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Hewers of wood, builders of homes

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Mark Milke: Want a more affordable British Columbia? Try more high-paying resource jobs.

British Columbians are stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to their beloved province and this due to the cost of housing. Sure, many other Canadians would love to live in a province where, at least on the coast and in the southern interior, residents can mostly escape winter, or at least experience only an abbreviated version.

The flipside of that mild weather is high in-migration from other provinces. Then add how multiple BC cities have long been internationally known and sought after.

Add to that the fact that BC is mostly mountainous and available land for development is thus scarce (along with additional Agricultural Land Reserve restrictions) and the perfect storm of high demand and low supply has resulted in exactly what many British Columbians experience: soaring property prices. That’s fine if one owns a home, but excruciatingly frustrating if one is young, not wealthy, and looking.

Some remedies to ever-increasing property prices are out of the hands of the provincial government, as they touch on federal powers and also central bank independence. (A side note on the latter: too-low low interest rates since 9/11 and again after the Great Recession and again during Covid have juiced prices for two decades beyond what they otherwise would have reached. Central banks were mistaken to keep rates so low so often for so long.)

Keeping up with in-migration and immigration inflows

The federal government could, if it chose, reduce immigration flows. This is a touchy matter for some but it shouldn’t be. I’m pro-immigration and pro-immigrant, but there’s no superior virtue in admitting, for example, 400,000 new immigrants annually (the current federal target) over 300,000, or some other number. The key question to ask is: What’s the optimum number of arrivals existing Canadians can accommodate, in housing, or health care, or schools, to expand the analysis just slightly.

The answer might be 400,000, or 100,000 arrivals or some figure between the two. But policymakers and the federal government in particular shouldn’t simply pick a number with little regard to realities on the ground. That includes asking if the construction industry in British Columbia and also nationwide can build homes quick enough and with the necessary quality to accommodate demand, demand boosted by high immigration numbers.

Wherever one lands on an optimal number, there’s also another way to help make housing affordable: attract and keep higher-paying jobs.

The other part of housing affordability: Incomes

This is not a topic often touched upon in discussions over affordable housing but it should be. Politicians have no magic wand where they can create higher-paying employment but they can at least stick to the useful principle of “do no harm” to great-paying jobs.

Alas, “do no harm” is the opposite of policy and advocacy coming out of the provincial government at present. Consider some stellar research from Stewart Muir at Resource Works. He recently wrote a column in the Financial Post, on old-growth logging, based on Freedom of Information requests. On old growth logging, he found that the province excluded almost everyone from their faux “consultation” process who didn’t already have their mind made up to oppose any old-growth logging. “Remarkably, four of the five appointees had strong, unmistakeable connections to the Sierra Club,” wrote Muir.

Muir noted that forestry accounts for a third of BC’s exports and is larger than the film and tech sector combined. Kill off old growth forestry as many as 20 sawmills and 18,000 jobs could be lost.

As it happens, the Dean of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, John Innes, has added some useful facts to this issue. Contrary to mistaken claims that old-growth trees in BC stand are in danger of disappearing, Innes notes that between 13 and 14 million old-growth hectares exist with about 10 million hectares of that protected already. The remainder is available for forestry sector and in regions such as Vancouver Island amount to 50% of the forecast cut. Ban that and you arrive at the 18,000 jobs lost noted by Muir and others.

Back to housing and affordability. British Columbia has long been a resource province, and still is. (There’s a reason the crest of City of Vancouver has a logger and a fisherman on it.) And jobs in forestry and other resource sectors also pay above the average.

For example, the median weekly wage across all industries in Canada was $1,113 in 2021. But for forestry fishing, mining, quarrying and oil and gas? A whopping 55% higher at $1,730 weekly, and the highest of all industries including double the weekly wage in retail at $850.

There are plenty of reasons why making housing affordable in British Columbia, and the rest of Canada, will be a challenge for years to come. But to help make homes easier to rent or buy, the least the provincial government can do is to do no harm to high-paying jobs.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. You can follow him on Twitter @MilkeMark

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