While politicians may nitpick each others’ housing policies in Canada’s least affordable province, one thing that unites all parties in the B.C. legislature is high rates of investment in real estate.

And it’s a problem that means the class interests of many British Columbians — namely renters — are going under-represented at decision-making tables, says one economist.

According to an analysis by The Maple of eight provinces’ financial disclosures (the territories, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador do not disclose that information publicly), 41 per cent of B.C. MLAs have some investment in the real estate market beyond a primary residence. This figure reflects only 85 of 87 current representatives, with BC NDP MLAs Ravi Parmar and Joan Philip elected too recently to be included in the most recent disclosures.

That rate of real estate investment is higher than all the other provinces captured in the analysis, except Saskatchewan (54 per cent) and Prince Edward Island (56 per cent).

But while provinces like Ontario (35 per cent) and Alberta (36 per cent) may not be far off, one thing does stand out in B.C.: The extent to which real estate investments cross party lines.

Between the two major parties, BC United (formerly the BC Liberals) does have higher rates of real estate investment, but not by much, at 42 per cent compared to the BC NDP’s 38 per cent. Meanwhile, one of two BC Green Party MLAs, Leader Sonia Furstenau, and both BC Conservatives have declared some kind of real estate investment.

This cross-party spread isn’t reflected in most other provinces. While 42 per cent of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives have real estate investments, only 20 per cent of Ontario NDP MPPs and 14 per cent of Ontario Liberals do. Where 43 per cent of Alberta’s United Conservatives have declared real estate investments, the same is true for only 27 per cent of Alberta NDP MLAs. And that trend is more consistent across most provinces.

In emailed statements, NDP and BC United pointed fingers at one another for rents that rose rapidly during each other’s stints in government, with both insisting that what matters is voting records and results. A statement attributed to BC United Leader Kevin Falcon noted rents “are higher than ever under the current [NDP] government.”

“Folks should be judged on how they are going to help and the vision they are putting forward for the future of our province,” reads the statement, which adds that NDP MLAs “have made nearly $8.5 million in real estate deals since 2020 […] not to mention [Premier David] Eby himself flipping his Victoria condo right before he would have had to declare it for the speculation tax.”

BC NDP caucus spokesperson Ed May, however, noted that BC United MLA Mike Bernier bought and sold properties three times in the last four years. May added that NDP MLAs supported measures intended to support renters, like rent freezes during the pandemic, the vacant homes tax and lowering annual allowable rent increases.

May also noted the NDP is the only party in B.C. with MLAs who rent — namely, Andrew Mercier, Adrian Dix, Megan Dykeman and Mable Elmore.

But Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives senior economist Alex Hemingway said actions — and the subsequent results — by politicians often reflect their class interests.

The high rate of real estate investment across parties, Hemingway added, means there’s often little incentive for policymakers to adequately address affordability.

“Housing can either be affordable, or it can be a good investment and source of wealth gains. But it can’t be both,” he explained. “Besides a right-left divide, there’s also an increasing class divide between our politicians and the broader public, and that’s something we need to pay attention to.”

Hemingway said this is an issue that goes beyond the findings in The Maple’s database.

While The Maple’s analysis only looks at those MLAs who have real estate investments beyond their primary residences, Hemingway said ownership of primary residences can itself be as much or even in some cases more of a motive for maintaining the status quo.

According to an analysis by Glacier Media last year, 93 per cent of MLAs in the province own a home.

“Land and real estate ownership among politicians absolutely matters when they’re the ones setting the policies that shape the housing market and shape the prices and rents that we see in this province and that have become so high and so unaffordable,” Hemingway said.

But he added that one shouldn’t lose sight of home ownership as a class distinction as well.

“If you rent out a basement suite in Quesnel in your house, you may have a lot less real estate wealth than someone who owns a house in Vancouver but isn’t a landlord,” he said.

“There’s a habit of, when we talk about real estate investment, excluding owner-occupiers, but everyone knows that even if you own no other real estate, if you’re a homeowner, that’s likely to be your biggest financial investment.”

The Maple’s analysis, when combined with the Glacier analysis, does draw a notable contrast, however. The latter shows underrepresentation by renters in legislature, meaning there may be little incentive to enact policies that help the tenant class. But The Maple analysis shows there is also a disproportionate number of landlords in legislature, indicating some incentive to enact policies that benefit the landlord class.

In all, 19 per cent of B.C. MLAs are landlords. And that is even more pronounced among BC NDP MLAs, of whom 22 per cent (or 24 per cent if you include MLAs’ spouses) are landlords, compared to 12 per cent of BC United MLAs (or 20 per cent if you include spouses).

“It is the case that renters are drastically underrepresented among provincial politicians, as well as city councillors, and in local public hearings,” Hemingway said.

“Under-representation matters, and I don’t think there’s any question about it. And the broader literature on low levels of working-class representation among politicians shows much the same thing. That actually does affect the types of policy attitudes and proposals that a politician brings forward.”

Hemingway said he hasn’t studied this trend in Canada specifically, but across Europe, he noted there is “quite a consistent pattern.” 

When there are more workers represented in legislatures, those legislatures are “far more predisposed to addressing issues like inequality and to re-distributional policies,” Hemingway said.

“If workers were represented proportionally among policymakers, that would likely shift our public policy, and I think the same is likely true of renters.”

Looking again at the working class as a parallel, Hemingway said the under-representation there isn’t for lack of desire on their part — the working class is interested in being part of governance.

“The single biggest factor is how much it costs and the time it takes to run for office. It’s often very difficult for workers to be able to fundraise, have the professional networks from which to fundraise for their campaign and to be able to just take the time off that is necessary to run for office when it’s just challenging to make ends meet,” Hemingway said.

Possible solutions, he said, could be dedicated training programs for potential working-class candidates, more public funding for electoral campaigns to balance against candidates with deeper pockets and who are more connected, or even to allow people to use employment insurance benefits to fund time off while running for office.

Disclosure: The author of this article is a volunteer with the New Westminster Tenants Union.

Dustin Godfrey is a freelance journalist and writer based out of the Vancouver, B.C. area. Their writing interests includes issues around justice, including housing, drug policy and policing.

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