OPINION: Weighing in on Wilkinson on renting

Wherever you look these days political decision-makers are generating more heat than light. But let’s bypass the metastasizing gong show in Ottawa and the ongoing soap opera south of the border. Instead, we’ll focus on the fallout from the bizarre statement made by the leader of the B.C. Liberal party about his days as a renter.

During a recent speech in the legislature, the well-heeled MLA Andrew Wilkinson, whose Vancouver-Quilchena riding just happens to be one of the wealthiest in the province, said when he was younger he lived in a dozen different rental units.

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But even if renting was at times challenging, he claimed the experience was “fun.” He added that being a renter is “a rite of passage” and it’s “part of growing up and getting better…It’s kind of a wacky time of life, but it can be really enjoyable.”

So, what should we make of Wilkinson’s remarks? I contacted several individuals to get an answer to that question. Maureen Mackell, the executive director of the Squamish Helping Hands Society, put it this way: “Blowing bubbles at a birthday party is ‘fun.’ Going on a trip to Mexico is ‘fun.’ Renting is one expensive way to make a home for yourself and your family, and even that is out of reach for many, leading to increased need for supports such as food banks, emergency shelters, rent supplements and so on.”

Coun. John French was a renter in his late teens and early 20s. In his opinion, Wilkinson’s comments were poorly chosen. “There is no shame in being a life-long renter. Many people live from paycheque to paycheque with no ability to save a down payment, so their reality is that home ownership will never happen,” he said.

Former Squamish mayor Patricia Heintzman said she rented during her 20s. She bought her first house when she turned 28 and took 19.5  years to pay off the mortgage. Many people are staying out of the housing market “not because they are young, carefree and transient, as Wilkinson suggests, but because it is that much harder and financially challenging to do so,” she commented.

Coun. Doug Race rented for about half a dozen years before he purchased his first house. But he noted that his parents never owned a home and “That ‘phase of life’ lasted for their whole lives. Like, I think, for about half of the population of this country.”

Mayor Karen Elliott was a renter until 2014 when she bought a townhouse in Squamish. She believes renting is not just a stepping stone on the way to home ownership. It might be the only alternative for people who want to live near Vancouver. “It is one of the reasons that we’ll be focused on getting more purpose-built rentals over the next four years, as well as finding ways to extend affordability options” she added.

Wilkinson later apologized during an interview on radio station CKNW. “Renting can be very difficult and very stressful and some people are forced to do it their entire lives, even if they don’t want to,” he said.

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