The province's three principal social housing groups are raising serious questions about Housing Minister Rich Coleman's plans to change the way the province shelters some of its most vulnerable citizens. Based on public statements made by the minister, those plans would appear to shift the province's focus from building such housing to giving low-income families rental supplements so they can live in private sector dwellings. But Tenants Rights Action Coalition executive director Martha Lewis said it was, "dangerously simplistic to say that the option is either subsidies or funding social housing." Rental supplements, she explained, are "not a long-term solution. They're a Band-Aid. It's more expensive, in the long-run, to use taxpayers' money to subsidize landlords." The reason: social housing may cost a lot to build in the short-run. But, unlike an apartment building, it doesn't need to turn a profit.
Ms. Lewis also pointed out those receiving rental supplements may not find an appropriate roof in such a tight rental market. According to the latest numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the vacancy rate in Vancouver is just 1.4 percent. And it's even lower in the provincial capital, coming in at 0.5 percent.
A far better plan, says Alice Sunberg, executive director of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, would be to introduce those supplements but continue funding social housing - paying equal attention to each initiative. And she raised concerns about suggestions the government will use the province's projects to shelter only the most difficult-to-house cases. "If they're all concentrated in one place, isn't that a ghetto?"
Neither the coalition, the association nor the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C., say they have been consulted about Minister Coleman's plans - which were hinted at during estimates debate in the fall. Those hints were elaborated on by the minister at the Canadian Home Builders' Association of British Columbia's annual crystal ball earlier this month - an announcement covered, in brief, by the Times Colonist's Joanne Hatherly.
In Ms. Hatherly's report, which was buried on Page B3, Minister Coleman was paraphrased as saying "the government wants to shift from owning housing projects, which stigmatize and ghettoize low-income people, to providing rent subsidies toward privately owned units." And he stated "the B.C. strategy would be implemented in stages...and does not involve selling current government housing. The intent is to eventually use it for hard-to house people, such as those suffering from mental illness and addiction."
B.C. Housing Corp. chief executive officer Shayne Ramsay said he wasn't able to the concerns of social housing advocates or say whether they were valid "because the strategy hasn't been formally announced. It really is up to the minister." And the minister is on vacation until next week.