B.C. Premier David Eby visited Vernon’s SilverStar Mountain Resort Saturday to talk with local leaders and the public about issues that matter to the North Okanagan.
Eby was joined by Municipal Affairs Minister Anne Kang and Vernon-Monashee MLA Harwinder Sandhu, who warmed up a crowd that included many local dignitaries, stakeholders and heads of organizations.
Fresh off of pledging $61 million to help accelerate housing in B.C. cities on Friday, Eby fielded more questions about the housing crisis in Vernon Saturday.
Eby acknowledged that in rental markets like Vernon’s, “the options are very limited,” and the same problems of supply and affordability exist for people looking to buy a home, even for families who “should be able to buy.”
Land is one of the big costs associated with housing, Eby said, adding his government is identifying publicly owned land that can be used to lower the cost of housing projects.
“That’s city owned land, health authority owned land, school board owned land, Indigenous government land, Crown land, that we can use for housing.,” he said. “We’ll be using 99-year leases on this land to be able to build more affordable and attainable rental housing, and housing for purchase.”
He said it’s a strategy that governments in South Korea and Singapore have successfully pursued.
He agreed that in Vernon, there is a need for more housing options for seniors and young working families.
Asked about support for landlords, Eby pointed to his government’s doubling of the number of staff at the Residential Tenancy Branch, allowing for better dispute resolution with tenants. He also said phase two of a program to help landlords will be announced in a couple months, which will offer grants to people who are interested in becoming landlords so they can build suites in their homes.
“The goal is to bring on more rental housing faster,” he said.
He said 250,000 people have come into the province as permanent residents in the last two years, putting a strain on housing supply but also providing an opportunity to fill jobs in a tight labour market.
Under Eby’s leadership, the province has decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use in part to reduce the stigma of addiction. In the SilverStar conference room, Eby was asked why his government has focused on harm reduction but has not put the same emphasis on creating better access to treatment.
Eby said money isn’t the issue, as the most recent budget provided $1 billion for mental health and addictions, more than half of which was earmarked for treatment and recovery beds. He said the biggest challenge is finding staff to accommodate patients in treatment centres.
“We’ve increased the number of youth treatment beds here already in Vernon,” he said.
Eby highlighted the connection between addiction and mental health before mentioning the mental health and substance use facility Interior Health intends to add onto Vernon Jubilee Hospital, and acknowledged that the hospital’s current psychiatric ward is “significantly outdated.” He said the health authority is currently working on plans for that project.
“It’s vital that that gets opened.”
Eby was asked how soon the project can be completed. He could not offer an estimated completion date, saying only that Interior Health is working on a concept plan, and that there have been discussions about logistical details including parking lot impacts.
Sandhu, who has a nursing background, said the new mental health facility is something she’s been a strong advocate for from the start, and told the crowd to “stay tuned” for updates on the project in the future.
One resident, a small business owner on SilverStar Mountain, raised the issue of the lack of childcare spaces in the province and Vernon, despite recent efforts.
“We have a two year old and we’re still on a wait list, so as much as there are 46 new spots in Vernon, it’s just not enough,” she said.
Minister Kang said B.C. has increased the number of early childhood educators by 387 per cent, adding the Ministry of Education and Child Care has been working with post-secondary institutions “to work on training our local students and local professionals who want to be early childhood educators.”
Kang also said the government is looking for more opportunities to add childcare centres to student housing projects, as was done at Okanagan College, where 100 student housing beds and 44 childcare spaces are currently under construction.
A final question was from a local nurse who wanted to know what could be done about nursing shortages that leave people in her profession in “distress” due to having too many patients to care for.
Eby stressed the importance of preventing burnout in hospitals, adding his government was the first jurisdiction in Canada to guarantee a ratio of patients to nurses, “and if we don’t hit those ratios, we will pay you more money.”
Following the community conference, Eby, Kang and Sandhu headed down the mountain to Vernon to help kickstart the inaugural Sundog Festival of Arts and Culture in Polson Park.