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A house divided

Rob Shaw 2
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Rob Shaw: A noticeable shift in tone on the housing file from the provincial government may mean an attempt at diplomacy, or a loss of nerves.

BC’s municipalities fired another shot across the bow of Housing Minister David Eby this week, with a new report that professes to show how local governments are rapidly approving more than enough new housing projects to meet population growth.

The 11-page study by the Union of BC Municipalities used census data to conclude “local governments have been approving housing at a record pace” while also “working in good faith with the Province to streamline development approvals” but that the many problems of labour shortages, investors, and provincial under-investment are the problem.

It’s a laughably transparent attempt to dissuade Eby from following through on his threat of provincial legislation this fall that could remove some municipal powers on housing projects in an attempt to speed up local approval of affordable housing, rental housing, and other housing developments caught up in multi-year red tape delays.

“Given that local governments have also approved record amounts of new homes over the past several years, it is evident that the data does not support a mandate for wholesale change to the development approval process, but instead continued streamlining,” concludes the UBCM report, which is accompanied by quotes from local leaders urging the province to “work together” with municipalities and not big-foot them aside.

Municipalities are not the only ones fighting to protect their turf from change, amid rising anger at the housing affordability crisis.

BC’s real estate sector last month issued its own report into housing affordability, urging the province not to pass a proposed “cooling off” period on home purchases this spring, in favour of its own proposals crafted by realtors.

Then there’s the development industry, which has its own ideas for why the BC government is off track, and its own recommendations.

Don’t forget think tanks, with the BC Centre for Policy Alternatives getting into a public Twitter feud with the minister over a report it produced that was critical of provincial supply policies. Or academics, who offer their contradicting opinions on whether the ideas by the government are good, bad, or ugly.

It is, quite simply, a self-serving mess by groups with self-serving interests.

In some cases, the hypocrisy is stunning.

Witness Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch, who emerged this week to publicly declare that provincial intervention on housing would undermine community leaders who are doing what is best for their communities. He told CBC that not a single municipal leader he’s spoken to is supportive of the idea of the BC government intervening to speed up housing approvals.

That would be the same Oak Bay that last week rejected a rezoning application to replace one single family home with a four-storey, 14-unit condominium building. The project has taken the developer nine years and has twice been rejected by council amid worries – not about increasing housing supply – about the impact of density on neighbouring single-family homes.

Murdoch, to his credit, voted in favour of the project. But it’s easy to see how Oak Bay council needs a stiff kick in the rear end by another level of government during a housing crisis where it’s more concerned about construction noise, and traffic disruption for neighbours than increasing supply.

It’s hard to take any of the groups seriously when it comes to housing policy advice. They are all in it for their own power, financial gain, prestige, notoriety or influence.

Eby, on the other hand, has no vested interest in the housing file. He was only given it by Premier John Horgan a year ago, with a mandate to tackle one of the most complex problems in government in the same way he reformed ICBC, or tackled homeless encampments in Victoria and Vancouver.

Horgan knew Eby would drill down on the issue, identify the core issues, and then swing for the fences on fixing them, no matter who it makes uncomfortable. It’s why the premier gave him the job in the first place.

Yet, there are signs that the dogpile of criticism is giving the government second thoughts.

Eby downgraded his threat of legislation last week to only one of many possible outcomes – a noticeable shift in his rhetoric.

Standing alongside him was new Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen, who has his own ideas on the relationship he wants to see between municipalities and the province. Horgan too has used terms like “cooperation” and “collaboration” when speaking of housing reform with municipalities, in an attempt to lower the temperature.

It will be fascinating to watch in the coming months whether Horgan and other ministers allow Eby to execute the reforms he’s identified as necessary to solve the housing affordability crisis.

Horgan asked Eby to dig into a difficult problem and make the tough decisions, as few in his cabinet can do. But as critics pile on from all sides, the only question left is whether the premier himself has the courage necessary to follow through.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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