experts: real estate column Monday, October 29, 2007

No song and dance for weighty housing issues

Months ago, Tim Pringle, the executive director of the B.C. Real Estate Foundation, suggested I write a play about the many different ways we perceive our property and the variety of values we place on that property.

By Marty Douglas

As published in REM - independent news and opinion for Canada's real estate industry.

Months ago, Tim Pringle, the executive director of the B.C. Real Estate Foundation, suggested I write a play about the many different ways we perceive our property and the variety of values we place on that property.

“My home is my castle.”

“I want to give back to the community.”

“No one helped me – let the homeless fend for themselves.”

Like a grain of sand in a shoe, the note to me about the conversation appeared every time I opened my REM file. How was I going to deal with this suggestion? Not the topic, the topic is easy. Tim suggested a play because when I’m not at my day job, my night job, winter and summer, is musical theatre. Two problems: I’m not a playwright and have no intention of squandering any of my remaining time in a vocation filled with competitors, and I’m not sure the topic of housing, especially the homeless, translates to music very well.

Even though Annie, My Fair Lady and Rent may make a case for the opposite point of view, each with their share of poor folks, in the end it’s the rich who bail them out by creating opportunity.

The homeless, the poor, the working poor – challenges ranging from mental illness and the response (or lack thereof) of our health care system, economic circumstance (the lack of control of the family into which we are born), and economic stagnation (mired in a minimum wage job). At the root of all of these are property rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Property rights are separate (in the sentence above) from the Charter because they are not included in the Charter. They were never included, although hotly debated, for three reasons – First Nations people, provincial governments and women. None of them wanted property rights in the Charter until they were through with their individual emancipations. In the case of native land claims, you can see how far we have progressed – we are currently tied with the folks attempting to discover the final resting places of Jimmy Hoffa and Emelia Earhart! As for the provinces, has any province or territory ever been onside with a federal proposal that might threaten or remove some of their rights? And as far as women are concerned – I like them! So whatever they want is okay with me.

Politicians trot out property rights during the course of every federal election. They have been on the back burner so long they have a crusty skin like my mother’s rice pudding. So, there’s no point in holding our breath for a solution from Ottawa or any of the provincial capitals. Besides, whenever government reaches out a hand for housing or daycare or gun control, there isn’t much evidence they could manage sun block sales in a summer nudist camp. The best thing they can do is give us the money – probably by not taxing us in the first place – because lord knows if they have to issue a cheque, a bureaucratic monster creeps out of the political ooze.

Municipal governments could help by reducing or in some cases forgiving the levies they put on new housing. Taxation and development cost charges add as much as 25 per cent to new construction costs. Provincial governments could reduce or remove land title taxes for first-time buyers, rental accommodation or low income housing. Federally, a return to capital cost allowances on rental housing would provide a tax incentive.

Housing providers such as Habitat for Humanity do incredible things but the housing problems faced by every community in North America are much bigger than Habitat’s resources. Only governments swing a big enough stick to matter, and the politics of getting elected always seem to get in the way of the best of intentions.

And besides, some folks don’t need housing. They are ill and need medical treatment, or unemployed and need a job, or without skills and need training. Provide a path to those things and housing will follow.

Not everyone wants to own a home. Renting is like the other white meat – it needs a little respect as a form of land tenure. And please don’t write me with the wonders of yet another government administered program.

How long will it take taxpayers to teach government simply to give us the money – or let us keep more of the money – and we’ll decide what to do with it. Some will choose beer and pizza, others – daycare.

So here is the distilled wisdom on the topic from my 37 years in the real estate industry: the best thing we can do for the homeless is not become one of them.

Marty Douglas is a managing broker for Coast Realty Group (Comox Valley) Ltd., managing two of 15 Coast Realty Group offices on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast of B.C. He is a past chair of the Real Estate Errors and Omissions Corporation of B.C., the Real Estate Council of B.C., and the B.C. Real Estate Association, and is a current director of the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board. Email mdouglas@island.net; 1-800-715-3999; Fax (250) 897-3933.




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