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Holes in the ground

The NDP promised 114,000 new rental or co-op homes in 10 years. Meeting the target will take a miracle – or miraculous bookkeeping.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but BC has a housing shortage – particularly affordable housing.

It’s one thing to say so, and quite another to solve it. But the crisis is real.

Seizing on the mood in 2017, the NDP promised to build 114,000 new rental and co-op homes. (Or, in dry bureaucratic language, “housing units.”) This was not an incidental promise, an unnoticed plank in the broader platform, but a major election issue.

This simply has not happened.

Nor will it, in anything remotely approaching the timeline promised by the NDP.

The provincial government’s own numbers say 2,963 units have been completed, or some 2.6% of the original goal of 114,000. To be fair, that was a 10-year goal, meaning 2027, still seven long years away. (The last update was from the end of March, just after the provincial state of emergency was declared. Construction was deemed an essential service and has continued throughout the pandemic. So there could well be more new units onstream since then – just likely not very many.)

With construction targets, you wouldn’t expect an initial burst of completions; after all, building takes time. Even considering all that, more than three years in, you would expect more than 3% could be completed and occupied. After all, building doesn’t take that much time.

The more you look at the housing numbers, the less progress seems to have been made.

BC Housing’s last update says it has 13,474 homes in various stages of development. But in practice, “various stages of development” can mean anything from “done and lived in” all the way down to “announced, with no land or funding allocated.” In particular, “initiated” seems to correspond with “announced.” It’s like saying you have two kids – one two years old; and a plan to go off birth control at some point in the future. You know, when things are right.

It’s not just announcing units without the land or money to build them. Of those 2,963 completed units, some 2,000 were already in progress when the NDP formed government. You have to look very deep into the BC Housing updates to see this, all the way in the glossary definition of “prior housing plans.”

It’s not all smoke and mirrors. BC Housing is building – again, almost 3,000 new units in three years is not nothing. (Yes, many were already underway, but ribbon-cutting is one of the privileges of government.) The problem is, that number can only shrivel in comparison to a lofty promise of 114,000.

The main problem is that the NDP’s original promise was likely just not doable. As CBC reported during the campaign, it mostly relied on other governments. And as others pointed out, between 14,000 and 30,000 homes were already being built per year by the private sector in Metro Vancouver alone.

It looks like a classic case of overpromising. The NDP promised radical action on housing, and while they are building, it’s comparatively modest. They’re keen to show progress, but to do that, they have been forced to get cute.

On the plus side, I have written two pieces today. The one you’re reading; and one I just thought of and may write tonight.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca