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Les Leyne: Greens' views on 'decommodifying' housing may have quiet NDP support

B.C.’s two Green MLAs’ frank thoughts on housing go a lot further than the government’s views. But it feels like some New Democrats would quietly agree with them, and are only constrained by the backlash
Green MLA Adam Olsen says changing the commodification of housing will be painful, because it represents stability and comfortable retirement. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Are B.C. Greens saying what the NDP government is really ­thinking about the province’s housing crisis?

After unveiling ­legislation against short-term rentals this week, NDP ministers ­concentrated on the specific details and the benefits they are counting on for thousands of renters.

The new law will sharply curb the ability of homeowners and landlords to rent accommodation out by the night, and the big profits that ensue. Owners in most communities will only be allowed to offer their principal residence and one secondary suite, rather than multiple units. There will be much stricter enforcement of bylaws that are now widely ignored.

In Victoria, a “legal non-conforming” situation that applied to 1,600 units is being superseded so renting them for short-term stays will effectively be outlawed next year.

The goal is to steer ­owners into either putting vacant units up for sale as permanent ­dwellings, or renting them to long-term tenants.

B.C.’s two Green MLAs support the bill. Their frank thoughts on housing go a lot further than the government’s views. But it feels like some New Democrats would quietly agree with them, and are only constrained by the backlash that is greeting the measures.

It’s not hard to imagine the NDP side nodding quietly at Green MLA Adam Olsen’s views. He, along with Leader Sonia Furstenau, earlier condemned the “commodification” of ­housing, which amounts to opposing the entire premise on which a major part of the ­economy and society rests.

The word describes any process by which a property or resource can be bought or sold. Housing has been subject to that since the first cave-dweller traded up for better shelter.

Olsen acknowledged how ­fundamental it is.

“It is at the root core of our housing philosophy… the ­primary wealth generator for Canadians.”

Housing starts are one of the primary markers of a healthy economy and real estate taxation is one of government’s top two revenue streams, he said.

Growing up on an Indian reserve, he said it has always been clear to him that ­governments “created a housing market that generated wealth on one side of the line and … ­poverty on the other.”

Now people are paying up to 70 per cent of their income on rent and it takes 20 or more years to save enough to buy into the market.

“The system is not working for us.”

Olsen said changing it is going to be painful, because so many people are deeply invested in that commodity and it ­represents stability and comfortable retirement.

“It’s a wicked problem, and it will not be solved by frittering around the edges.”

Even while acknowledging how painful it will be, Olsen urged the government to move much quicker on the issue.

Furstenau earlier told ­reporters that housing is a basic human right and B.C. isn’t addressing it.

Referring to owners and landlords who will be coming to grips with the changes this winter, she said: “An investment is never guaranteed. You put your money into an investment and it may or may not pay off.

“But what we have to do in British Columbia is ­decommodify housing so that first and foremost, housing is meeting the needs of British Columbians.”

Elsewhere in the house, ­Opposition BC United MLAs will be skeptical and suspicious during line-by-line debate of the restrictions. But they fell into line this week and supported the main thrust of the bill.

Conservatives were the only two MLAs of the 71 present who voted against the principles of the bill on second reading.

Leader John Rustad said Friday their stance stems from alarm about Premier David Eby’s increasingly authoritarian approach to issues. Rustad cited NDP moves on parents’ concerns about sex and gender programs in schools, and the move to force Surrey’s hand on the policing quagmire there.

Now he is adding to the list ­interference in homeowners’ rights and municipalities’ authority over their zoning.

He said the short-term rental problem arose because the NDP’s earlier processes failed. The government needs to fix those problems instead of “bullying” everyone into a new regime, he said.

One week in, it looks like the short-term rental crackdown is warranted and will proceed as planned. It will serve as a test case on how far the NDP wants to go elsewhere in the housing crisis.

Decommodification — taking housing out of the market and viewing it as a human right — is a favourite theme of the social democrat Broadbent Institute (where Eby spoke last month.)

If his team starts using that phrase along with the Greens, things will get interesting.

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