VANCOUVER - British Columbia's Liberal government has ignored renters for the past 16 years and it's high time someone offered them a helping hand, New Democrat Leader John Horgan says.
Horgan said that as premier he would introduce an annual $400 renter's rebate if his party wins the provincial election on May 9.
"The message from the B.C. NDP today is that help is on the way," Horgan said Wednesday during a campaign stop in downtown Vancouver.
He said the proposed rental subsidy would apply across the province and be available to all tenants, regardless of income.
"If homeowners can have a homeowner grant, renters should be able to have a grant as well."
The soaring cost of home ownership has been a high-profile issue in B.C., and the provincial government has responded by creating several policies aimed at curbing real estate prices, including a 15 per cent buyer's tax on non-Canadians and non-permanent residents.
A homeowner grant provides a $570 break in property tax to people who own homes worth less than $1.6 million.
Premier Christy Clark increased the grant's eligibility threshold from $1.2 million at the start of this year after a dramatic increase in the assessed value of homes, which would be taxed at higher rates.
Speaking in Burnaby on Wednesday, Clark criticized the NDP's proposal, saying a rent credit would line the pockets of wealthy tenants who may live in penthouses in downtown Vancouver.
"That isn't right. We shouldn't be redistributing our tax money to the very rich," she said, adding the province already provides a rental subsidy to over 100,000 low-income renters.
Housing advocate Kishone Roy welcomed the NDP's proposal, calling it a first step to addressing affordability issues.
Roy, chief executive of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said the grant would make a difference for people who have seen their rent go up.
But he said the New Democrats should consider adding a rental rate cap to the credit, similar to the homebuyers grant, so it remains focused on lower-income earners who need it the most.
Roy is also behind a new strategy outlined by the BC Rental Housing Coalition, which calls for a significant increase in rental and affordable housing development, adding he'd like to see the New Democrats and other parties support it.
Horgan said the $400 annual credit would apply to each rental unit, so multiple renters sharing a single residence wouldn't receive a cumulative benefit.
He said an NDP government would also provide more resources for renters to file complaints through the Residential Tenancy Act and address "renovictions," forbidding landlords from using renovations as an excuse to evict tenants and sidestep restrictions around rent hikes.
However, Clark said Horgan's proposal shows the New Democrats are "flying by the seat of their pants" and lack a clear plan.
She said the province has already earmarked $1 billion for new affordable housing, and her party would work with cities to speed up development.
"If there is not enough rental housing in the province, it's partly because we still need cities to get to work and zone more rental housing."
Clark made the comments after touring the clean energy technology company General Fusion.
She called the firm that employs about 65 engineers and scientists an example of "a homegrown B.C. tech success story."
Pushing the party's platform for creating jobs and maintaining a strong economy, Clark promised tax breaks for new companies and more seats in science and technology education programs — initiatives already included in the provincial budget.
Clark said focusing on the tech sector was not diverting her efforts to grow the liquefied natural gas industry, which was her focus in the 2013 election campaign.
"Today it's tech, tomorrow it'll be LNG," she said. "Every single sector of the economy really matters."