One year ago this week, Premier David Eby appointed Ravi Kahlon as the Minister of Housing, putting him in charge of the newly-created standalone ministry leading the way on perhaps the biggest challenges British Columbia is facing.
A field hockey player who represented Team Canada in the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, Kahlon was first elected as MLA for Delta North in May 2017. He would then be named Parliamentary Secretary for Sport and Multiculturalisim by then -Premier John Horgan and traveled around the province to build an anti-racism strategy.
He was later named the Parliamentary Secretary for Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, before then later being appointed as the Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation after being re-elected in 2020. In that role, Kahlon helped introduce BC's Mass Timber Action Plan, which likely works in his favor as he continues work on the housing front.
Kahlon began his tenure with a series of announcements in January, regarding the Rental Protection Fund and permitting improvements, and has made a steady stream of announcements throughout the year, culminating in a series of big pieces of legislation in the fall session, which concluded last week.
In an interview with STOREYS, conducted on December 1, Kahlon discusses the rationale behind the various actions the Province has taken this year, the work that went into them, and the outcomes he hopes those actions will bring.
Your first year is in the books. How has the year been for you personally and professionally?
When I first got the call from Premier Horgan saying that I was going to be the Minister of Economic Recovery, in the middle of the pandemic, I didn't sleep for two weeks. Then when Premier Eby called me saying 'you're gonna be Minister of Housing,' I didn't sleep for three weeks. [Chuckles.]
What our experiences have taught us is that we need to act big to address big challenges. We can't continue to do the same thing and expect different results, and so what we've done is look at the entire system and figure out what reforms need to happen, instead of doing the piecemeal things.
We were able to, I believe, put together a very comprehensive strategy, the Homes For People strategy, and what we've seen in the legislature these last few months is all the pieces that we told the public we were going to take steps on.
Like you've mentioned, you've been in government prior to this current role, but not specifically on the housing front. Has anything about the housing file or the industry surprised you? What have you learned?
I'm learning everyday. This is such a top-of-mind issue. The biggest thing that I've learned, which I say often, is that to address this housing crisis, we need all partners to be part of the solution. We need the private sector to build housing, we need the not-for-profit sector to grow so we have more non-profit housing, we need local governments, we need the federal government, we need the Indigenous communities, and that's what we're trying to do. The way to address this challenge is to have everybody push in the same direction and that's what our intent has been from the beginning.
We didn't sit and say 'well, here's my political view on what the solution should be.' The stuff you're seeing in our housing strategy and the legislation came from our BC housing advisory group that we put together and that issued a report. We also looked at Ontario's report and what was recommended to the Ontario government. We actioned all the best pieces from those two reports, as well as what we've seen in Auckland, in Portland, and jurisdictions around the world. It's a reflection of all the changes that we believe are necessary for us to structurally change how housing gets built in BC.
What has your relationship looked like with the real estate and development industry?
We started with one goal — how do we ensure that young families can have housing here in British Columbia? That's the goal we started with. It wasn't 'how do we make this group happy, or how do we make that group happy?' We started with 'what is the outcome that we want to see,' and the outcome we want to see is young families seeing hope that they can have housing here, seniors being able to downsize and stay in their community, and creating opportunies for intergenerational familes to live together in one structure. That was the endgoal.
And so what we did from there was we went to all of our stakeholders. We had discussions with the development community, the homebuilder community, local governments, and we said 'give us all the solutions, give us all your ideas,' and that's what you see reflected in [what we've done.]
Elements like the Rental Protection Fund, the reforms around how local governments plan for growth in their communities, transit-oriented development and making sure housing is built around it, and tools for local governments to be able to collect the funds they need for infrastructure, but doing it in a way that's way more transparent and ensures that homebuilders have that certainty in costs in the beginning instead of through a negotiation process — all these things are what we heard from our stakeholders and we took action to address them.
From the outside, it may look like the new legislations were put together quickly in a short amount of time, but I imagine that may not be the case. Can you tell me about the work that went into these various announcements?
We started this work in 2018. In 2019, we issued the first report — the Development Approvals Process Review — and that review laid out all the challenges that we heard from the development community, from local governments, and from not-for-profit partners. The genesis of the work we're doing started back then.
We put out our Homes For People strategy when Premier Eby became our leader, we laid out clearly where we were going and told people we were going to allow three and four units on single-family lots, we told them that we were going to reform systems, and the legislation that we've brought in reflects that.
There's three distinct pieces of legislation. They're separate, but they all work together. The first one was around ensuring that every community does housing reports in a standardized way, so that we can compare apples to apples. The second piece is having communities update their OCPs [Official Community Plans] and zoning to meet their 20-year housing need. And the final piece is, when you have that plan, working that plan and not relitigating rezoning hearings for decisions the community has already made.
The transit-oriented development piece is significant, because it says that this is the new minimal allowable density, but at the same time, it ensures that local governments have the ability to protect heritage sites — designated by the federal, provincial, or local government. It also allows them to take their housing needs reports and talk to the development community to ensure that whatever gets built reflects the needs of the communities. It also lets the Province plan better. Now we can plan for healthcare, we can plan for schools, we can plan for transit, because we know the community has pre-zoned and done their planning and everybody has a little more certainty around where the growth will happen. It's not only the community that benefits, we benefit provincially because we're able to plan better.
The other piece of legislation that we brought in, which didn't get much coverage, is around financing. We know local governments need the ability to finance for amenities, for fire halls, for police stations. The process, as we had it, meant that in a rezoning hearing, sometimes it was a year or two years to negotiate, behind closed doors, what the CAC's [community amenity contributions] would be. There's no transparency there. There's no certainty there.
I'll give you an example, from the Province. We have a low-income seniors project that we were funding 100% of, we got through the entire process, and at the negotiation stage, they came back and said 'we want more parking and more CACs.' If that's happening to us as the Province, building low income seniors housing, it's happening to everyone. So this new finance tool says 'Okay, local governments: do an economic analysis, engage the community, ensure that projects can still be viable, pass bylaws for what you need, and have your fixed costs upfront so that everyone that comes in the door knows what their cost is and negotiation is going to be eliminated.'
That type of system reform will ensure more certainty for everyone, for local governments, for people in the community, for the homebuilding and development community. That's the type of reform that we wanted to bring in — that creates a more transparent and certain process for everybody in our communities. All these pieces, they tie together to help us address the structural challenges.
The transit-oriented development legislation was passed recently. There has been some criticism regarding how it was passed, with some saying there was little time for debate. Is there some context you’d like to add to address that particular criticism?
We spent 62 hours debating housing in the legislature this session. That's never happened in the history of this province. Just on the small scale multi-unit housing legislation, we spent 44 hours debating that, which makes it one of the longest-debated bills in the last 20 years.
What we realized soon after was that it wasn't the questions that were the challenges, but that the opposition parties fundamentally didn't agree with the legislation. That's okay. That's democracy and it's a healthy thing. But we were able to answer the questions that they had and, in the end, the public — and I've heard this clearly — they don't care about these political games. What they care about is 'are we finding ways to come together and find solutions for housing,' and that is our focus.
There is a little bit of concern that some of the actions the Province has taken, such as the transit-oriented development legislation and housing targets, can potentially result in some tension with local governments. Is there anything you'd like to say on that front and the working relationship with local governments?
What we have been signalling to local governments from the beginning is that we must de-politicize decision-making. The need and ability to now upzone upfront eliminates public hearings for projects that [align with community plans] — that is our attempt to de-politicize it. I know that the majority of mayors and councillors that I've spoke to, the large majority, they understand why we're doing this, they understand that we're in a housing crisis, and many of them ran to help address this challenge. [The ones that don't] — often the ones that get quoted are the same few that get quoted all the time. So, yes, there are some that are perhaps not happy, but I would say that a large majority of them understand and our supportive of where we're going.
Several of the actions that were taken this year were first announced by Premier Eby during his campaign last year, and in your mandate letter. What is your working relationship with Premier Eby like on a day-to-day basis? What did his involvement look like in the actions we’ve seen this year?
This is based on his vision. When he first ran to be an elected official, he ran because he wanted to address housing. He was a young lawyer working in the Downtown Eastside, working with the most vulnerable people who were having challenges with housing. He learned from that experience that the small little fixes are not going to fix the giant problem that we have.
I would say that a lot of this work is based on his drive and focus. Having a ministry dedicated to this, having working groups set up within government dedicated to making sure this work moves forward in a quick way, this is a credit to his leadership, and my role is a simple one: to execute the things that he set out in his vision.
I’m sure you’re proud of all of them, but is there one action you've worked on that you're proudest of? Perhaps one that you spent the most time on?
I believe that all of them are pretty amazing. [Chuckles.] Yesterday [November 30], at the end of the night, I sat down with all the staff that were working and we just took a moment to pause, because it's been very busy, and we just reflected on the fact that this was an incredible amount of work and a lot of people put a lot blood, sweat, and tears getting them to this point. But we're not done. We still have more things to do. There's going to be more items in the coming weeks and in the spring.
Can you tell us what those things may be?
We have to find ways to build more sustainably and we have to find ways to address the challenge of labour. Right now we just simply don't have enough people to be able to build housing, so we have to build differently. We're going to be coming with some intiatives on that. We are going to be looking at the building code and how we can finds ways to ensure safety for the public, make buildings more accessible, and — at the same time — more viable to be built.
The big one coming in the new year is BC Builds. We're right now in the process of creating a land bank of all land owned by the Province and the different crown corporations and municipalities. We're looking at both vacant land and under-utilized land, we're looking at legislative tools to allow us to move faster, we're looking at financing tools to allow us to finance projects at a much lower rate than anyone else can.
Historically, we've focused on social housing and low-income housing, and what we've realized is that the private sector is going to help address the housing crisis for a large [segment] of our population, but there's a certain middle-income earner that they simply can't [help] — not because they don't want to, but because of interest rates, global inflation, labour shortages. So we are going to move into building housing for those middle-income earners, so we can keep our workforce in our communities, which is vitally important for our economy.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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