It’s a crisp fall morning, and cyclists are whizzing through Strathcona, a Vancouver neighbourhood of brightly-painted heritage houses and quaint corner stores.
On busy Prior Street, around 100 residents have gathered to call on all three levels of government for action on housing. The protesters are gathered at the entrance to Strathcona Park, the site of what’s estimated to be Canada’s biggest homeless tent city.
Few tent city residents are standing with the protesters at this rally, but the people carrying signs that read “homes now” and chanting “homeless lives matter” say they’re trying to use their privilege as housed residents to call for change.
“As residents of Strathcona, we understand that moving the camp somewhere else isn’t the solution,” said Matthew Allan, a homeowner in Strathcona who attended the rally with his three-year-old son.
“We need a housing strategy, we need some city, provincial and federal solutions.”
Peter Portoundo, who has lived in the Strathcona Park tent city for a month, said the encampment isn’t safe. In August, he was stabbed in the arm by a man who doesn’t live at the tent city and had been chased away many times.
“There’ve been endless little campfires in the tents, there’ve been endless fights, pepper spray every day on people,” Portoundo said. “There are too many gangs, and it’s too close for all the problem street people to be calm and have a normal life.”
B.C.’s extreme housing unaffordability drove much of the political discontent that saw the BC Liberals lose power after a 16-year reign during the last election in 2017, to be replaced by an NDP minority government supported by three Green MLAs. (One of those MLAs, Andrew Weaver, left the Greens to sit as an Independent.)
As the province continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the housing crisis hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s back with a vengeance: restrictions put in place to prevent COVID-19 from spreading also spurred an uptick in homelessness. Tent cities have popped up not only in Vancouver and Victoria, but in many smaller cities throughout the province.
This is what the three parties are saying on the issue of housing and homelessness.
BC NDP: ‘I can’t just wiggle my nose like Samantha on “Bewitched” and make it appear’
Selina Robinson has been minister for municipal affairs and housing since the NDP formed government. Over the past three years, it has been focused on rolling out a 30-point plan that includes building 114,000 units of housing over the next 10 years.
The government has announced hundreds of new units of housing across the province, including modular buildings that can be built quickly and inexpensively. But the BC NDP has also been criticized for the slow pace of construction of those promised homes.
When COVID-19 hit, the provincial government scrambled to deal with large tent cities that have been in place for years in Victoria and Vancouver, and quickly purchased or leased hotels and motels to provide emergency temporary housing.
Hundreds of people were housed, but the problem didn’t go away: large tent cities are still in place in parks in Vancouver and Victoria. Both the tent cities and the hastily secured housing have been points of contention for housed residents, who have complained about open drug use and aggressive behaviour.
Robinson said she knows from past experience dealing with encampments in Nanaimo, Maple Ridge and Surrey that “it always is a rocky beginning” when people make the difficult transition from street homelessness to housing. She added that municipalities also have a role to play in enforcing bylaws.
“We’ve seen that, and what we’re seeing again is absolutely a rocky beginning,” said Robinson, who hopes to win back her seat in Coquitlam-Maillardville. “But it is the best way forward. We’ve seen how things settled down in Maple Ridge, we’ve seen how things settled down in Nanaimo.”
If the New Democrats form government, Robinson said they’ll continue to buy or lease hotels and motels through BC Housing and find more sites to build new supportive housing units, pointing to a promise made at the beginning of September to build 450 new units of housing in Vancouver.
A new “navigation centre” program is also in the works for Vancouver and Victoria, Robinson said. The centres will offer a combination of shelter spaces and services to connect people to permanent housing.
She’s also interested in an idea proposed by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, which has suggested governments provide financing to the non-profit housing sector to buy older rental apartment buildings in order to keep rents affordable.
Jill Atkey, CEO of the association, warned that for each new affordable housing unit being built, three existing affordable apartments are lost as investors continue to snap up rental buildings, frequently converting them to condos or building new, higher-priced rentals. Atkey suggested a funding commitment of $500 million from government would help to purchase between 5,000 and 11,000 housing units.
But, Robinson admitted, she and municipal partners have not been successful when it comes to getting the federal government to come on board for recent projects.
Robinson said she and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart had both sought federal funding for the 450 units announced in September. “He and I both attempted and pleaded and cajoled and begged, and we didn’t get a response,” Robinson said.
While Melanie Mark, the BC NDP candidate defending her seat in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, recently floated the idea of a sanctioned tent city, Robinson said that’s not something she supports.
Over the past few years, the province’s approach has been to work with municipalities and service providers to assess what tent city residents need and move them into temporary and then permanent housing, Robinson said.
“Our intent is to get people housed because that is the solution,” Robinson said. “Unfortunately, I can’t just wiggle my nose like Samantha on Bewitched and make it appear. That’s not how it works.”
BC Liberals: ‘We do not have enough supply of housing of all types coming on stream’
During their decade and a half at the helm of the B.C. government, the BC Liberals focused on rent supplements to help low-income people pay rent in the private market. New housing was focused on shelter spots and supportive housing for people who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
In 2016, government rolled out a new plan to spend $855 million to build 4,900 units of new housing, although the plan was criticized for being largely financed by a major sell-off of government-owned housing.
The BC Liberals are now campaigning hard on the message that the NDP have not responded to community safety concerns caused by homeless camps.
Leader Andrew Wilkinson promised today to look at “restricting camping in city parks, enforcing the ban on unsafe roadside panhandling, and exploring alternative approaches to mental health and substance calls.”
Todd Stone is the BC Liberal candidate for Kamloops-South Thompson, and the BC Liberal critic for housing. He criticized the BC NDP for not moving quickly enough to build new housing, and for not including enough mental health and addiction supports in the housing the NDP has quickly brought online to deal with growing homelessness.
“We’re going to have a whole series of measures that will be detailed in our platform, that will be focused on significantly increasing the speed at which we can bring housing supply into the market,” Stone said. “All types of housing, and especially for homeless and vulnerable populations.”
Stone said the provincial government could be doing more to identify land already owned by the province where housing could be built. Stone also said the government has spent too much money on the hotels it’s bought in high-priced urban areas, pegging the cost at an average of $343,000 per housing unit. He said the BC Liberals would “stretch every dollar” to get as many housing units as possible.
Stone also had high praise for modular housing, a method of construction using prefabricated components that makes building much quicker and cheaper. And he likes the BC Non-Profit Housing Association’s idea of government helping to finance the purchase of market-rental buildings when they come up for sale.
But he said not enough has been done to offer supports to people with mental health and addiction issues, and that’s caused problems in communities.
“Every single service provider says they are not able to access the resources that people need to support the people that that are coming into these repurposed hotels or these modular housing units,” Stone said.
“So that is fundamental, moving forward, that much larger investments for supports needs to be available.”
Stone said circumstances are different today than when the BC Liberals previously held power and critics took aim at them for cutting social services and being reluctant to rein in rampant speculation in the housing market.
The BC Liberals are campaigning on a pledge to get rid of a real estate speculation tax brought in by the BC NDP, but Stone said the Liberals would instead introduce a capital gains tax on condo pre-sale flipping.
The Liberals will be releasing their full housing plan in the coming days, Stone said.
“The reality today is, we do not have enough supply of housing of all types coming on stream,” Stone said. “We’ve got to build a lot more supportive housing.”
Greens: ‘We’re looking at potentially two or three months of lost time’
Sonia Furstenau, the leader of the Green party, said she remembers the cuts to social services brought in by the BC Liberals when they were elected in 2001, cuts that targeted programs that prevented people from falling into homelessness and poverty.
“We’re now reaping the effects of that,” Furstenau said.
During the three years of NDP government supported by the Greens, Furstenau said the parties had made headway by “focusing on both sides of the housing problem, both the commodification issue as well as the availability of affordable housing.”
But, Furstenau said, she’s deeply disappointed by the BC NDP’s decision to call an election as winter approaches and COVID-19 cases continue to climb. It’s not the right time to pause efforts to reduce homelessness, she said.
“We’re not going to have a government for several weeks after the election on Oct. 24, because of the mail-in ballots,” Furstenau said. “We’re looking at potentially two or three months of lost time and opportunity to move on this.”
Furstenau said in her riding of Cowichan Valley, the response to COVID-19 spurred the purchase of a hotel and a camping site where people are allowed to set up their tents.
That tenting area included security and access to health care and mental health supports, Furstenau said. She said the sanctioned tenting site had been successful in Cowichan but warned it can’t be seen as an end point. “We want to see this as a step towards housing.”
Like Robinson and Stone, Furstenau wants to see government explore the idea of helping to buy older rental housing buildings “for not-for-profit housing organizations, co-op housing organizations, to purchase those and to keep them as affordable housing for people in communities where it’s needed.”
Jen St. Denis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with The Tyee, where this story first appeared.