Braid: NDP wants rent hikes capped at five per cent. No chance UCP will agree

Refusing to consider an opposition bill is routine, but failing to deal with the problem behind it is a whole different matter

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The UCP will almost certainly squash an NDP bill that comes up in the legislature next Monday.

It calls for rent control, a constant no-no over decades of conservative governments.

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But the UCP needs to think hard about some form of relief from rent hikes that often hit double digits and hundreds of dollars a month.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley calls the proposal “a very modest form of rent oversight.”

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The private-member’s bill, from NDP MLA Janice Irwin, would tie rent increases to the rate of inflation.

A hard cap at five per cent would kick in if the consumer price index went higher.

There would be a four-year sunset clause, after which the cap could be abolished or renewed.

Irwin’s bill hasn’t garnered much attention because it’s already doomed.

Refusing to consider an opposition bill is routine, but failing to deal with the problem behind it is a whole different matter.

In last week’s budget, the UCP expanded the low-income rental assistance program to support a further 550 households, bringing the total to 12,700.

That was it. There was nothing for the many employed Albertans hit by big hikes even as they struggle with higher food costs and borrowing rates.

“These guys bumped up their rent supplement program so that a full 550 more Albertans could get access to it, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Notley said in an interview.

“It’s not even close to what the pressures are, even based on their own numbers.

“People can’t plan their lives when their rents go up 30 per cent in a year,” she added. “These kinds of costs are really devastating.”

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Rachel Notley
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks during a press conference in Calgary on Wednesday, November 15, 2023. Gavin Young/Postmedia file

She said the NDP proposal “is not some crazy radical thing. Other parts of the country that are growing at half the rate we are have this kind of protection in place.”

In B.C., for instance, rent can only be increased once a year to a maximum set by the government’s Residential Tenancy Branch.

This year, B.C. rent hikes are capped at 3.5 per cent.

Thousands of Alberta tenants would love to have that kind of certainty.

Notley says the bill leaves plenty of room for exemptions when landlords face repairs or renovations, or for other valid reasons.

Inflexible rent control can obviously worsen another serious problem, the housing shortage. That’s the routine argument against rent caps in Alberta.

The alternative to rent control is widespread rent subsidies.

But that’s a straight cost to the treasury that Premier Danielle Smith and her government won’t contemplate. They’re already claiming the province faces tough finances and smaller surpluses.

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This is an enduring problem. I remember how embarrassed former premier Ed Stelmach was in 2007 when he dismissed as unlikely a story about Calgary renters devastated by $1,000-a-month increases.

But it was true. His government faced demands for rent relief almost as soon as he took office.

A government committee recommended rent controls. Stelmach and his cabinet decided instead to raise rent supplements.

He also embarked on a 10-year plan to end homelessness, which made real progress for several years.

In 2014, with rents rising sharply yet again, then-premier Jim Prentice rejected still more calls for rent control.

Then, as now, Calgary had among the lowest vacancy rates and highest rental costs in the country.

Prentice said he put his faith in the market to solve the problem. Today, that argument is weakened by post-pandemic inflation and economic disruption.

Notley said the NDP will try to keep their bill alive for serious debate, but she expects the UCP majority to shut it down very quickly.

This is an awkward issue for a government doing little to help.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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