Don’t call him an activist: Eby vows more public cash for housing

By Shannon Waters July 25, 2022
David Eby is not the “activist” some of his most ardent supporters and detractors alike believe him to be.

The potential future premier says the term, at least as it’s been applied to him, “imports a certain ideology around the issues of the day that [he does] not ascribe to.”

“People should expect, both on the left and the right, that I will be focused on solutions that will work and delivering for British Columbians,” Eby told BC Today.

As premier, Eby would focus on “delivering on the priorities of British Columbians and implementing the solutions that are going to work independent of ideology.”

That does not mean the man likely to replace Premier John Horgan won’t be backing precisely the kinds of policies some of the people who have branded him an activist expect.

While he did not rule out partnerships with private developers continuing to be part of the equation in solving B.C.’s housing crisis, Eby emphasized increasing government investment in the sector as key to addressing what he described as “a market failure.”

BC NDP leadership candidate David Eby says he feels “a strong obligation to fulfil the commitments” the party made during the last election. (Government of B.C.)

“The NDP has never shied away from addressing market failures with public responses,” Eby said. “I think government needs to do something we haven’t really done before which is to build public housing, build attainable housing for British Columbians, for the middle class.”

“If we want to address the housing crisis we have to build for the middle class, and government is going to have to do that in rural and urban B.C.,” Eby said.

Municipal governments have a major role to play in boosting local housing stock and Eby — who said he prefers a collaborative approach — is prepared to use both carrot and stick.

“The cities that are approving housing, they need to be recognized — they need to get the support to make those communities livable,” he said. “The province can provide support around things like community centres, pools, trails, the things that allow neighbours to get together and meet each other.”

Under an Eby government, municipalities that facilitate housing construction can expect provincial dollars for social infrastructure, while those that stall would be held “accountable” for their inaction.

Eby cited the example of secondary suites being banned in some municipalities, calling it “unconscionable” in a time of housing scarcity.

“It’s not acceptable … Housing is essential infrastructure,” he said. “For a city to opt out and say, ‘No thanks, we’re not interested in approving new housing’ … Holding those cities accountable is really important.”

Eby said he feels “a strong obligation to fulfil the commitments” the NDP made during the last election, “which includes the renter’s rebate.”

On the state of political discourse and acclamation versus competition

While NDP leadership hopefuls still have more than two months to declare their candidacy, Eby is the only candidate in the race. With the bulk of the NDP caucus behind him, some political observers have speculated that the party is approaching an acclamation rather than a leadership competition.

Eby said he is “preparing for a competition” but is “grateful” for the support and trust of so many of his caucus mates.

“I think that ultimately what British Columbians want us to do is just stay focused on the issues that they’re facing — the rising costs of housing, fuel, groceries, the health-care system, access to family doctors — and they’re not especially interested in the inside baseball politics of the NDP,” he told BC Today.

If acclaimed, Eby would be the third consecutive white man to head the party, which has not seen a woman compete for leadership since Carole James was elected in 2003.

Eby said several MLAs who decided not to run cited the “toxicity of politics and concern about personal attacks on their families” and noted that issues like racism and extreme polarization have worsened in B.C. since the pandemic arrived.

“We’ve got some distance to go in fighting racism and misogyny, especially in electoral politics to make it possible for different people to assume leadership positions,” Eby said.

He credited Horgan for doing a “great job” leading “an incredibly diverse caucus and cabinet,” but acknowledged there is “more work to do” on the diversity front.

Treatment is ‘the very heart’ of Eby’s overdose crisis response

Eby said he has no plans to stray from the province’s current approach to the toxic drug supply that killed more than 2,200 people last year.

At least 940 people lost their lives to illicit drugs in the first five months of 2022 — a 15 per cent increase over the same period in 2021, which represented a 35 per cent increase over the previous year — but Eby has “huge confidence” in Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson’s handling of her file.

Eby cited Malcolmson’s success in securing an exemption from federal drug law from Ottawa to allow for decriminalization of small amounts of some street drugs starting in January next year, along with her work to build “a seamless system” to support people with addiction issues from “detox to treatment to support after treatment” as reasons for his faith in the minister, who has been at her cabinet post since December 2020.

“[She is] someone who’s been out on the front line and working with advocates in delivering on the things that community is asking for. Safe supply, exemptions from the federal government around drugs so that people can get their drugs tested — these are critically important things that she’s delivered; and yet, things are getting worse,” Eby told BC Today, noting the pandemic drove “an increase in the toxicity” of the drug supply.

Eby and Malcolmson have been working together recently to roll out complex care housing, geared toward people with overlapping mental health and substance use issues.

At least 940 people lost their lives to illicit drugs in the first five months of 2022 — a 15 per cent increase over the same period in 2021 — but Eby has “huge confidence” in Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson’s handling of her file. (Government of B.C.)

Eby’s top priority to battle the public health emergency, now in its sixth year, is expanding treatment and recovery services.

“We need to expedite residential treatment for mental health and addiction to give people an option to get off drugs because the drugs are incredibly toxic,” he said. “If we can provide that support, I think we’ll make some more progress.”

On calls for greater oversight of the sector and a shift toward funding evidence-based treatment options, Eby acknowledged that ensuring “what’s being offered is effective is an important role for government,” but said he has heard calls for more treatment options from several quarters.

“The overwhelming concern that I hear from people — the firefighters responding to the calls, the emergency room workers who are seeing people come in, parents and family of people who are ill, and people who are themselves struggling with addiction — is that if we can have a seamless system from detox to treatment, to support after treatment, that would be a really important thing to do,” he said. “I believe we can accelerate that work and we can do it with First Nations. That is a piece that we really do need to bring increased focus to.”

The would-be premier is skeptical of suggestions that framing treatment and recovery initiatives as a solution to the toxic drug supply is disingenuous.

“I really do struggle with people who are so blase about discounting treatment and mental health support because that is completely, to my mind, right at the very heart of the issue,” Eby said.