COLUMN: Hope for housing in Surrey, after years of neglect

The recently announced federal housing strategy could have a positive effect on social housing

The federal housing strategy, announced last Wednesday, could make a substantial difference in Surrey – particularly for renters.

While the strategy calls for spending of $40 billion over 10 years, in many ways it is quite modest. The spending relies heavily on contributions from other levels of government. Nonetheless, it reverses a trend of more than 30 years, as Ottawa gets back into funding housing on a bigger scale, after years of declining participation under Conservative and Liberal governments.

In the early 1980s, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre, the federal government was providing funds for as many as 25,000 subsidized housing units. Some of those were built in Surrey, which since the 1950s has received a share of social-housing funds from Ottawa and Victoria.

Under subsequent prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, the federal government’s contribution to the housing stock has diminished substantially. Under the new plan, it plans to quadruple the number of new units subsidized to 10,000, up from the current 2,500 – 10 per cent of what was being built 30 years ago when interest rates were at record highs.

Some of the money will go towards renovations of existing social-housing complexes. Fleetwood-Port Kells Liberal MP Ken Hardie has announced that $368,000 will go toward repairing and upgrading 34 housing units at the Arboretum, Housing Co-op in Guildford, which was almost certainly originally built with some federal housing funds.

There is a desperate need for more social housing in Surrey and North Delta. This is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and ultra-high real estate prices have put the squeeze on low-income families.

For years, Surrey’s had a significant supply of lower-cost rentals units, but it has not kept up with the population. Many complexes are long past their prime and need renovations. This housing strategy will mean there is hope that at least the social-housing units can be upgraded.

Another element of the new strategy that could be of significant help to many Surrey renters is the plan for a Canada Housing Benefit targeting particularly vulnerable renters. This benefit – similar to the B.C. government subsidy to low-income renters – will offer them about $2,500 per year. However, it won’t begin until 2020 and is dependent on buy-in from provinces.

Nonetheless, it is a good idea. It gives renters more choices. No longer do they have just one – to get their names on a lengthy social-housing waiting list. This, coupled with the successful child benefit plan the Liberals rolled out soon after being elected in 2015, goes a long ways towards helping lower-income people cope with the high cost of living in urban areas.

It is unfortunate that both the federal and provincial governments have done little to provide social housing in Surrey for so long.

While the province has expanded its role in social housing in the past decade, much of the funding went to Vancouver. Meanwhile, Surrey got a few crumbs. Ottawa has been studious in avoiding the issue for decades.

The high value of land has created a strong incentive for landlords to turn their buildings into strata units, or boost rents to rates that many people cannot afford. This has already caused havoc for many, and the future looks even more challenging.

The National Housing Strategy, despite its shortcomings, is a concrete step in the other direction.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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