Dan Fumano: BC cabinet ministers peppered with housing questions

Opinion: B.C Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon addressed municipal politicians from across the province Wednesday at the UBCM conference.

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Municipal politicians from communities across B.C. peppered a trio of B.C. cabinet ministers Wednesday with a litany of housing-related woes: short-term rentals, tenancy disputes, shortages of qualified construction professionals, and services for homeless shelters and supportive housing.

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy, Mental Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside, and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon fielded questions and concerns from a standing-room-only crowd at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities Conference in Vancouver, including representatives of B.C.’s big cities, small towns and rural communities.

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One recurring theme was that local government officials are eager to add more housing to support a booming population, but concerned about how to fund the necessary — and expensive — infrastructure to support it.

Langley Township Coun. Misty vanPopta said her community has been doing its job by approving housing.

“Every council meeting, we’re approving dozens to hundreds if not thousands… of units to be built,” vanPopta said. “But with that, though, there’s now a trepidation, a buzz on the ground that until we start seeing a follow-up of support services like hospitals and schools — we’re starting to get push-back.”

The Township of Langley is one of B.C.’s fastest-growing municipalities, growing by 13.1 per cent between the 2016 and 2021 census, The Langley Advance Times reported last year, while the neighbouring City of Langley grew by 11.9 per cent. B.C.’s population grew by 7.6 per cent during the same period.

“So I guess the question that I have is: Can we expect the ministries to work together to make sure that when we’re approving housing and we’re pushing for more housing, that we’re also pushing for more hospitals and more schools?” vanPopta asked. “Right now, anecdotally, our community would have to approve a school a year to keep up with the growth that we have.”

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Later, Cowichan Valley Regional District director Ben Maartman said: “You know, I’m a simple farmer … I just can’t keep adding to my herd without being able to look after them, resource them, care for them, and house them. And so when I look at the housing issue, I often wonder: How much are we looking at the demand side?”

Kahlon responded by saying he has been calling on the federal government to tie affordable housing funding to immigration targets, a subject the minister has publicly spoken about several times before.

VANCOUVER, BC - September 20, 2023 - ***CAPTION CORRECTION*** - Ravi Kahlon during a Cabinet Town Hall at Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, BC., September 20, 2023. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) [PNG Merlin Archive]
B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon at the UBCM on Wednesday. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

“Not because I don’t want immigration. I’m a product of immigration. We need it,” said Kahlon. “But just so that we’re having the two conversations at the same time — we’re thinking about infrastructure, we’re thinking about housing. So that not only can we make sure the people that are here have housing, but also the people that come are set up for success.”

“It’s a conversation I’ve been having with the federal government already. The immigration target numbers are not an issue, I think that’s OK. The challenge is around temporary residents. The temporary residents are really high. The federal government is now starting to speak about it, which is good,” Kahlon said.

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“They control immigration numbers, and we have to build the infrastructure and respond to it. So I think there’s a better understanding that we have to align the two.”

During the first quarter of 2023, B.C. had net international migration of 40,840 people, a record for the first quarter of any year, according to a report this year from B.C. Stats. Almost half of those arrivals — 19,221 people — were non-permanent residents, B.C. Stats reported, which represents “the highest gain of NPRs during any first quarter since this data has been collected.”

The government of Canada has said increased immigration is necessary for the country’s economy. Immigration Minister Marc Miller recently told The Canadian Press the government “can’t afford to reduce” immigration targets. Without immigration, he said, the country’s aging population would mean a shrinking tax base and unsupported growing health-care costs.

Canada has a plan to welcome 500,000 immigrants by 2025, up from a target of 300,000 in 2015.

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