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Q&A: How Ravi Kahlon plans on tackling B.C.'s housing crisis

"We're seeing the vacancy rates at a historic low, and we're not building at the rate of population growth. You want to talk about perfect storm; that's essentially what we have here."
Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, seen here with Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA Melanie Mark at a Vancouver news conference in December, says he’s committed to reducing homelessness and pushing municipalities to build more affordable housing.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon was on the move Thursday, driving from appointment to appointment to meet with the mayors of the Township of Langley (Eric Woodward), Langley City (Nathan Pachal) and Chilliwack (Ken Popove).

Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens was on the list, too.

In his new role as the minister responsible for housing in B.C., Kahlon said he expects to be in regular touch with mayors, joking that he has already spent more time with Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim than his family.

The topic, of course, has been and will be housing.

What Kahlon has heard and will continue to hear is that there are not enough affordable homes in B.C., that rents are too high and homelessness continues to increase across the province — despite moves by the government and municipalities to open shelters, add temporary modular homes and build permanent housing.

The mandate letter Kahlon received from Premier David Eby calls for implementing the Housing Supply Act and working with municipalities facing the highest housing needs "to set housing targets and fast-track construction and redevelopment of affordable homes for people with a range of incomes."

Does he expect pushback on the Act?

"My message to the mayors is, yes, the Housing Supply Act gives us some powers or sticks, so to speak," Kahlon said.

"But I prefer to work with them to make sure that we can get housing online. So far, I haven't met a single mayor who doesn't understand the crisis, who doesn't understand the need for us to get more housing online in a faster way."

Added Kahlon: "So I'm feeling hopeful that the path will be fruitful. And, of course, the Housing Supply Act gives us the powers to take action if we feel that it's not moving at the pace we want to see it move at."

The question was one of several Kahlon answered in a 25-minute interview with Glacier Media on Jan. 5. What follows is a condensed and edited version of the interview, which was conducted by telephone.

Glacier Media: You've been on the job as housing minister for almost a month now. What's been the biggest challenge so far in adjusting to your new role in government?

Kahlon: Well, the biggest challenge is the challenge at hand — which is we've got a housing crisis, we've got people sleeping in tents, people that are in housing that's inadequate, people feeling vulnerable in the spaces they live in. And you've got people who are trying to get into the housing market and don't see a path to do so. So the challenge, quite frankly, feels like a giant mountain to climb. For me, the goal has been to start taking those steps to address them.

Premier David Eby with MLA Melanie Mark, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon and Mayor Ken Sim in vacant city lot Dec. 14 near Main Street and Terminal Avenue to announce 90 units of modular housing. Photo Mike Howell

The last time we spoke was after a news conference Dec. 14 at Main and Terminal in Vancouver, where you and Premier David Eby announced $6.9 million to house 90 people in temporary work camp-style units on two city properties. Can other municipalities with homeless populations expect to see some of the same type of housing this year?

I'm actually heading over to Chilliwack right now to talk to the mayor there; they've got some challenges. I'm then heading to Abbotsford to talk to the mayor about their challenges. We're looking at finding those types of creative solutions wherever we can. We know that the modular housing can come online fast. And when we have people sleeping in tents, we have to find ways to get people under a roof in a safe environment as quick as we can, and modular housing allows us to do that.

Your mandate letter from Premier David Eby asks you to lead government's work to better coordinate services to deliver improved outcomes for people living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. That's a tall task, to say the least. How do you plan to do that?

Listening first, then learning and then taking that leadership responsibility the premier has given me. We've been spending time talking to some of the providers, listening to the challenges, met with the mayor of Vancouver, talked to the folks at fire and police and all the stakeholders that are actually doing work in that space — to hear about what they've been doing, and where the challenge points are. So that's the first piece. The second piece is coming together and identifying a path forward. We've started to do a bit of that work now. We'll certainly have a framework of how we move forward in the coming weeks.

Way back in August 2020, the BC government announced that Vancouver would be getting a 60-bed "navigation centre" for homeless people to offer services not received in shelters. It was supposed to be the first of its kind in Canada and open by spring 2021. What happened to that project?

I can't give you an update on that project right now, but I certainly can get some information and get back to you. But the idea of a navigation centre is critically important to ensure that we get people into the right type of housing, into the right type of environment for them to be successful. Clearly, the idea of getting people into housing and then seeing them back on the street is not obviously good for those people — it's not helping us move forward on addressing the core issues that people are dealing with. So that [navigation centre] is very much alive and part of the conversation we're having with key stakeholders.

The B.C. government promised in August 2020 that a 60-bed “navigation centre” for Vancouver’s homeless people would be operating by spring 2021. It has yet to open. Photo Mike Howell

In December 2021, a City of Vancouver staff memo to council said that despite moving 737 people inside since the city's homeless count in March 2020, the homeless population either remained the same or may have increased since the count. That finding suggests that no matter how much housing is provided — whether it be temporary or permanent — that government will never solve homelessness, or even reduce it. What do you say to that?

I would say that it's a symptom of a broader problem. We have seen home prices go through the roof over the last three years. We've also seen people going through a very challenging time coming out of the pandemic, which has added in a great way to the problem. We're seeing the vacancy rates at a historic low, and we're not building at the rate of population growth. You want to talk about perfect storm; that's essentially what we have here.

But I don't believe that we can't solve this housing problem. Jurisdictions around the world have solved this problem. What it is going to be needed is for us to coordinate services. It's going to require us to put in measures broadly as a society to ensure that people can earn incomes that can keep them above the poverty level. It's going to require us to find innovative solutions to get housing built faster that people can afford.

So it's not as simple as just building the unit, I understand that, but that is an important part of it. But it's also going to be the other piece that gives people good opportunities to get good income jobs and ensure that people who are working 40 to 50 hours a week can make enough money to be able to survive in our communities.

But it seems no matter how much housing is built, it just becomes an "if you build it, they will come" scenario, particularly in Vancouver, where thousands of units of social and supportive housing have been added over the past decade.

Well, if you talk to folks in communities throughout the province, they're seeing an increase of people that are homeless. So it's not just Vancouver, of course, but the proportion is higher in Vancouver. The key here, and this is something that Mayor Sim and I have talked about, is that this can't be a solution just for Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside. This needs to be a solution for communities across the province.

Everyone has a responsibility to play a role in that. That's certainly something that I've said to mayors. And I've heard back from mayors that there's agreement that everyone has to be part of it — so that we can see our residents have the opportunities to be able to live in communities where they're from and not have to go into certain communities to get the support they need.

I heard a Vancouver city planner tell council last year that 75 per cent of newcomers to Vancouver are renters. What's your plan to address high rents and low vacancy rates in Vancouver and across the province?

We have so many communities around the province that have vacancy rates below one per cent. Alarms are going off everywhere, and we need to get more rental housing online, and that means affordable ones, as well. Part of the Housing Refresh Strategy that we'll be launching in the coming months will have a lens on how do we get more affordable rentals online.

Of course, we have heard clearly that speed of permitting and speed of approval costs money. Some projects don't become viable when they're waiting for five, six, sometimes up to eight years to get approved. So that certainly is going to be a big part of it.

But there's other pieces that have been suggested. I've been taking suggestions from everyone from Landlord BC, from Urban Development Institute, from not-for-profit providers on how we can address that, but it's going to be a critical part of the solution.

Whatever happened to the promised renter's rebate?

It's still on the radar. We promised to commit to and bring that in within our mandate, and we're still committed to it.

I want to return to your mandate letter to the part where Premier Eby pointed out 100,000 people moved to BC in 2021, setting a 50-year record. The premier expects that growth to continue. So how do you address housing supply not only for people experiencing homelessness but people from all walks of life —whether they be longtime Canadians or newcomers — seeking affordable housing?

It's a double-edged sword. We know we need people. We need immigration for our economy. But at the same time, we have the challenge of ensuring that there's housing and health care for people. So that's why I've suggested that the federal government start looking at linking the immigration targets that they've set to both housing affordability and also to housing starts.

That way, we can ensure that people who are living here can secure the type of housing they need to be able to survive, but also so that newcomers are actually set up for success. The last thing we want to see is skilled people who come here end up in a challenging situation, and then they're struggling as well.

The case I've been making to my counterparts at the federal level is, let's do that coordination — tie these things together — so that we can be successful for both our residents here now but also for the people that are coming.

The Hotel Canada at 518 Richards St. generated 504 emergency calls in 2022 to Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, most of which related to false alarms for people smoking in the building. Photo Mike Howell

The BC government-owned Hotel Canada is in the news this week because of the number of calls firefighters responded to at the Vancouver SRO — 504 in 2022, with 300 related to false alarms. The non-profit that manages it — Atira — is paying out a substantial amount of money in fines for the false alarms. Firefighters are frustrated. There's got to be a better approach going forward. What's your ministry doing about it?

Well, it is a real challenge. I know the policies are in place that people shouldn't be smoking in a unit. The numbers I've seen is that well over 70 per cent of people staying in SROs smoke. The predicament we're in is that the remedy for it is eviction. But that means more people in the streets and means more challenges we have. So we're trying to find ways to find solutions.

But we know that these SROs are not a solution for the long term. We need to build permanent housing and get people out of them so that we can get them into shelters that's more appropriate. So that's what we're focused on. Meanwhile, BC Housing is working with all our providers to ensure that safety — fire safety in particular — is a top priority.

I know Vancouver politicians have pushed the federal government to provide money to buy private SROs, many of which are in disrepair and charge high rents. When federal housing Minister Ahmed Hussen was in Vancouver in November 2021, he showed interest in the city-led idea, which would cost an estimated $1 billion over seven years. The B.C. government has also shown interest. Will you be pushing Hussen to make this happen?

At this stage, I've had a couple of conversations with Mr. Hussen. What we've agreed to is coming together and trying to collaborate on how we can address this issue. So I won't say that there's going to be one specific thing that I'm going push him on. The bottom line is they need to bring dollars to the table.

Former Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson raised concerns Wednesday via Twitter that leases on temporary modular housing buildings will expire this year. She said the province and the city need to sit down ASAP to ensure leases will be extended for another five years or find other land to move the housing. What do you say to that?

As those lease terms start coming up, we're going to have to have conversations on what that means, what it means [for tenants] for people. I believe close to 700 units that are coming online. And so that's going to help us shift a lot of folks into more permanent housing and away from the modular model. I'm confident we'll be able to find solutions.

When Shayne Ramsay announced his resignation in August as CEO of BC Housing, he said, "I no longer have confidence I can solve the complex problems facing us at BC Housing." What did you make of Ramsay's comment then, and what do you make of it now as housing minister?

I've spent some time looking at the challenges BC Housing has had. We had the Ernst and Young report, and we have a forensic audit happening now. I actually feel confident that once we have the recommendations [from the audit], that we will be implementing them. There's processes that need to be upgraded; there's systems that need to be put in place. I feel confident that once we have those things in place, BC Housing will not only be able to do the work they have to do, but I think they'll be able to do it in a better and more efficient way.

I had the opportunity to meet with BC Housing staff, meet with each team, meet with folks who are doing work on the front lines. I was blown away. These people are committed to the work they're doing. They're passionate. They know how vitally important their work is for the people they serve.

Have you found a new CEO for BC Housing?

The process right now is underway. The board [of directors] has found a company that is looking for talent, looking for a good person to lead us, and certainly hoping that that process is fruitful.

The homeowners' grant. I believe the threshold for a property owner to claim a homeowners grant is now up to $2.1 million. As you know, the grant is controversial because it goes to property owners and not renters. Does the government have any plans to get rid of it?

The increase was there to ensure it serves the same amount of people that it served in previous years. It supports a lot of seniors, and certainly, in the future, we'll have to look at it. We have to find ways to ensure that it's supporting the people who need the support the most. But that's where it's at, at this stage.

But again, the question asked by a lot of people is how does the government continue to allow grants for homeowners when so many others are paying high rents and just scraping by?

Well, we have a whole host of other supports in place, as well. We've got a rent cap that's been in place. We're one of the only jurisdictions that has one. We have the hydro rate rebates; we have an affordability credit that's going to all households. So we're trying to support people through what is a very challenging time in different ways.

Of course, we want to make sure that any supports we have are progressive in nature. And again, we'll review all the supports in the future to see what we can do, but it's not just a one-off. There's a whole host of things that we're putting in place to support people and the different situations that they're in.

Ok, so next year at this time, when I talk to you in January of 2024, what are you going to tell me about the state of housing, homelessness and affordability in B.C? Are you going to have some good news to deliver?

I'm going to be able to say to you that we're making progress and that we're showing people the path that we're taking to address the challenge we have. But I'm under no illusion that in one year or in two years that this problem is going to be solved. When you have 20 years of not enough investment in housing, it's not going to be fixed in two years.

It's going to require multiple years. And it's going to require a lot of dollars. So you'll see a commitment from us, you'll see progress from us. I would like to say that we will be able to solve it all. But I'm realistic.

Final question: Will East Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside still be populated with people living in tents next year at this time?

Our goal is to put a plan in place with our partners to have people in the encampments moved out. Encampments are not safe. They're not safe for the community. I've heard that clearly. It's not safe for the people that are sleeping there. Nobody wants to be sleeping in a tent outside. But we have to find ways to create safe spaces for people and see that there's a path to a better place.

It's certainly my goal — and the premier has made it clear to me — that we don't want to see people housed in encampments in the future. So you'll be seeing us launching or sharing publicly a plan on how we move on that.

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