Globe and Mail: BC NDP’s promised renters’ rebate absent from first budget

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Ian Bailey, The Globe and Mail, September 11 (with quotes from BCNPHA CEO Kishone Roy)

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The B.C. government announced $208-million for 1,700 affordable rental housing units across the province and additional money for 2,000 units for homeless people in its first budget tabled on Tuesday, but one of the NDP’s marquee promises to make life more affordable for ordinary people was missing.

The government had promised to enact a $400 annual rebate for renters and as recently as last Friday, Premier John Horgan broadly hinted news was coming: “We’ll be talking about the renters’ rebate in the budget on Monday,” he said.

But the Green Party, which has thrown its support behind the minority NDP to allow it to govern, has been critical of the promise. On Monday, Finance Minister Carole James asked for patience.

Under repeated media questioning during a news conference, Ms. James said the government remains committed to the rental rebate as promised, but needs time to figure out exactly how to enact it.

“The renter’s rebate will come,” Ms. James said, declaring it will still be $400 a year.

It was among a handful of pledges for the affordability agenda the NDP campaigned on in the spring election that were put on hold. Others include plans for a $10-a-day daycare and details on how the party will eliminate medical service premiums.

Housing advocate Kishone Roy, chief executive of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, appeared willing to wait. In a statement, he said he was pleased to see a lot of attention paid to income supports in the budget, but added he hoped the renter’s rebate will be announced next year, albeit with some fine-tuning.

“We recommend that government find a way to be more targeted in that rebate, and it sounds like we’ll have until then to discuss with government the exact composition of that program,” said Mr. Roy, whose organization’s members operate affordable rental housing.

The NDP has not said who would qualify for the renter’s rebate, prompting the Liberals to question why the wealthiest would need a subsidy that amounts to $33 a month. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. says the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the province was $1,100 in October, 2016. In Vancouver, the median rate was $1,661.

On Monday, BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver dismissed the renter’s subsidy as a waste of resources because it is too small to help individual renters.

“I am very pleased to see they didn’t put it in [the budget update],” he said.

Mr. Weaver also said it might actually encourage landlords to raise their rents by $400 a year to skim off the subsidy from tenants.

On the second day of the provincial election campaign, Mr. Horgan committed to the rebate, saying it would provide some relief to British Columbians grappling with rental costs. Mr. Horgan did not say how much the rebate program would cost.

Census data from 2011, the most recent year available, show there were 524,995 renter households in B.C., meaning the rebates could be worth more than $200-million a year.

Mr. Weaver said on Monday the government would be better off spending the total cost for the program on something with a lasting benefit, such as diverting it into education or mental health and addiction.

He said the government should scrap the renter’s subsidy and blame the BC Greens for putting pressure on them to do so.

Former BC Liberal cabinet minister Shirley Bond, now finance critic for the Liberal Opposition, said she was surprised the subsidy wasn’t included in the budget update.

“What that tells me is that there is an effort to try to deliver promises, but there is a significant concern about how they are going to pay for them,” she told reporters at the Legislature in Victoria.

Pressed on whether the government can afford the subsidy, Ms. James said the NDP will work through the issue as part of the process of building the next budget.

In the meantime, the government has committed to spend $208-million over four years to build more than 1,700 new units of affordable rental housing across the province. Budget documents say the housing will be aimed at a number of groups, including low-to-moderate income renters, seniors, adults with developmental disabilities and mental-health challenges.

Operating costs for the projects will be less than $3-million over three years, the province said, because the projects will be run by not-for-profit societies that offset operating costs through rental revenues.

Ms. James also said the NDP will provide an additional $7-million over three years to the Residential Tenancy Branch, a government department that deals with tenancy law, to deal with current backlogs and waiting times for landlord-tenancy disputes. The current annual budget of the branch is about $9-million.

As part of this new funding, the branch will also be empowered to launch a unit dedicated to investigating non-compliance with tenancy legislation.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a statement that he welcomed more resources for the residential tenancy branch given that, in Vancouver, “many renters are fighting unfair renovictions and other loopholes at a time when our vacancy rate is near zero.”

He also said the city will leverage its share of the $208-million for new rental housing by providing “shovel-ready sites” of city-owned land.

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

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