NDP's bold brand is starting to wear thin

Les Leyne mugshot genericBy no stretch of the imagination can the latest moves by the B.C. government on housing affordability be considered “bold.”

But that’s what it says in their statement: “Three more bold steps to fix the housing crisis.”

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Here’s what passes for bold:

• Two years after the greedy real-estate manoeuvre known as “shadow flipping” was brought to light by the media, the government is legislating a crackdown on tax evasion on pre-sale condo-assignment deals. The long lag obviously wasn’t all the NDP’s fault. The B.C. Liberals were in power for most of that period and took a running start at the crackdown after the furor erupted over the unethical practice.

It took the NDP nine months to come up with a full legislative response. It’s some new forms to be filled out that will be shared with provincial and federal tax collectors.

So they’re addressing a loophole that was being routinely exploited by speculators, one that should have been caught years ago. It’s a long-overdue administrative patch being applied after an undetermined amount of untaxed capital gains escaped taxation. That’s not bold. It’s just fixing something that wasn’t working right.

• A second bill introduced Tuesday allows local governments to add a new category of rental housing to their zoning bylaws. Undeveloped land could be designated for rental housing only. Or an apartment block up for redevelopment could be zoned to ensure the land remains available wholly or partly for rental housing. It would provide some certainty to developers about what they can do with the land. It could also shave some time off the approval process. Housing Minister Selina Robinson said it wouldn’t override existing use.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was on hand for the announcement and said it was an important new authority, but she was cautious about what her council might do with it.

So it’s entirely up to local government what this legislation ends up accomplishing. It could be an interesting and productive move. Picture a hypothetical council in Victoria or Vancouver rezoning a neighbourhood such as Cook Street or the Cambie corridor for rentals. Now that would be bold.

But the boldness will be in how they use it, not that the provincial government has granted them the power.

• Also introduced was legislation that will make it mandatory for local governments to conduct housing-needs assessments. B.C. is putting up $5 million to cover some of the costs for that new task, which must be accomplished every five years. It’s a blindingly obvious part of any community planning exercise to gauge the housing situation. It would be startling if this kind of work hasn’t been underway for years in all the larger municipalities. And Helps was quick to spot an easy workaround if the job is too onerous for smaller ones — just get a regional study done, like the one the Capital Regional District is updating.

That fresh new version includes a nugget that helps explain where all the stress on “boldness” is coming from. Looking out 20 years, the study predicts a need for more than 34,000 new rental-housing units. That’s 1,700 units every year in the capital region for almost a generation. The need is just as acute in other regions. The NDP tried to address that with an election promise to build more than 100,000 new housing units in 10 years. That was truly bold.

So was the speculation tax, which is a deliberate attempt to drive foreign money out of the B.C. housing market. But the boldness started to bleed away last month when the clumsy nature of the tax was revealed and the government had to take several steps back from the original intent.

Even so, Saanich this week joined the list of municipalities still wanting out of the coverage.

Finance Minister Carole James said it didn’t surprise her. “When bringing forward bold action, it’s no surprise to me there’d be people who’d not want to move in that direction.”

She vowed to press on with the tax, even though it’s already watered down.

The NDP should save “bold” for when it’s warranted. Using it for the routine moves made Tuesday just weakens the brand.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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