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A condo building under construction in Toronto on July 13.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Evan Dunfee won an Olympic bronze medal in the 50-kilometre racewalk last summer in Tokyo. This fall, the 32-year-old is running for city council in his hometown of Richmond, the fourth largest municipality in Metro Vancouver.

A top election priority is getting more housing built in a city that, like much of Canada, is a sea of low-density, detached homes. With housing a hot political issue, there’s been a tendency for politicians to promise the easy and vague – which usually involves pledging to get lots of new homes built, without specifying how.

Mr. Dunfee is getting more specific, as are some other candidates in municipal elections this month in British Columbia and Ontario. He’s talking about the mechanics of how. Among his specific ideas are loosening rules around minimum lot sizes to allow more homes on less land, ditching parking minimums and allowing townhomes to be built in older neighbourhoods.

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This country’s housing problems start at city halls. Restrictive rules around what can be built where have long prevented enough construction, particularly in those places where most Canadians want to live and where most jobs are. Last week, Statistics Canada reported another national population surge, to 38.9 million, up 285,000 in just three months. Governments continue to ignore the consequences of this, with most residential land still reserved for detached homes.

Amid all this inaction, there are calls for higher levels of government to intervene, as happened last year in California – a state where bylaws that ensure little new building gets done are strangling economic growth.

Upper levels of government riding in to fix things may at times be necessary. But it’s an emergency manoeuvre. It would be better if cities tackled a problem they created.

With civic votes in B.C. and Ontario – where the housing crunch is worst – there’s a chance for a direct and detailed pitch to voters about exactly how the rules need to change, and why.

Last February, an expert panel produced an needed list of changes for the Ontario government. It was headlined with the goal of building 1.5 million new homes in a decade – double the current pace of construction. The Ford government latched onto that number, but it shelved reforms needed to make it a reality.

Pretend housing reformers embrace slogans for change, such as “missing middle.” The phrase captures a great idea, namely allowing denser and cheaper housing options, such as fourplexes and low-rise apartment buildings, in established neighbourhoods long reserved for single-family homes. But if zoning rules stay as they are, it’s just idle talk.

In Vancouver, city council recently passed a plan designed to create more density. Mayor Kennedy Stewart, running for re-election, is pitching the idea of 220,000 new homes in a decade. Great. But that can only happen with major zoning changes, and his platform doesn’t detail any. A rival party, OneCity, has pitched specific changes, such as allowing small apartment buildings throughout the city.

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In Toronto, Mayor John Tory is running for his third term, and started his campaign with a promise of missing-middle housing and “greater mid-range density” on major roads and areas served by transit. Again, great ideas. However, his platform is thin on details about what it all means or how it is to be achieved. Toronto has been looking at these ideas for years and, so far, not much has happened.

There’s a reason why higher levels of government are talking about seizing the reins. The likely next premier of B.C., David Eby, on Wednesday outlined a list of new density requirements for cities that the provincial government would pursue. Federally, both Liberals and Conservatives have ideas for using Ottawa’s money to force zoning reforms.

To build more housing we need to make better use of existing land. It is local political leadership in cities that can and should be taking action. Civic election day in B.C. is Oct. 15 and Ontario’s is Oct. 24. Politicians need to talk more about things such as easing up on lot sizes, so urban and, especially, suburban areas – where most land has long been reserved for low-rise homes – can welcome new housing and more people into old neighbourhoods.

It’s easy to promise “missing middle” housing. It’s easy to talk about 1.5 million new homes. But until zoning rules change, it just won’t happen.