Jen St. Denis, The Tyee, April 20 (interview with BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the B.C. government to turbocharge its housing efforts as the province bought or leased 3,000 rooms, mostly in hotels and motels, to house people who were homeless.
Purchases happened quickly, with owners of mid-range hotels or tourist hostels motivated to sell as the tourism sector cratered.
The risk of not housing people was clear. This spring, rising COVID-19 cases in some Downtown Eastside buildings as well as a dysentery outbreak among homeless and poorly-housed people in the neighbourhood highlighted the risks for people living without access to bathrooms or places to wash their hands, or sharing tents and tiny single-room occupancies.
There are no signs in the budget that the provincial government will continue its buying spree, but there is $265 million budgeted to support the 3,000 units of housing already purchased.
The province is also promising to open more permanent supportive housing in partnership with the federal government as part of the federal Rapid Housing Initiative, a $1-billion national fund launched during the pandemic to rapidly house vulnerable people. In the federal budget, released April 19, an additional $1.5 billion was earmarked for that program.
The situation is still dire: homelessness increased during the pandemic, and municipalities have struggled to deal with growing tent cities in urban parks.
This is not a budget that will solve homelessness, said Jill Atkey, CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.
“We’re happy we haven’t seen any cuts to affordable housing over the projected long term,” said Atkey, adding that “we are going to be looking for increased spending in future budgets.”
A previously announced increase of $175 a month to income assistance and disability payments is also included in this budget. It’s the biggest increase seen in decades, but with no action on curtailing rising rents, anti-poverty advocates fear the increase will go to landlords.
The increase also falls short of the $300 increase that was put in place during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, said Douglas King, the executive director of the Together Against Poverty Society, the $175 increase is significant.
“It’s certainly an important step in the right direction… but if it’s not paired with significant measures to stop the increase in rent, specifically with something like vacancy control, we continue to be concerned that the cost of living, and particularly the cost to rent, will outpace anything the government can do in terms of increasing benefit rates,” King said.
Vacancy control means rent control applies to the unit, preventing landlords from raising rents beyond allowed limits when a tenant moves out. Currently, landlords can raise rents by any amount for new tenants.
There is no provision in the budget for social assistance and disability benefits to be increased in the next three years.
King and Atkey would like to see increases every year that are tied to the cost of living, similar to the process the B.C. government recently adopted to raise the minimum wage annually.
King said the lack of affordable housing is his organization’s greatest concern.
“The greatest concern we consistently hear from the people we represent is the high cost of rent,” he said. “There’s still a lot of focus on building our way out of this housing crisis. If you look at what was provided in this budget for housing, it’s almost entirely focused on creating new affordable housing units. There’s still a complete reluctance to address whether or not rents need to be controlled by other means.”
If the province really wants to solve the problem of homelessness, future budgets will have to include “a significant scaling up of investments” in housing, said Atkey.
“The pandemic has just exposed what many people have known all along: that connection between housing and not just individual health, but community health,” she said.