Can B.C. budget optimism defeat 'the forces of no'?

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong promises to confront fears about foreign ownership and the cost of B.C.'s real estate market. But his budget leaves room for debate about the meaning of 'affordable' in B.C. in 2016.

Measures on housing designed to tackle growing affordability fears; but are they enough?

29 year-old Eveline Xia started an online conversation with her tweet about Vancouver real estate. (Twitter/@Eveline155)

At a time when a simple hashtag — #donthave1million — captured the anxiety and frustration of thousands shut out of the Lower Mainland's booming housing market, the B.C. Liberals say they are listening.

In unveiling his 2016/17 budget, Finance Minister Mike de Jong acknowledged the fundamental fear monopolizing headlines — and presumably, the minds of voters — heading towards next year's election.

"Is there anything more reflective of who we are as Canadians than the dream of owning a home and the ability to make that dream a reality?" de Jong asked.

"For many B.C. families, that reality has become harder to achieve in recent years as home prices have continued to rise."

Citizenship of buyers demanded

And so de Jong announced a series of measures aimed at quantifying who and what is driving spiraling house prices — forcing property buyers to declare citizenry, whether as individuals or directors of corporations.

Those measures answer the chorus of critics calling on the Liberals to start collecting data about buyers — particularly from China — suspected of speculating in B.C. real estate.

The government is also eliminating the property transfer tax on new homes valued at up to $750,000 — a significant chunk of the condo and townhouse market in Vancouver and the realty market elsewhere in the province.

The province tried to address unaffordable housing prices in its most recent budget. (CBC)

De Jong says the government is bent on increasing housing supply and tackling unaffordability. 

But he's walking a fine line, making it clear in the same breath that while the Liberals may want to know the names on the dotted lines of housing sales — they don't want to discourage anyone from signing a deed.

"Let me be clear," he said. "Our laws allow non-residents to own property and our government continues to welcome, indeed encourages, those who choose to come to our province to invest."

Which leaves an open question as to whether or not the budget will quell the fears of the #donthave1million movement — or for that matter, the penny-pinching middle class ... not to mention the naysayers who the premier herself branded "the forces of no" earlier this year. 

What exactly is affordable?

The tone of de Jong's delivery was largely boastful: B.C. is the only Canadian province to retain a Triple-A rating from both major credit rating agencies; the Conference Board of Canada says the province's balance sheet is the envy of the nation; budget surpluses are projected into the coming years.

But as sure as the budget speech noted, B.C. is not immune to the economic realties of the larger world, neither is the mood of the public isolated from the currents of opinion driving the campaigns of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

The B.C. budget raises question about what counts as affordable and to whom. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

The sense that things are off kilter for the average person; that despite assurances to the contrary, the establishment of — say — a $100 million "prosperity" fund to celebrate the province's overall economic fortunes doesn't match a reality reflected by the dwindling funds in the bank accounts of Mr. and Mrs. B.C.

As de Jong answered questions about his budget at a lockup attended by media and various stakeholders, it became clear that a crucial question is facing taxpayers in 2016: what exactly is 'affordable'?

"What is affordable for one person may not be affordable for someone else," he said.

Too true. Nurses, engineers, architects, firefighters and a host of other professionals are among those complaining about being priced out of the Vancouver housing market.

Many of those same people may be surprised to find themselves facing moderate to major increases as part of changes to Medical Services Plan premiums touted as a means of saving lower income families money.

While there are breaks for poorer families, most people in B.C. can expect to see an increase in MSP premiums next year.

A single adult making more than $42,000 a year will see an annual increase of $36.

A couple making a joint income of more than $45,000  will pay $240 more a year.

And a couple with two children making more than $51,000 have to pony up an extra $72.

Those aren't outlandish salaries by professional standards, but they're enough to place a person in a peculiar type of squeeze: too low to afford a mortgage but too high to be eligible for government-assisted affordable housing or reduced MSP premiums.

A budget for a province, not a neighbourhood?

B.C.'s Economic Review and Outlook projects an increase of between 4.9 and 4.1 per cent in employee compensation over the next four years.

By comparison, prices for single family homes in most areas of Greater Vancouver have increased between 45 and 70 per cent during the past five years.

De Jong says the budget is working — especially through the cuts to the property transfer tax — to assist buyers while creating incentives for people who build homes to increase supply.

House prices in the Lower Mainland have far surpassed wages in the past five years. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

But at the end of the day, he made it clear that while he wants to help would-be buyers, he doesn't want to see existing home owners lose any of the value they've accrued in the Lower Mainland's housing bonanza.

And — at the end of the day — British Columbia is bigger than Vancouver.

"We govern the whole province of B.C., not just a couple of neighbourhoods," de Jong said. "And that too has been instrumental in our thinking."

The budget doesn't include a breakdown of what 'affordable' is in Vancouver as opposed to Fort St. John or Prince Rupert.

As anyone who's ever been a dollar short can tell you, whether it's #donthave1million or #donthave1thousand it's #donthave all the same.

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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