Kamloops’ rental shortage is no accident

The shortage of affordable rental units in Kamloops is the result of deliberate government policy starting with the Mulroney Conservatives in the 1990s. Not just Kamloops but all Canada was affected.

CSI low-income housing in Kamloops

Governments stopped investment in affordable rental units for a number of reasons: strong wage growth from 1996 to 2006 coupled with declining interest rates and modest housing prices enticed more renters into home ownership.

But by the mid-2000s, stagnant wages and the growth of low paying jobs along with escalating housing prices pushed people into rentals.

Now the federal Liberals in cooperation with the B.C. government and CMHC have reversed that trend with an investment in affordable housing.

Our society, the Centre for Seniors Information in Kamloops, is one of the city’s non-profits involved in the construction of affordable housing (I am the president of the society). We are building a five story apartment with112 units, ranging from studio-sized, to two bedrooms on the site of the old Cineplex Odeon theatre on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Victoria Street.

Judging by the response that our housing manager is getting, the building could be full when it opens its doors in just over a year.

The drought in affordable housing has had a devastating effect on low and middle wage-earners.

Canada’s five most common occupations are low-paid and often not full-time. (admin assistants, retail salespersons, cashiers, food and kitchen helpers, food and beverage servers) representing 1.8 million workers or 12% of all jobs,

According to calculations done by David MacDonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wages don’t pay the rent any more. He has come up with a measure of how much wages are short, something he calls the “rental wage.”

He defines the rental wage as the amount you would have to earn so that no more than 30 per cent of your wages goes to rent. In Kamloops, the rental wage is $25 an hour for a two-bedroom apartment. That would leave a reasonable remainder of 70 per cent for groceries, medicine, clothing, fuel, etc.

Another way of measuring rent is by the number of hours you would have to work at a minimum wage of $12.65. In Kamloops, you would have to work 78 hours a week to pay for an affordable two-bedroom apartment.

I suspect that many Kamloopsians are doing without essentials because they pay more than 30 per cent of income for rent.

Between 1980 and 1993, 49% of all rentals built were affordable. Federal tax incentives and loan programs to private investors also played a pivotal role in apartment rental construction over that period.

Now, new federal programs plan to deliver more than 110,500 new units by 2027-28. Combined with other provincial and federal programs, 15,100 and new affordable units were committed in 2017-18 and 16,600 in 2018-19; almost as many as from 1970 and the early 1990s before the cuts.

Canadians desperately need affordable rentals. One-third of Canada’s 14 million households rent their homes.

Without deliberate government policy, private investors can’t deliver the housing needed.

Everybody wins. Mortgages are given specifically for low income rentals, developers build the units and employ trades people, people can afford rent with money left over, and non-profits like ours take ownership of the buildings to generate much needed revenue.

BC Liberals suppressed Hydro rate hikes

For decades, B.C. governments have hidden the true cost of Hydro rates -especially the BC Liberals.

image: Common Ground

Under the direction of the BC Liberals, the Crown utility used “inappropriate” accounting to pile $5.5-billion in what are known as deferral accounts says B.C.’s auditor-general.

“That debt amounts to $1,300 for every residential customer, more than $10,000 for each commercial and light industrial ratepayer, and almost $5-million for each large industrial consumer,” according to the Globe and Mail, February 7, 2019.

Deferral accounts are not improper when correctly accounted for. They can be used as a temporary measure to avoid the shock of sudden rate hikes. After rates are gradually increased, the deferral account can be paid off.

But that’s not what happened. To keep voters happy and to make governments popular, BC Hydro rates were kept artificially low leaving future governments to deal with the problem of billions hidden in deferral accounts.

“BC Hydro was not allowed to charge its customers enough to cover its operating costs each year,” Auditor-General Carol Bellringer wrote.

The current minister responsible for BC Hydro, Bruce Ralston, said his government is committed to fixing the problem but it will take time given the size of the debt. “We are going to keep rates affordable. No one’s rates are going up by $1,300 in a year.” His government has already reduced the deferral accounts by $950-million by bringing that debt onto government books.

The NDP government also intends to prevent misuse of deferral accounts by future governments by restoring the role of the independent regulator, the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) and ensuring that BC Hydro adopts ordinary accounting practices.

Industries who are used to cheap hydro are not happy with the prospect of paying the real cost of producing electricity. Industry representative Richard Stout says industrial customers shouldn’t absorb the shock of getting Hydro back on sound financial footing. Since the government is responsible for the mess, they should pay:

“I think most would agree the appropriate source of paying down the debt should be from government, rather than the ratepayer.”

Huh? He wants taxpayers (the government) to pay for the meddling of former governments rather than ratepayers? Last time I looked Hydro users and taxpayers were one and the same.

Critics of BC Hydro will point to the debt incurred in building the massive hydro dam at Site C as an additional source of the problem. The project was started by the BC Liberals and given green light by the NDP who said the project had gone too far to abandon.

The government is faced with a hard choice, says Bellringer: “You can either have a rate increase or you can end up with a deficit that ends up getting covered by the government at some point.”

Hiding Hydro debt, which in reality is our debt, is not an option.

Transferring BC Hydro’s debt to the government’s books is the right thing to do but government debt is not popular with voters because it’s visible. Turning control of BC Hydro over to an independent regulator is the right thing do but hydro rates will go up.

We’ll see if doing the right thing pays off for the NDP in the next election.