The rate of home ownership and investments in second and third properties among British Columbia’s lawmakers far outpaces the general public, giving rise to questions as to whether they can adequately address the province's housing affordability crisis.
Ninety-three per cent of members of the legislative assembly (MLA) are homeowners, outpacing the provincial home-ownership average of 68 per cent.
More so, of the 81 MLAs who own a home, more than half — 41 of them — own a second property, far exceeding the provincial secondary homeowner rate of 15 per cent cited by Statistics Canada this year. Meanwhile, 13 MLAs have an interest in three or more properties either directly or via holding companies, according to disclosures filed with the B.C. Office of the Conflict of Interest Commissioner.
Since 2015, B.C. home prices have doubled from about $550,000 to close to $1.1 million, pricing out a significant amount of the population, particularly young adults.
The province’s housing costs have long spurred calls for policy changes at all three levels of government. But if B.C. lawmakers have so much skin in the game, may this impact their will to implement effective policies?
“It's a totally valid question to ask,” says Stewart Prest, political science professor at Simon Fraser University.
“It is really hard to treat something and act as if something is a crisis, if it is perhaps the best thing that's ever happened to you financially. It's just a cognitive dissonance there. So, I think the fact that there are so few in the legislature who can speak firsthand to what it's like to rent in any kind of situation… it's just an inability to fully empathize with just how serious the situation is,” said Prest.
MLAs Adrian Dix, Megan Dykeman, Mable Elmore, Andrew Mercier, Brenda Bailey and Ellis Ross are the six members who do not disclose an ownership interest in a primary residence. Notably, Ross is a resident of the Haisla Nation, and thus lives on reserve land in his Skeena riding. Ross is also the only BC Liberal MLA without a land title, whereas 52 of 57 NDP MLAs own a property. Meanwhile, both Green Party of B.C. members, Adam Olsen and Sonia Furstenau, are homeowners, with the former owing a mortgage on a Tsartlip First Nation property (structure only) and the latter being among those with three or more properties.
B.C. Housing Minister David Eby was among the few MLAs renting last year, after selling his one-bedroom apartment in Downtown Victoria in 2019; however, he told Glacier Media he has recently purchased a townhouse in his Point Grey riding where such properties generally sell for $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Eby said up until his recent decision to buy a permanent property for his family, he has experienced renting on and off and has close friends who rent.
“So, I've been concerned about the impacts of high home values on the makeup of Vancouver and as housing minister, the makeup of our province; the quality of life of the people who live here and the stress that places people under and the constraint that it places on our growth as a province for a long time. And I’m going to continue doing that work, regardless of whether or not our family owns or rents,” said Eby.
Asked whether the high rate of property investments among members of the B.C. legislature may cloud policy decisions, Eby responded: “I think that a party that doesn't have renters among their membership is going to struggle to understand some of the issues facing renters. That's not our party. We have renters in cabinet in the caucus.”
Eby added his government is committed to housing affordability despite “a remarkable run-up in property values during the pandemic.”
Key measures the NDP touts are policies designed to curb housing demand, including raising the foreign home buyers tax to 20% and implementing a speculation and vacancy tax on empty properties and families of foreign income earners.
However, the NDP has yet to fulfil a promise to give all rental households $400 annually — a policy Eby claims his government is still going to implement. Eby also said a new law (Bill 16) will allow BC Housing to buy land around transit stations and corridors for rental housing construction before higher costs associated with municipal re-zoning are established.
'Doesn't mean MLAs can't walk and chew gum'
No BC Liberal is a renter.
Leader of the Official Opposition Shirley Bond, MLA for Prince George-Valemount, is among those with interests in at least three properties. One of the most prolific property investors was former finance minister and Abbotsford West MLA Michael De Jong, who recently dispatched five investment properties in Abbotsford in 2021, per disclosures.
De Jong first sold a two-bedroom apartment on Old Yale Road for $320,000 in February 2021; then sold two two-bedroom apartments on Ferguson Way for $290,000 each in May 2021; then he sold a one-bedroom apartment on McCallum Road for $235,000 in June 2021; and finally, in December 2021, a third (one-bedroom) apartment in the same complex on Ferguson Way was sold for $295,000. De Jong no longer holds investment properties, according to updated disclosures.
BC Liberal House leader Todd Stone told Glacier Media it's a valid question whether there is bias among politicians; however, "it doesn't mean MLAs can't walk and chew gum."
Stone said his party is focused on policies to increase housing supply of all types (market and non-market). He said taxes have not been the answer to suppressing the recent uptick in home prices but could not confirm the party's policy proposals are aimed to drive home prices downward. Stone added that the NDP caucus is "deeply" hypocritical for calling out BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon for working in the development industry (for Anthem Properties) when its own members are profiting from housing.
Now, the most properties owned by one MLA is Surrey-Fleetwood representative Jagrup Brar of the NDP, via Frejno Holdings Ltd., which owns seven properties in Prince George.
Murray Rankin, the Oak Bay-Gordon Head NDP representative, owns his residence in Victoria, a recreational property on Saturna Island and two apartments in Victoria, which he rents.
Another investor among the legislature is Green Leader Sonia Furstenau.
Furstenau resides in a primary residence in Shawnigan Lake. Furstenau and her spouse own a second home in Mill Bay, valued at $1.35 million, up from $757,000 in 2018. Furstenau’s spouse also owns a home in Victoria valued at $1.5 million.
Furstenau is thus among a handful of MLAs who maintain rental properties in Victoria or who purchased homes in Victoria to live in while re-purposing their homes in their respective ridings to rental properties.
Furstenau maintains she and her party are dedicated to improving housing affordability and if that means implementing policies that lower home values, “that’s what’s going to have to happen,” she added.
“My vested interest in my role is very much in the public interest and the public good. And I see, in so many ways, the damage that the overheated housing market is having on communities and people,” said Furstenau, adding her party is particularly concerned with “financialization” of housing via corporate ownership and is “pushing for non-market housing.”
“I was a renter for close to 10 years as a single mother. And so, I also know very well that realm and the anxiety of being a renter in uncertain times.”
Asked what it may mean to have such a high rate of property ownership in the legislature, Furstenau responded: “I think, in a lot of ways, it's an indication of a lack of socio-economic diversity that we need to have in here. It's a lack of representation across age ranges as well.”
Furstenau holds no mortgage on her primary home in Shawnigan Lake, making her among 26 MLAs with clear title. Of those, 10 (of 27) are from the BC Liberal caucus.
Premier John Horgan also has no mortgage on his Victoria home. Last year, he sold a one-third interest in a second property, which he did not claim rental income for.
The public disclosures filed with the B.C. Office of the Conflict of Interest Commissioner do not disclose specific uses of second or third properties, which may vary. Bond, for example, has leaseholds on a Victoria property and a recreational lot in Norman Lake.
Delta MLA Ian Paton owns vacant farmland in Delta, per his disclosure. Many others have recreational lots that they do not report income for. And some hold property interests via company holdings, such as Kelowna-Mission MLA Renee Merrifield, who is a developer, or Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart whose Quails Gate Vineyard owns property.
The disclosures are intended to address specific conflicts of interests and not broader interests that apply to all of the public, such as housing, according to the office.
Editor's note: The original version of this article cited 83 MLAs who own property. However, due to a filing error and amendment, the number is 81; NDP MLA Brenda Bailey sold her Vancouver home and rents in Vancouver with her spouse, who owns a home separately, by law, in West Vancouver; NDP MLA Andrew Mercier has a tenancy agreement not previously disclosed, according to a party spokesperson.