Anne McMullin: Less talk and taxes, more action needed from government on housing

If we truly care about housing affordability, we have an opportunity to shape our future. And that change can begin today.

Talk and taxes. They’re the two features that have marked B.C.’s response to the housing affordability crisis.
Sure, there are plenty of promises, but as we enter 2019 there still seems to be a shortage of action to solve the real problems facing our province.
For renters, it’s the inability to find homes that work for them. For seniors, it’s the shortage of options to age in their own communities. Landlords talk about regulation and a growing number of British Columbians complain about not being able to get into the housing market.
In a province marked by high purchase prices and low rental availability, these kinds of concerns aren’t surprising. Our communities are changing, things seem beyond our control and people feel anxious about finding a stable home.
But if I could make a wish for 2019, it would be for action on the real solutions to these challenges, the things that will make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.
For a young person, it might be finding an affordable apartment. For an aging senior, it may be relocating to a ground-level suite within the same community. For a business owner, it may be ensuring employees can afford to live near their workplace.
We have more control over these issues than many people think; and, governments at all levels need to begin focusing on housing solutions. Too often, they have merely added more regulations or increased taxes, but I have always said we can’t tax our way to affordability.
As we begin a new year, I want to highlight a five-step plan that can help recapture a more inclusive and affordable B.C.
• First, we need to speed up the homebuilding process. It’s shocking, but in some communities it can take five years or more for a housing project to receive government approval. All those delays simply add to the price of housing, or rents, when the homes are eventually built.
• Second, we need to encourage the construction of more rental units. This means setting the right conditions, timelines, tax-relief measures and incentives to encourage homebuilders to take on these projects. How about exempting building materials from the provincial sales tax for those who create rental suites? It’s an incentive that would help.
• Third, our communities need to modernize neighbourhood design. Essentially, municipalities can do more to change zoning standards to allow for more home choice. This isn’t radical, it’s about allowing other forms of housing beyond the single-family home. That includes duplexes, triplexes, micro-suites, lane homes and row homes, which are essentially town homes without the strata fees or restrictive bylaws. Some urban municipalities still ban basement suites even though they’re a widely accepted form of housing.
• Fourth, we need to make it easier for people to get from home to work by building near transit lines. Too often, new transit lines are developed without proper consideration for new homes. But to serve our citizens best, and to respect every taxpayer dollar spent on transit, communities need to ensure large numbers of people can live near rapid-transit lines. That increased population would also ensure a healthy number of transit-users.
• Finally, the tax grab on new housing must stop. If we are genuinely concerned about the rising cost of homes and rental units, all levels of government must begin reducing taxes, fees and charges on new homes as all of those costs get passed along to the resident buyer or renter.
An independent report done last year found excessive regulation in Vancouver, including taxes, zoning regulation and development charges, can add a staggering $600,000 to the cost of a new home. That is simply unacceptable.
It has been said that there is no greater power for change than when a community discovers what it cares about. If we truly care about housing affordability, we have an opportunity to shape our future. And that change can begin today.
Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, an association of the real estate and building industry that creates communities, supports thousands of B.C. jobs and creates billions in economic activity.