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Les Leyne: Time for housing starts, not housing talk

A new version of the NDP’s housing policy was ordered because the first multi-billion dollar version hasn’t made enough progress in alleviating the crisis
Housing in Oak Bay. Four units where there is now one is a key point of the NDP's refreshed housing policy, Les Leyne writes. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

If all the people talking about the housing crisis this week had been given hammers instead of microphones, we could have had a dozen fourplexes in Fairfield framed in by now.

It was housing week that sparked all the verbiage. There was a two-day summit meeting of hundreds of municipal leaders and experts, a major refresh of the provincial housing strategy and a couple more days of argument in the legislature about which party has the worst housing record.

“Fourplexes,” or variations of the word, became hot-button words over the course of the week. Four units where there is now one is a key point of the NDP’s refreshed housing policy.

The new version was ordered because the first multibillion-­dollar version hasn’t made enough progress in alleviating the housing shortage. It was released specifically on Monday so that Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon could walk into the summit with something new to talk about. The centrepiece of the latest plan is legislation coming this fall that will supersede local zoning in many areas and allow four units on a traditional single-family detached lot.

“This means no more long zoning processes just to build a duplex, a triplex or a row home,” Kahlon said enthusiastically on Monday. “Without these types of homes, we risk pushing more of our next generation out of the province.”

He said there will be talks with local councils to fine-tune the idea, but he stressed that it’s going to happen quickly so more homes can go up “right away.”

His tone changed slightly after he pitched the idea to hundreds of people at the housing summit over the following two days.

What about traffic? Trees? Sewer hookups? Schools? Amenities? Mayors who are bracing for the massive upheaval that is headed in their direction had a host of questions.

Kahlon adjusted his estimate of the impact slightly.

“In some communities, you’ll still see single-family homes being built. If people can afford them and they want them, that will happen.”

He returned to the legislature to say the support for the concept was “overwhelming,” which prompted some hoots.

But there, too, he took a half-step back.

“I’m not saying that single-dwelling homes are going to be gone. … We are not limiting single-family homes.”

Opposition B.C. Liberals (who will become B.C. United MLAs next week), staked out some uncertain ground on the issue.

Leader Kevin Falcon said instead of working with communities to set targets within existing plans, the NDP is “imposing fourplexes in every single-family neighbourhood in the province.

“What on earth have we got local government for, if all the key decisions are going to be made by this NDP government. … Every official community plan has now been rendered completely meaningless.”

The early stance risks them siding with the haves — single-family-dwelling homeowners who like their neighbourhoods the way they are — instead of the have-nots — renters and residents making do with homes that don’t work for them.

So Liberals will likely try to balance their position by supporting the general idea of increased density while attacking the NDP version.

Meanwhile, Times Colonist colleague Andrew Duffy highlighted the scope of the problem locally. He covered a recent progress report to Saanich council on housing, which said a concentrated effort to get more homes started there is coming up short.

It will take “a generation or two,” staff said, to meet the housing shortfall in Saanich.

The calculations are that an owner needs a $300,000 salary now to afford a single-family home with a conventional mortgage. Almost no types of housing meet affordability standards at current prices.

Targets have been set over the past few years, but the municipality, which is entirely typical of most in B.C, is coming up short.

The next progress report will come in a different form. The provincial government is soon going to take over the setting of targets in key areas.

If councils don’t meet them, advisers will audit them, offer advice and even funding. But one way or another, the province will have a lot more authority over local housing starts than currently.

There will be many more arguments to come. Here’s hoping the people pounding nails keep up with those pounding tables.

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