Douglas Todd: B.C. desperately needs Ottawa to tie immigration levels to housing

More on housing and immigration levels:

Last week, hundreds of B.C. mayors and municipal councillors heard exactly why Ottawa’s failure to do so is causing them grief when it comes to providing adequate infrastructure, particularly affordable housing, but also schools, health-care facilities and daycares.

Delegates to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention heard the country’s record population growth last year of one million was 96 per cent from offshore arrivals. Forty per cent of those newcomers were permanent residents and 60 per cent were temporary residents, especially foreign students.

The flood of foreign nationals is creating unprecedented demand for homes, which is pushing up rents and housing prices, which are among the highest in the world in cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

While people in Canada who already own homes, or serve as landlords, are benefiting, the rest are having to struggle with price-to-household income ratios that have soared since 2005 to among the worst in the Western world.

Chris Friesen, a national leader in providing settlement services for immigrants and refugees, told delegates it’s taking far too long for Ottawa to do the obvious and co-ordinate its migration policy with housing and other taxpayer-funded services.

Last year, British Columbia, which has almost no control over migration, took in 60,000 new permanent residents and 140,000 temporary residents, said Friesen, the longtime CEO of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

“And at the end of the day everybody is looking for a home,” said Friesen. Despite Kahlon’s recent efforts, Friesen criticized the way the NDP government in 2018 launched a 30-point housing strategy “and nowhere in that plan is there mention of immigrants, temporary residents or refugees.”

Friesen said service providers are increasingly talking about how the country’s “absorptive capacity” for newcomers is stretched. It’s not only affecting newcomers, he said, but Canadian-born residents, too.

A Statistics Canada report by Annik Gougeon and Oualid Moussouni showed immigrants bought 78 per cent of the homes purchased in Richmond in 2018, and more than 65 per cent of the dwellings bought in Surrey and Burnaby. Newcomers bought more than 40 per cent of homes in Vancouver, North Vancouver and New Westminster in 2018.

Dan Hiebert, professor emeritus of geography at the University of B.C., told the delegates that Canada would have to immediately build 1.36 million more houses and apartments just to reach the average homes-to-population ratios of the OECD, a club of well-off nations.

And to achieve “affordability” in the housing market, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has estimated the country would need to build 3.5 million extra housing units in the next seven years. Currently, only about 280,000 units are built each year.

The proportion of Metro Vancouver housing owned or rented by recent newcomers has doubled since 2016, according to census data. Growth rates are rocketing.

Permanent and non-permanent residents who arrived in the past five years alone now account for 14 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s population, eight per cent of all homeowners and 25 per cent of all renters.

Canada has not seen such high immigration rates since 1912, when 400,000 newcomers arrived, said Hiebert. Ottawa is now aiming for 500,000 new permanent residents each year. And that does not include hundreds of thousands of guest workers, plus the record 800,000 foreign nationals in the country on study visas.

Years ago, Hiebert referred to how Canada’s immigration policy is, in effect, Canada’s housing policy. Without knowing its origins, many UBCM attendees repeated the phrase frequently.

Hiebert suggested Canada’s dilemma is that arguably there might not be enough people to fill the country’s labour market, but there are too many for Canada’s housing market.

The vice-president of the Vancouver Board of Trade, David van Hemmen, said B.C. businesses are having difficulty attracting talent because of the alarming cost of housing. Some businesses, he said, are moving operations to Alberta or Washington state, to avoid B.C.’s daunting land costs.

While panelists and delegates consistently said the country should welcome newcomers, some civic officials who went to the microphones remarked on how Ottawa’s migration targets are “aggressive.”

Carling Helander, a provincial government immigration policy specialist who sat on the panel in lieu of Municipal Affairs Minister Anne Kang, acknowledged B.C.’s quest for new workers to address labour shortages creates a “circular loop” that tends to hike housing costs.=

A recent Gallup poll revealed 75 million people around the world want to move to Canada, the delegates heard. In addition, an Angus Reid Institute poll found newcomers are enthusiastic about getting into the housing market.

While 59 per cent of Canadian-born residents said “it’s important to own a home to feel like a real Canadian,” that figure jumps to 75 per cent among recent immigrants. While the individual earnings of recent immigrants are below average, Hiebert said household incomes are higher than most because more people tend to inhabit the same dwelling.

Friesen cited how the Liberal government’s humanitarian approach to asylum seekers from war-ravaged Ukraine exemplifies the absence of co-ordination between federal migration policy and local housing needs.

More than 175,000 asylum seekers from Ukraine have already landed in Canada, said Friesen. But 850,000 more have applied for refugee status. It’s just been announced they will have to forfeit their refugee application if they don’t get to Canada by March, 2024. All this, Friesen said, is being done without housing co-ordination.

The ISS of B.C. already has 13 full-time staff devoted to finding houses for asylum seekers and other newcomers, said Friesen. “Over 60 per cent of them land in Surrey in basement suites.”

Similar to B.C.’s housing minister, Friesen said this country badly needs a 10-year population growth strategy that matches arrivals with housing.

Source: Douglas Todd: B.C. desperately needs Ottawa to tie immigration levels to housing

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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