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Capacity and scale questions greet new BC Builds program

Latest provincial housing initiative draws qualified praise from some, criticisms form others
An 18-storey mass timber building that will include 180 units for middle-income households in the City of North Vancouver is among the first three BC Builds projects announced. But both supporters and critics of the program to build middle-income rental housing wonder if it can be sufficiently scaled. Counting all existing and contemplated BC Builds projects, some 4,300 units could become available by 2026.

Reactions to BC Builds, government’s long-awaited program to build more rental housing for middle-income British Columbians, vary.

Broadly, BC Builds sees government team up with non-profits, local governments, public agencies, First Nations and community groups to identify underused land. From there, funding and financing will support the construction of housing targeted to those who have a household income between roughly $84,000 and $190,000, subject to one-time income-testing. BC Builds projects in partnership with non-profits and First Nations must include at least 20 per cent of units renting at 20 per cent below market.

Counting all existing and contemplated BC Builds projects, some more than 4,000 units could become available by 2026.

While this figure appears modest on paper, government officials starting with Premier David Eby said BC Builds is designed to scale up and represents just one piece of a broader response to the housing crisis.

Alex Hemingway, senior economist and public finance policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said B.C. needs more housing supply generally and more non-market housing specifically.

“This is a program that can help deliver that,” he said. “But does the scale of the program match the scale of the housing crisis? No, it doesn’t.”

Hemingway added that the provincial government has taken what he called “bold steps” on housing policy in recent months. “But to match the scale of the challenge, we need to go bigger and faster still.”

RELATED: B.C. launches new agency to build middle-income rental housing quicker

Current market conditions, such as high interest rates and construction costs, create the risk of seeing even less housing units being built by the private market, Hemingway said.

“So I think it makes sense to bring forward a program like this, to step it to make sure projects are getting off the ground right now by using low-cost public financing,” he said.

But the backlog is huge, he added, pointing to a recent estimate from Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. It estimates that 610,000 additional housing units would be required on top of the current “business-as-usual” development patterns to return British Columbia to its affordability levels from the early 2000s.

A government report released in December 2023 projected that two major housing bills passed last fall would create between 216,000 and 293,000 new units with Premier David Eby citing a projection of 250,000 new units, not counting other current and future housing legislation, including BC Builds.

RELATED: Political opposition in B.C. tears down housing models

Tuesday’s BC Builds announcement by Eby unfolded against the backdrop of second Housing Summit organized by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. The event running Feb. 13-14 brings together municipal leaders and others to discuss the recent raft of housing legislation and housing generally.

UBCM President Coun. Trish Mandewo said one of the biggest challenges facing B.C. is the lack of homes that middle income residents can afford.

“BC Builds will take aim at this issue and that’s a good thing,” she said. “As B.C.’s population continues to see significant growth, the questions that will be on many minds will concern how scalable the program is, how many units it can deliver, and how quickly.”

Writing on the social media platform X, (formerly Twitter), BC United Leader Kevin Falcon called BC Builds disappointing.

RELATED: Housing the next 1 million residents: B.C. plan has gaps, mayors say

“Recycling old funding for another government-knows-best photo op won’t build new homes,” he wrote. “British Columbians are looking for real action and results on housing. BCU will fix it and restore the dream of home ownership.”

Responding to a media question about Falcon’s tweet, Eby called Falcon “one of the architects of the housing crisis” by failing to take the steps which his government has taken to curb speculation and “use the power to government” to speed up the construction of affordable housing.

“I welcome him to be first person to tour through the housing that we are going to be building for middle-income British Columbians, so he can see the impact that is going to have.”

BC United’s Karin Kirkpatrick, shadow minister for housing and childcare, said the announcement under-delivered.

“There was much fanfare coming up to this…in terms of this being the magic bullet and it doesn’t seem like very much,” she said. “If they are making a promise of 4,000 units in the next three, four years, that’s not even going to make a dent in our housing crisis.”

Kirkpatrick also wondered if municipalities and construction companies) have the capacity to deliver what BC Builds promises.

“We don’t have enough trades people already, we don’t have enough contractors…and not enough planning staff in all of these municipalities, who have already had a whole bunch of new stuff dumped on them.”

RELATED: B.C. Greens seek change to rental cap for landlords between renters

Criticism also came from the BC Greens, who accused Eby of abandoning British Columbians who struggle the most with costs of living.

“Premier Eby has chosen to support British Columbians with earnings over $85,000 per year, ignoring the desperate reality the majority of British Columbians are facing,” Sonia Furstenau, BC Green Leader said. With this comment, she was referring to the low end of the eligibility threshold for households qualifying for BC Build units. “Where is the support for the truly middle income households, who make up over half of B.C.’s population?”

House Green Leader called BC Build a recycled version of B.C.’s HousingHub, which government billed in 2018 as bringing together different partners developing homes for people with average incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.

“Premier Eby appears to be out of touch with the lived reality of renters across the Province, who need support now, not in 12-18 months, to avoid slipping into homelessness,” he said.

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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