How High-Priced Housing Became a Union Issue

Paul Finch’s union is about to become a landlord.

The BC General Employees’ Union hopes to start building a 292-unit housing development in Burnaby next year, and at least 50 per cent of the units will rent at below-market rates. The building will also include new offices for the union.

The project is both an investment and the culmination of years of the union’s advocacy around housing costs as rents and wages in B.C. drift farther apart.

The union bought up five lots near the Royal Oak SkyTrain station for approximately $21 million in late 2019 and early 2020. They say the rezoning of that land will create an uplift in value that they can then leverage to offer affordable rents, which in Burnaby is defined as 80 per cent or less of the market rate.

“What we’re hearing from our members is, no matter the increase we were able to negotiate in the collective agreement in wages and benefits, it wasn’t able to keep up with the rapid acceleration in the price of housing or rent,” said Finch, the BCGEU’s treasurer. The challenge of workers struggling to afford life in Metro Vancouver is far from new, particularly for people who did not already own a home.

As of October 2021, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reported the metropolitan region’s average rent at $1,546 a month, up more than $500 — about 50 per cent — from the same month in 2011. Comparatively, the average after-tax income for an economic family — the term Statistics Canada uses to refer to people pooling resources in all households — increased from $70,806 to $99,000, or about 40 per cent.

Finch, a self-taught policy wonk, knows firsthand how much the game has changed for B.C.’s workers. In 2005, he started work as a mail clerk at the Ministry of Health in Victoria. He said he was able to live comfortably at the bottom of the pay scale, something that is not fathomable now.

Today, he says, workers often have to make sacrifices to get by — longer commutes, less space, more hours and a bit less of life.

“I think what we’re seeing is that people who are still trying to live close to where they work, they’re making significant sacrifices to do so,” he said.

The BCGEU began advocating for affordable housing years ago. It participated in a housing task force in Burnaby and created a report suggesting ways new non-market housing could be built, including by rezoning space near transit hubs.

Then, it decided to build the housing itself.

In Burnaby, the union’s project is made possible by a municipal decision to change the zoning to allow denser housing to be built. That, in turn, increases the value of the land. Normally, that would produce profits. But the BCGEU is instead leveraging that increase in value to create more affordable units.

Finch says the union, which represents more than 80,000 workers in B.C. including more than 30,000 working in the public sector, is also undertaking a similar smaller project in Nelson, B.C., where affordable housing is also a hot issue.

“We’re currently in the feasibility and assessment phase, but it’s looking really good,” Finch said.

Not every union has the financing or the time to take on such a massive project.

In 2021, two Vancouver teachers’ union locals applied to redevelop their shared headquarters on Commercial Drive to include 27 units of affordable housing reserved for young teachers who were increasingly priced out of the city’s red-hot market. But soon the costs and bureaucracy piled up. The project became too expensive. And the Vancouver Elementary and Adult Educators’ Society and Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association pulled the plug.

“Instead of undertaking that massive project, we’ve chosen instead to simply purchase a new office space,” VEAES president Jody Polukoshko wrote in an email to The Tyee.

“The reality for folks living and working in the city, not just teachers, is a problem,” she added. “We struggle with this still, and recently the majority of our members don’t live in the city, which results in increased commute time and climate implications, and is a challenge in some ways to union engagement that we are trying to reckon with.”

The rise in housing costs, she said, isn’t just a problem for workers’ wallets.

Workers interviewed for this story said unaffordable housing means longer commutes and a constant state of precarity.

“The longer your commute, the more run down you are as a teacher,” said Steven Price, a vice-president with the West Vancouver Teachers Association. He said only about 15 per cent of staff who teach in the pricey district can afford to live there.

“The less stable your housing is, the less committed you are to your classroom. Parents of the older students who like you as a teacher want to know if you’re going to be there when their youngest child is going to be there,” Price said.

That’s partially why the local was a vocal supporter of a West Vancouver affordable housing project on city-owned land in the heart of downtown. The Gordon Avenue development includes 56 units of strata condos and 156 units of housing with costs indexed at 70 per cent of the market rate.

Former city Coun. Craig Cameron said West Vancouver “hasn’t had any material, purpose-built rental housing in over 40 years.”

Cameron says the affordable housing development, which will be run by the Kiwanis North Shore Housing Society, is a small way to counter that trend. “The idea is to try and hit income levels for moderate-income workers in the municipality,” Cameron said.

Polukoshko said she regrets that her union local wasn’t able to complete the housing project she envisioned. But she added that creating such housing shouldn’t be left up to unions or social justice movements.

“I’m sorry that we weren’t able to complete that housing project, and I think it’s an important thing for unions to consider, but at the same time, affordable housing strategies and long-term commitment to social and co-operative housing is something that ought to be managed by municipal, provincial and federal governments together,” she said.

Finch says the BCGEU’s goal with the Burnaby development is to demonstrate to municipal partners that such projects are possible.

“This problem of affordable housing is one that we as a union cannot solve,” Finch said. “What we can do is put forward suites of policy solutions and, in this case, demonstrate the practical implementation of that policy.”

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee