COLUMN: More help needed for Surrey’s ‘working poor’

Surrey's call for a poverty-reduction plan needs to be heeded by the province.

The City of Surrey’s call for a provincial poverty-reduction plan needs to be heeded by the provincial government.

Surrey put forward a motion for such a plan at last month’s convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. It was the second straight year the motion went forward, and it was passed by a majority of delegates.

While some might argue that dealing with such a broad issue is beyond the scope of municipalities, real life says otherwise. There is no shortage of issues that the city deals with that are directly related to poverty.

Perhaps the most obvious ones are homelessness and the lack of housing for people on low incomes. Surrey’s homeless people have few options, and the city spends an inordinate amount of time and resources on this issue. Some activists say Surrey’s policy of moving homeless people along, particularly from areas in Whalley, is discriminatory.

The provincial government has put some funding towards dealing with the homeless issue, but much more is needed in Surrey. The province has concentrated much of its spending in downtown Vancouver, while other areas in Metro Vancouver have received far less attention.

There are good people and organizations helping homeless people in Surrey, but they often have limited resources and receive minimal support from all levels of government.

On the affordable-housing front, provincial inaction has been even more pronounced. The province did nothing to intervene in the soaring real estate market until suddenly imposing a 15 per cent property-purchase tax on foreign buyers in August. The effect of the lengthy period of inaction has been a boost in the cost of housing.

In addition, the province has contributed little to affordable-housing projects, although it says it plans to change. The net effect is that the cost of rent (or mortgage payments) has gone up for almost everyone. This hits people with low incomes the hardest, and in some cases, it turns them into homeless people.

Surrey has long been one of the major areas in the Lower Mainland where there is a good stock of low-rental housing, particularly in the north. Recently, residents of a low-rent apartment building in Whalley were told to leave because of the condition of the building. Where did they all go?

It is crucial that there be more low-rent homes available. A rising real-estate market should not restrict it.

B.C. has a large proportion of people whose incomes are below the poverty line. The provincial government is a factor in some of the costs that hit poorer people the hardest – such as Medical Services Plan premiums, ICBC car-insurance rates, BC Hydro bills, bridge tolls and the carbon tax. While there are some rebates available for the lowest income classes, these charges extract a disproportionate amount of income from “the working poor.”

According to the Surrey UBCM resolution, B.C. is the only province without a poverty-reduction strategy. While Premier Christy Clark correctly states that having a job is one way to reduce poverty, and the province has done a pretty good job on the job-creation front, many jobs aren’t enough to lift people out of poverty. Entry-level jobs in the service industry will not give people enough money to pay their bills.

It is no accident that the services of the Surrey Food Bank are in demand – it is one of the most important backup agencies for people who simply don’t have enough money coming in.

Coun. Bruce Hayne said the lack of a strategy on dealing with poverty “affects the entire community.” He’s correct. That’s why, as a provincial election approaches, this needs to be much higher on the provincial government’s agenda.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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