British Columbia·Analysis

Home prices haven't declined in Metro Vancouver since the last B.C. election. But talking about them has

Owning property in the Lower Mainland is still out of reach for lots of people who don't already own a home. But unlike the last provincial and municipal elections, housing affordability isn't really being talked about this time around.

People’s attention is much more split this campaign, but it’s still a top of mind issue

Rows and rows of single-family homes are seen in this aerial shot of Vancouver.
3,643 residential homes were sold in the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver area in September 2020, a 56.2% increase from the same month in 2019. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

On Friday, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver announced home sales were up 56 per cent in September compared to the same month last year

The stats also showed the benchmark price of a residential property in the Lower Mainland was $979,800, an increase of 3.6 per cent in the last three years, and up 8.4 per cent for apartments specifically. The average selling price of a detached home was $1.7 million, up 19 per cent from February of last year. 

In other words, owning property in the Lower Mainland is still out of reach for lots of people who don't already own a home, and the market is trending upward.

Additionally, the average rent went up 14 per cent in Metro Vancouver between 2017 and 2018, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. 

But unlike the 2017 provincial and 2018 municipal elections, housing affordability isn't really being talked about this time around.

And also unlike those elections, the governing party doesn't seem to be in trouble because of the issue. 

Pandemic takes focus

Perhaps the biggest reason housing has been less discussed this campaign is because of the snap election and the split focus of the electorate.

"There's that little pandemic," said Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University's City Program. "And it's taken the attention of many people in terms of what they're facing … when it comes to their jobs."

Yan says the same basic issues still drive Vancouver's housing market: having enough supply, putting in place proper demand measures, being at the mercy of interest rates. 

But he thinks all parties could advocate new policies to try to create more affordable housing. 

"A missed opportunity is really empowering municipalities to capture the value of land … that would actually solve a number of problems," said Yan. 

"Which party is going to connect housing with transportation … will any of the parties provide a full platform in terms of how the pieces connect? Maybe it's forthcoming. Maybe it might never come."

If the first two weeks of the election campaign are any indication, new bold policies may not be forthcoming.

The B.C. Green Party has not held a single press event dedicated to housing affordability, while the B.C. Liberals have only talked about it in the context of crime and homelessness, beyond pledging to get rid of the speculation and vacancy tax — though they haven't made the argument that would make housing more affordable. 

NDP say small price hike better than big price hike

As for the governing party, there are times when NDP Leader John Horgan sounds an awful lot like Christy Clark circa 2016. 

"We need to be very cautious," he said Friday, when asked if he would take further measures to "moderate" the housing market if re-elected. 

"People have equity in their homes, we need to be mindful of that," he added, declining to name any new measures a second term NDP government would take — beyond pushing for "more supply," which is largely in the hands of city halls. 

Horgan also accurately pointed out that housing prices in the Lower Mainland went up by more than 50 per cent in the three years before the 2017 election. That's a far cry from the 3.6 per cent increase under his government, evidence the taxes put in place near the start of his term likely had an effect. 

Which may be one reason the Liberals have been reticent to focus their campaign on the cost of housing: the NDP has plenty of ammunition they could use against them. 

"There were those that predicted … a catastrophic crash in housing values when we brought in the speculation and vacancy tax. Instead we've seen a modest, just-above-inflation-rate increase in costs for people purchasing new homes," said Horgan. 

Of course, the NDP's biggest promise last election was to make life more affordable, not to ensure a "modest … increase in costs."

If the governing party gets through this campaign without that becoming a big issue, it'll be another way this election will be a unique one. 

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