. Just as individual lots have increased in value dramatically, Bill 44 has the potential of multiplying the wealth of those fortunate enough to own those little pieces of land by allowing three or four or six times the density.
While the Housing Minister will be remembered for generating tremendous wealth, he will also be recognized for creating a wider gap between those who have and those who don’t. It’s unlikely that this government is going to hear many complaints from property owners. The vast majority have just received a massive windfall. And by the provincial government circumventing the local government hearing process, the requirements of local governments to bring their zoning bylaws into compliance, there will be little point to complaining anyway.
But the scale and scope of the lack of housing affordability for both home ownership and rentals likely won’t be met by this initiative either. So the minister goes ahead and transfers huge wealth to property owners.
So, the minister goes ahead and transfers huge wealth to property owners. The fact that the situation has become so desperate that it is not possible for government to flood the market with more supply than is needed to actually drive these prices down, matched with hyperinflated cost and high interest rates…. I’m concerned that despite what this legislation is designed to make you feel as a British Columbian, the system will still be effectively managing scarcity. Does this government have any intention to create as much abundance as it needs to drive the real estate market prices down?
When the Minister of Housing was on CBC Victoria with Gregor Craigie, he was asked about emergency shelters — extreme weather warming centres. Gregor asked him several times whether the provincial government would fund these initiatives. The minister kept deflecting back to the key message provided him: “The approach of the ministry is to move away from the shelter model to focus on long-term housing.” No matter how many times Gregor asked, the minister reframed the short-term question and offered a long term solution.
However, the minister knows the number of stable supported and affordable housing units he is delivering is far from sufficient, and obviously, they won’t be available tonight and tomorrow night as the temperature plummets or in a few weeks when another atmospheric river flows over town, as was the compassionate spirit of Gregor’s questioning.
Stemming from our long pursuit of the average person to achieve property ownership, the classist struggle and stigma of the non-property owner — as I previously mentioned, renters — have found themselves on a lower rung of the societal hierarchy in North American culture. When I was elected to Central Saanich council, there was a rule that landlords had to live on the property they were renting. When this issue came up, I was shocked by some of the comments about the potential for the neighbourhood to fall into disrepair, apparently, because of the renters.
Now we expect people to pay 50, 60, 70 percent of their income to rent a home. Over the past 15 years as housing prices steadily climbed, people who could qualify for a mortgage were encouraged to make it affordable by buying a place with a secondary suite so the renter could help the owner pay and afford their debt. Renters hear their landlords openly talk about how their tenants can’t be trusted, insinuate that they’re terrible people and that they need to have the power to be able to evict them much easier, all of which has a terrible impact on the psychological wellbeing of renters who are constantly living in fear that their housing is unstable.
Now, I know that there is some exaggeration in what I’m saying. The vast majority of these relationships, as I learned in that rental housing task force I was on, are good and stable. However, we only hear about the edge cases — the cases of bad tenants and bad landlords. As a result, we need to have the right-sized context for this discourse. Our constant cultural undermining of the renter is one of the destabilizing forces among many in our society today.
The amount of rent people pay is not attached to the amount that they can afford to pay or based on the median salary of the area or based on the fair price that allows them to maintain a balanced life. The amount of rent they pay is the amount the market determines, so people — well, they take what they can get where they can get it, and then they scramble. Scramble is not a sustainable lifestyle. People grow exhausted. Burn out. Stress out. They get mad. Society meets wrath.
This is the cycle for those who are born in the unfortunate generations. The people who look at housing and participating in the real estate market as a sci-fi fantasy. The ones the boomers and the Gen X’ers are convinced are unmotivated sloths. People who don’t want to work with the same ethic that they have. People who are choosing not to pick up their socks like we once did to get ourselves ahead. Never mind the reality that these generations cannot save for a down payment for a mortgage, because they’re locked into paying their landlord’s debt.
It’s clearly inappropriate to suggest the landlords subsidize their tenant, so there are very, very few options here. If you get into the rent trap cycle, there are very few outs. There is minimal mobility from being a renter to being a property owner in the current real estate market.
Let’s be honest. With the volume of supply and the chronological distribution of this new supply that Bill 44 purports to create, paralleled with increasing immigration, renters will still be renters, locked into endlessly paying someone else’s mortgage and hearing how terrible and incompetent they are.
It’s important to ground this discussion in the reality and acknowledgment that we’ve been building an extraordinary number of commodified units of housing stock in the last 15 years — obviously not enough to meet demand, or maybe just not enough of the correct form of housing as a result of a number of factors, including immigration. Our villages, cities, towns, metropolitan areas have all grown immensely. Construction has been booming, but not all those new units of housing have become homes.
At the same time, the new construction was marketed as an investment vehicle, fully turning homes into economic units. This is evident in our vernacular. Whenever we talk about a housing unit, we are talking about an economic unit, not necessarily a home. That is why the minister can talk about the number of units, behind the ribbons he and his colleagues cut in front of the cameras, snapping up these visual artifacts that represent marginal, even laughable, progress. Ultimately, those can be detached from the problem because he’s operating in an economic sphere of commodified housing units and not from the principle that housing is a human right.
He doesn’t need to know how many unhoused and housing-insecure people he’s targeting to support. He just needs to have the number of units he’s responsible for building close at hand, so he can repeat it, ad nauseam, to demonstrate government as doing something.
With construction booming and trades looking for a workforce who can afford to live in a high-cost region, it’s unclear how the minister and this government intend on building all the necessary supply — the pan-political promise, the silver bullet to solve this housing affordability crisis. Who is going to build the magic supply?
A little detour. When politicians offer supply as the solution to the crisis, they’re often talking about building new supply. They want to build their way out of it. However, we’ve been building housing stock for decades. How much of the current housing stock is underutilized? We can’t accurately answer that question, but anecdotally, there are many single-family homes in my communities with one or two people living in houses with many more bedrooms and baths than they need.
This is another difficult discussion that I’m venturing into here, because private property rights are a sacred cow. Identifying this as a potential solution is probably going to be seen as controversial, but why hasn’t government created a program to incentivize single people and couples who are oversized to downsize?
The vacancy taxes are an example of the government using a penalty to encourage some investors to either rent their unit or sell it, so it can become somebody’s home. What if the provincial government offered a grant to cover the moving and storage of excess possessions? What if they offered a substantial tax incentive to those who entered the program to right-size their housing in an effort to free up some of those empty bedrooms, either for someone to rent or for the family who needs space for their growing children?
Another idea that I’ve proposed to the minister, if that one is venturing into too much discomfort, is to abandon the notion that B.C. Housing needs to only purpose-build the solutions. Why not have a program that purchases larger homes, larger buildings on the market, and transforms them into multi-home buildings — rental buildings managed by a non-profit housing manager, cooperatives, co-living, strata buildings with their own governance structure?
None of these ideas have found any fertile soil within the ministry, yet they’re all potential solutions that provide housing much more quickly than B.C. Housing has been delivering.
Now back to construction. Just another idea to address the minister’s insistence that the housing affordability crisis will be solved by supply alone, why not invest in developing modular building systems?
Our current construction industry is inefficient, promotes inefficiency. Trades cannot find employees for the current volume of construction that is needed, never mind the massive increase envisioned by the minister. Construction site management requires an orchestration of trades who drive from job to job across town.
The stigma against modular construction is another one of those strictly classist cultural artifacts. Look down your nose at the people in the trailer park.
Imagine the efficiency, speed and lean manufacturing we could achieve constructing components of buildings in modular climate-controlled factories adjacent to the construction site, modules then transported to the site and assembled like LEGO. With modern technology, we could build attractive high-quality product quickly, drastically limiting waste. It’s good enough for the LNG Canada project supported by this government. Why not support it for our housing systems?
We hear the stories regularly that approved projects are not getting out of the ground. The cost of construction even after approval is too high — high costs to borrow construction capital. Building materials have become more expensive, and developers and trades assume more risk building the new supply — all factors that are included in the final market cost of the real estate product.
The financial landscape is challenging the modern homeowner and homebuilder with super-inflated property values, building costs and higher interest rates. As fixed-term mortgages come due and existing homeowners are facing down dramatically inflated mortgage payments, with the majority of those payments going directly to the interest, paying down very little of the principal, marginal homeowners become more housing insecure.
The water is slowly rising, and in the next 18 to 24 months, we will see them increasingly unstable as well, with more of them drowning as a result of the economic system that is predicated on maintaining the value of a commodified housing unit rather than the value of well-housed, secure people.
Now, you might wonder at what point I’ll get to the legislation in front of us. Good fortune to those who wait or those that are locked in House duty, whichever it might be, as they look at their watches for their escape.
Passing new laws and soon-to-follow regulations on short-term vacation rentals, this government has shown a willingness to experience some political discomfort around housing. They demonstrated this in 2018, when they passed the speculation and vacancy tax. Unlike some I’ve witnessed, this B.C. NDP government was unflinching when they passed that tax.
Bill 44, as best we can see it, removes single-family zoning and allows three, four or six densities on a lot and potentially manifests billions of dollars of real estate wealth for those who already benefited from being born at the right time and further widens the gap between those who hold real estate and those who do not.
It dramatically increases the potential impact on outdated, underscoped, unfunded physical infrastructure liabilities in every community over 5,000 people in British Columbia. It removes the ability for local governments to capture critical revenue needed to pay for infrastructure upgrades that are limitations on the scale of approved densification.
Note: there’s another bill for another time. We’ll see how that delivers on that point.
It replaces one-off public hearings with the requirement for more detailed housing needs assessments and frequent community planning engagement processes. It allows secondary suites and suites and accessory dwellings in every community in the province, but it does nothing to require affordability or increased incentives for non-profit, cooperative co-housing and other rate-controlled housing options.
When I was a councillor in the district of Central Saanich, my job for my first term, 2008 to 2011, was chair of the water and wastewater committee. This was where I met former North Saanich mayor Jeff Orr and how I was introduced into the physical limitations of our infrastructure.
The infinite growth model needs to have access to an infinite amount of capital to build and maintain all the structural and mechanical resources necessary so that when little Susie turns on the tap and when little Johnny flushes the toilet, the expected happens.
The infrastructure built over the last 100 years has been pretty good, but a lot of it is getting old and nearing its end of life. Much of it is undersized; think culverts meeting an atmospheric river. The Minister of Transportation remembers what happened then. None of it had an investment program for replacement, nor did we consider applying an inflationary factor in the accounting to accommodate the reality that a new bridge today does not cost the same as the one that it is replacing.
I run into this every day in my constituency office, with respect to B.C. Ferries. I fight hard to make sure that B.C. Ferries supports the beautiful communities and needs of my constituents, and the drive-on experience that I had when I was a kid — when my dad and I would go over to the Pacific Coliseum and watch our hometown boy, Russ Courtnall, play for our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.
The marine highway system we expect, based on our past experience, has changed. Standards, costs and labour markets are just some of the reasons why the system that we’ve come to expect to deliver in a certain way is no longer able to meet those expectations. This government expects the infrastructure — which, we have known for decades, will be insufficient — to suddenly and magically become sufficient.
Earlier, I shared a pivotal moment in my life, sitting on my seatless couch, my grandmother’s coach. There’s another such moment when I sat in the chair in Gary Nason’s office. He was the chief administrator in the district of Central Saanich, and I was a four- or five-month-old councillor, eager to do all the things. I had a big learning curve, as a kid who grew up on the other side of the line, the side without zoning, planning and development, public hearings, development cost charges, land taxes, mill rates and constituents.
Gary was patient, and he was a great leader and teacher, as was the mayor at the time, Jack Mar. Gary spent time with me to show how the federal and provincial conditional granting systems worked — or didn’t, depending on where you were located. On the federal-provincial side of the equation, they got to collect a vast majority of the wealth from a seemingly limitless tax potential and then distribute it based on their own politically driven priority.
One year, we were looking for funds for a fire hall, but Christy Clark was funding park benches. We borrowed the money for the fire hall, and we applied for a grant for the park benches. On the municipal side of the relationship, you just take what you’re given. Even though politically, mayors and councillors are closest to the public, and much of their work is driven from grassroots community advocacy, it’s beneficial if their priorities align with the federal-provincial priority. How else are MPs and MLAs going to cut ribbons?
Sitting in that chair in Gary’s office that day, I realized my path was to the provincial government. Ottawa is too far from W̱SÁNEĆ. At the 2009 Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities, I stood and asked the then Leader of the Official Opposition, B.C. NDP leader Carole James, if she formed government one day, would she fix the broken fiscal system supporting our local governments? She said no, she would not.
When Premier Gordon Campbell took the stage the next day, I asked him if he would change the framework that funds municipalities and regional districts so that they were not perpetually chasing funds for critical infrastructure investments. He said no, he would not. They both kept their promise.
In 2010, I was part of the conversations at the Union of B.C. Municipalities that produced important advice on how the provincial government could secure the fiscal futures for local governments. Thirteen years later, that project is still incomplete, and our infrastructure continues to decay. From the multi-billion-dollar surplus found by the Finance Minister prior to Budget 2023, the Minister of Municipal Affairs announced a $1 billion fund and a new distribution formula, which mostly worked.
The exception is to help people who live in electoral areas. Particularly in my riding, the ones in Saanich North and the Islands, on the southern Gulf Islands and Salt Spring Island, were not treated equally to their urban cousins. I shared this with the minister. I shared this with the Minister of Housing. I shared this with this government. Nothing changed.
This program is a hopeful start, but it could run for the next 100 years, and it would still fail to meet the need of local governments, never mind the added pressure that Bill 44 will create.
Going back to Central Saanich and the conditional grants, this is how absurd the current system is. The federal government creates a fund matched and administered by the province. Central Saanich has a critical sewer pump, desperately needing replacement. A high-pressure system, densely populated neighbourhood, adjacent to a sensitive ecosystem. They applied and are denied. They applied again and were denied again.
Look, if the government’s model is to borrow for this replacement, then it won’t be long before the community has reached its borrowing capacity, and that will be well before there is suitable infrastructure across the municipality. Overlay this with the pressure Bill 44 puts on that sewer pump. It’s a single-family home neighbourhood, 8,000 to 14,000 square foot lots, big lots.
None of what Bill 44 has considered was considered when the neighbourhood was originally developed. It was designed for single-family homes. The underground and aboveground infrastructure was not scoped for a 400 percent increase in density, and now the provincial government has unilaterally stated that the neighbourhood can load an extra 400 percent more density there without planning.
Ad hoc, top-down decision-making, designing the future of a place without the context of the place. That’s the reason why it leaves the taste in my mouth that this makes more sense as a real estate investment play than it does making healthy community development. And that is not assuming that the system that we currently have is achieving healthy community development, because it’s not. Not necessarily, I should say.
As I mentioned, the health care system can barely deliver substandard care now, never mind piling 400 percent more people into the same space. The schools in those neighbourhoods are currently running at 95 to 98 percent efficiency. That’s almost the perfect number. That means they’re being funded, and they’re not overcrowded. The buildings are aging, but the condition of the buildings is still good.
This is not the case everywhere in every community across the province. The health care systems and education systems are not funded or flexible enough to handle this scale of change. What is most disturbing is that there doesn’t appear to be any inkling that this government has any intention of thinking about the planning that is needed to support local governments in making these investments in their infrastructure.
As a passing comment in the Housing Minister’s briefing material for Bill 44, they celebrate the $1 billion building communities fund and pretend like it will be enough to placate the needs of our local government colleagues. It also mentions a $51 million promise that was made at the UBCM this year.
Both of these numbers are remarkably low compared to the well-known infrastructure needs of our communities. The fact that we have not got a system that was designed to support the renewal of our infrastructure. We just had a history of building it and then pretending like it was going to last forever.
Well, a lot of that infrastructure is coming to the end of its life. That’s why earlier this year, I called on the province to commit to make this building communities fund an annual payment, $1 billion a year, at least until the new fiscal foundation is created to support the growth of our communities as it was envisioned here.
I can’t think of a better way to actually put the onus on the provincial government to do the necessary work and to commit to the necessary work to opening up the resources so our communities can actually support the burden that this provincial government is downloading onto them.
So how does Bill 44 impact my communities in Saanich North and the Islands? I’ll separate them into three distinct categories: the Saanich Peninsula, Salt Spring Island and the southern Gulf Islands.
The communities on the Saanich Peninsula are the classic definition of urban sprawl, single-family homes, from modest to massive, on large unserviced lots. The primary challenge I’ve heard about this change to zoning is the range of issues I raised just previously about the capacity of the urban infrastructure to support the increased density.
I have long recognized that our land settlement pattern through the 1960s to the 1980s, when most of the neighbourhoods on the Saanich Peninsula were developed, was inefficient. The vast majority of the housing stock built on these massive lots is large, single-family homes built parallel to the road, directly in the middle of the lot, with 4,000 to 6,000 square feet of lawn in the front and back yards. The value of those properties has increased from about $100,000 when they were brand-new drew around $1 million today.
The shoreline on the Saanich Inlet satellite channel around Roberts Bay in Sidney–North Saanich represents some of the most expensive real estate in British Columbia, not old money Victoria, like Oak Bay, but deep pockets nonetheless. Many of those houses — not all, many of them — are part-time residences, real estate investments, some project real estate, people building a dream home to sell to someone else to live in.
While Central Saanich and North Saanich have had modest growth. Sydney’s commercial area has seen a boom in condo development. My office is in one of those buildings, all of which have been — except the one that I’m in, actually — market product and provide a little case study for the Housing Minister of what happens when property is redeveloped based on a philosophy that if you build more supply, you automatically get lower prices in a market that doesn’t restrict who can enter it or artificially cap the price.
Hundreds of new units have been added to the housing market, and, as you guessed it, they’ve all been at — or the vast majority of them have been at — current market value. The aging affordable housing it replaces — well, they’re gone. Those people that lived in those spaces have been displaced.
I’ve been around local government on the Saanich Peninsula for 15 years. I’m not the rookie councillor anymore. I know the state of our infrastructure. I know the state of the reserve funds, with hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and upgrade the infrastructure. I know that without the capacity to raise those funds through development cost charges, which are usually applied at rezonings, or a fund reliable from the provincial government and federal governments to support the infrastructure, Bill 44 is little more than a government appearing to do something.
On Salt Spring, things get a lot more complicated. I know that the Premier and his Housing Minister know this, because they’ve been involved in several meetings where the problems and the challenges have been described with clarity. Salt Spring has more than 12,000 full-time residents. It’s the largest unincorporated community in the province, managed by federal, provincial and two local government bodies. The CRD provides the services. The Islands Trust, which operates on the preserve and protect mandate, does the land use planning. It is somewhere between the 25th and 30th largest community in the province. There are about 200 municipalities in the province.
Historically, land use zoning on the island created massive multi-acre lots, serviced by a patchwork of locally run improvement districts that manage local water and sewer, or the properties were individually serviced by wells and septic tanks. The roads are owned, with all due respect to the Minister of Transportation, and managed somewhat poorly by the province. B.C. Ferries provides the transportation connections to the rest of British Columbia.
Salt Spring finds itself in a rurban purgatory in British Columbia. It is considered rural when it needs to be urban. It is considered urban when it needs to be considered rural. Its connection to the capital regional district is both beneficial and a drawback, and its inclusion into the Islands Trust wraps it in an argument that is grounded in a legislative policy designed to address problems 50 years ago, not the problems of today.
That is not the dog whistle that people on both sides of this deeply entrenched battle between growth and no growth may think that it is. It’s not. There’s no such thing as infinite growth. And Salt Spring Island is an island and has real limitations on the number of people that it can carry.
Again, with unlimited money, energy and ambition, we could build unlimited water desalinization plants, wastewater treatment facilities and new pipes everywhere to accommodate infinite growth. However, as the Premier, Housing Minister, Transportation Minister, Health Minister, Mental Health and Addictions Minister, Education Minister, Public Safety Minister and Finance Minister have all made very clear to us, there’s not an infinite supply of cash for Salt Spring. There’s not even a modest amount of money or even a desire to create land use and community planning that could facilitate it.
Instead, we have B.C. Housing fluttering around the island, claiming that they are going to purpose-deliver 24 or so modular units of supported housing and somehow that will create housing stability for the thousands of people who are currently housing insecure — trades and other working professionals, front-line workers that are needed for the basic functioning of a community. They even suggested that since they were building these supported units, the emergency shelter was no longer needed.
So we fought back and let them know that the need is so much greater than their paltry offerings that they announced nearly two years ago and have yet to even break ground on. Just as we warned, B.C. Housing has run into the wall of bureaucracy and the real physical limitations, including purchasing modular units that were not suitable and had to be renovated. This project has ground to a halt. Now people have just turned the site into a campground.
I facilitated dozens of meetings with the Housing Minister, the Premier, local elected officials and B.C. Housing officials to plead with them to take a different approach with Salt Spring Island. I pled with the Health Minister and the Mental Health and Addictions Minister for them to spend some of the billions they brag about spending in these portfolios. But each of them shrug and tell me there’s nothing they can do.
Perhaps it’s time for this government to have their words reflect the body language and just admit to the people of Salt Spring Island that the bureaucratic administration that is being managed here is so broken that there’s nothing that can be done for this community. I don’t believe it, but we need to start to see real action. My local government colleagues are exasperated. They need this government’s support, not understanding and well wishes.
On the outer Gulf Islands — Pender, Mayne, Galiano, Saturna, Sidney, Piers — 60 of them, each of these communities face similar issues as Salt Spring but each to their own contextualized extent. All of the issues I’ve raised regarding Salt Spring exist on the outer islands. The challenge they face with building four to six units of affordable housing is inexplicable. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time. Like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the boulder up the mountain, each obstacle navigated reveals another obstacle.
I only separate the southern Gulf Islands from Salt Spring because the scale and scope of the challenges they face are dramatically different. The call to the provincial government remains the same. We can celebrate opening a child care facility on Mayne Island together. I know members of this government leaned heavily into that one. But if there’s no housing for early childhood educators, if there is no housing for teachers in the public school and no action is taken to address the systems that continue to fail those communities, then what progress has been made?
Bill 44 does nothing to create or incentivize the construction of affordable, rate-controlled, non-profit, cooperative and co-housing options that would allow more upward potential for people in the rental cycle.
In the second reading speech made by the minister in support of Bill 44, there was only a passing reference to affordable housing that may be possible if someone chooses to build it, an admission that this exercise is an exercise in market housing. It does not qualify any of the wealth that can be extracted from turning a $1 million home into three, four or six $1 million homes. It doesn’t say: “Look, if you’re going to take this golden handshake from the Housing Minister, then you have to produce a percentage of units that are below market value.” It doesn’t do that.
Every single unit of housing created through Bill 44, with the exception of the few that choose to build below market, will go into the real estate market with the assumption that we will get a different outcome than the one that we’ve been getting since social stability became the sacrificial lamb for the housing market. It’s remarkable.
I have a constituent who read Les Leyne’s article quoting me talking about decommodifying housing and remarked that I sounded socialist. Another person suggested to me that I wasn’t compassionate enough about the effort and hard work they’ve invested into buying their home. I’m sorry that our society hasn’t got over the fears of socialism. It’s a long history, but in the end, it’s the constructs of capitalists protecting their individual interests.
We’ve seen a rise of ill-informed memes that have clearly found a home at social media university where the curriculum clearly fails to accurately define socialism and communism and Marxism. This speech is not about socialism. It’s about reimagining an interconnected world where we look at each other and we agree that it is better for all of us if each of us is securely housed.
Decommodifying housing is not about destroying people and their economic security. It is the opposite. It’s about rebalancing markets so they serve, not dominate, the humans and human societies that constructed them.
It made little sense for us to strip the natural resources that sustain life on planet Earth, and it makes even less sense for us to defend socioeconomic systems that do the same thing to our communities and our societies. But that’s exactly what we’ve done.
I think we need to recognize the damage that toxic levels of individualism have done to our communities, to our planet, to our quality of life. People are struggling to keep up — keep up with the demanding expectations, keep up with the bills, keep up with the Joneses, struggling to have good food energizing them, sturdy shelter over their head.
Housing and food are human rights. It’s what a compassionate and just society promises to their people. And if that doesn’t motivate you, well, worry not because it’s also good economics. The instability created by food and shelter insecurity, by the housing system designed to create wealth now creating poverty, is going to be far more costly for us all.
We need to have the difficult and uncomfortable dialogue about resetting our expectations from the returns on our real estate investment. We need to destigmatize renters as second-class citizens. There needs to be a massive realignment so that rent and mortgage payments, property value, are aligned with what people who live and work in community can afford to pay without bankrupting them, without limiting their decisions about post-secondary education and their desire to start a family.
This topic is hugely toxic because there are so many hopes, dreams and promises, expectations and wealth attributed to it.
But government needs to get creative about how we can recognize some of that wealth that people have built over the decades in other ways, through other means, just like the W̱SÁNEĆ people did by having free food, but food with value, not stigmatize or leave people behind who weren’t born at the perfect time.