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COMMENTARY: The issue of affordability in B.C. is coming back to haunt the NDP government

Click to play video: 'Baldrey on NDP budget update' Baldrey on NDP budget update
Mon, Sep 11: Keith Baldrey discusses the details of the NDP's first budget update – Sep 11, 2017

It has now been more than a year since the election that eventually led to the NDP forming government and there are signs the issue the party rode to victory may be coming back to haunt it.

That issue is “affordability” and the NDP exploited it to the hilt when it was in opposition. By concentrating on unaffordable housing and things like bridge tolls, the New Democrats were able to snatch a bunch of ridings in Metro Vancouver from the B.C. Liberals and thus be in a position to partner with the B.C. Greens to form a government.

But the affordability issue hasn’t gone away and is likely to be with us for quite a long time yet. The challenge for the NDP, however, is that now that it is in government it is expected to solve the problems associated with affordability.

And, quite simply, the government can’t do it, at least not during this election cycle.

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There is no way to turn an unaffordable $2 million-priced house into a somewhat-affordable $500,000 house without wrecking the economy.

There is no way to turn unaffordable $2,000-a-month two-bedroom rental units into somewhat-affordable $1,000 units, given the notoriously long delays in the housing development approval process in most cities and municipalities.

There is no way to introduce $10-a-day-childcare without bankrupting the provincial budget.

READ MORE: It’s not $10-a-day, but NDP says $1B childcare plan will help thousands of families

So what we are seeing from the NDP in its first 10 months in power are relatively baby steps towards accomplishing some of these goals. The results, however, have barely registered with the public.

The foreign buyer’s tax has been increased, and a so-called speculation tax will be unveiled this fall. Legislation to increase tenants’ rights has been introduced and a new childcare program has been announced.

What has happened as a result?

Housing sales have slowed significantly, but prices remain in the stratosphere.  Rents remain very high and the vacancy rate in much of Metro Vancouver remains hovering around zero per cent.

The rollout of the new child care program was botched and many daycare operators even condemned it for actually increasing costs. The thing is still being fixed, and the NDP government appears to have given up ever mentioning the $10-a-day idea again.

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Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, the cost of some things is going to start going up and not down.

The new employers’ payroll tax comes into effect next year and already some municipalities are warning they may have to increase property taxes to pay for the new tax. School boards will likely have to cut services and non-profit organizations have said they may have to increase fees or layoff staff as a result of the tax.

READ MORE: BC NDP looks to build 14,000 affordable rentals for just under $2 billion over 10 years

And then there is the cost of filling up the car.

While the provincial government is not directly responsible for gas prices (although, to be sure, the province’s carbon tax and sales tax are important components of the cost of a litre of gas), it tends to be blamed for them just because, well, it is the government.

One NDP MLA told me he is hearing more complaints about gas prices from his constituents than any other issue right now. Angst about one tax increase generally morphs into concern about all of them and the chances of an eventual tax revolt cannot dismissed easily.

Finance Minister Carole James keeps boasting about cutting and eventually eliminating medical service premiums and while those premiums are a form of unfair regressive taxation, the fact is a minority of British Columbians even pay them directly (either their income is too low or their employers pay them).

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So boasting about cutting a tax for a minority while hiking other taxes (to the tune of $2.2 billion next year) will not quite cut it with the general public, which can be depended upon to become increasingly cranky about rising cost of living in general.

The next election is likely still three years away. Here’s betting the affordability crisis won’t be solved by then, and we’ll see then if the issue exploited so effectively by the NDP one year ago doesn’t become a political albatross around its neck the next time voters head to the polls.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.

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