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Rob Shaw: ‘Born at the right time.’ Could B.C. housing legislation entrench intergenerational poverty?

BC Green MLA asks some uncomfortable questions about allowing multiplexes on single-family lots
New housing legislation may amplify the difference between the haves and have-nots in B.C., writes Rob Shaw.

Will the B.C. government’s new legislation to allow multiplexes on single-family lots lead to a wealth bonanza for people who already own those properties? It was a question BC Green MLA Adam Olsen pushed hard to debate in the legislature this week, as MLAs attempted to unravel the potential consequences of one of the largest changes to housing policy in the province’s history.

“This bill creates huge amounts of wealth for people who have generated huge amounts of wealth from being born at the right time, and separates and creates a massive, much larger gap between those who were not born at the right time and who did not get into the housing market, the real estate market, at the right time,” Olsen said this week during debate of Bill 44.

The BC NDP legislation effectively eliminates single-family zoning in communities with more than 5,000 people, instead authorizing up to four “units” on each lot, or up to six units if the property is near a transit hub.

More density could make the land more valuable, allowing existing homeowners to cash out to developers who want to buy, build and flip multiple “units” on what was once a lot for just one house.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said he doesn’t think that will happen, despite a desperate shortage of housing across the province.

“We believe this will increase the availability of housing at lower price points for folks within British Columbia,” he told Olsen.

It’s a position some housing experts have backstopped, saying that because the change is widespread across the province it may not lead to a jump in value in any single area. It feels, though, like a bit of a gamble.

Olsen kept digging.

“From the studies that this government has done, has there been any analysis of how this bill impacts the stratification and widening the socioeconomic gap between those who own a single-family home right now, and now may own six, and those who don't — largely by the nature of either they're seniors on a fixed income or they were just born in the wrong generation?” he asked.

The question appeared to catch the housing minister a bit off guard.

“We're having a bit of a philosophical conversation about housing,” replied Kahlon.

“In an ideal world, we'd have a lot of this being built by not-for-profits and a lot of it being non-market. But we're trying to address the housing crisis in the environment that we're in right now.”

Kahlon recited the NDP’s other recent housing announcements, including banning short-term rentals of investment properties in urban areas. He reiterated Premier David Eby, who is sharpening election slogans around how the NDP is pushing out real estate investors to preserve homes for people. 

“Right now, if a single-family home gets torn down and a single-family home gets built, that's still wealth being created, but it's being created for one person, one family,” said Kahlon.

“When you tear one home down and you allow it to be four units and four different families, you're providing an opportunity for more people to get in. Not only that, when you have a greater, increased amount of supply, that will help right now with rents for those that are renting.”

Still, Olsen’s larger point about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in real estate was irrefutable. And it came from personal experience.

Olsen, the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, recounted how he grew up Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay. The reserve on the west side of Tsartlip Road was relegated into relative poverty with its designation and lack of real estate ownership, while the non-reserve homes on the east side of the road were bought and sold and skyrocketed in property value ten times over since he was a boy.

“I've seen what happens when housing systems start to create poverty,” said Olsen.

“This is the reason why I'm asking these questions about what happens when you create wealth and you don't have an understanding of how much you're creating or who you're giving it to — when you don't have an understanding of what happens if it's just speculative or if it's real, when you don't have any measures that require people to build or not to build, or when you don't have any scale or scope about what it is that they're building.”

Olsen pointed to the first European ships that floated by Vancouver Island, when the Crown granted title to the whole of the Island to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which then sent surveyors out to “cut our territory up into ever-smaller chunks of title.”

“The reason why there's context here is because that original act is the same as what we're doing as a province here right now with Bill 44,” he said.

“We're floating through neighbourhoods, and we are creating title where it didn't exist. We're creating property. The chunk of land was there, but there was only one. Now there are multiple.”

“It’s a deep question,” replied Kahlon, who acknowledged “there’s a lot of work to do” in the area of reconciliation and Indigenous consultation on housing.

Olsen has pitched for years the idea of taking some of the government’s property transfer tax revenue and giving it to Indigenous communities, as a kind of royalty on the commodity that is real estate sales. The NDP have repeatedly dismissed the idea, and Kahlon in the debate was no exception.

Other MLAs will come forward, in the days ahead, to ask more detailed questions about detailed provisions in the bill on quadplex setbacks, parking restrictions and municipal overrides.

But none will match the impressive way in which Olsen drilled down to the heart of the issue: The growing gap between the haves and have-nots when it comes to property ownership in British Columbia, and the history that being an owner of land, versus a renter, has played in amplifying and entrenching intergenerational poverty.

“I think we will see the complete inequity that's being created here or that's being furthered,” said Olsen.

“It's uncomfortable to think about that context. We're being asked, in this bill, to hand and to create an unimaginable amount of wealth for people that already have it.

“I asked: what is the gap? Can't answer that question. I asked: how much wealth is being created? Can't answer that question. I asked: how much further behind are the people that are renting? How much further are they going to be behind because they don't have access to the capital to do the projects?”

There were no answers. Perhaps because the uncomfortable truth is: Existing owners still win with this legislation. The rich get richer. Even if, maybe one day, in a best-case scenario, the changes allow a select few others to barely scrape in to get their own new slice of the real estate pie.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]