After a summer in which both Canada’s housing shortage and the mounting effects of climate change on the country’s communities came into sharp focus, a new non-governmental task force will call for governments at all levels to address the two crises in tandem.
The group, known as the Task Force for Housing and Climate, will launch on Tuesday and be co-chaired by former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and former Edmonton mayor Don Iveson. Backed by the Clean Economy Fund, a charitable foundation, the task force will put forward ways of accelerating construction of new homes while also making them more sustainable.
The task force’s proposals will include ideas both for safeguarding homes from extreme weather events, such as floods and wildfires, and for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to such disasters becoming more frequent.
“We do need to deliver 5.8 million more houses within the next decade,” Mr. Iveson said in an interview, citing the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s estimate of how many homes need to be built by 2030 to bring housing prices down to affordable levels. “But they can’t burn down or float away in any sizable number … They can’t be death traps for heat.”
Canada’s new homes should also produce net-zero carbon emissions, he added, “or ultimately even contribute to the sequestration of carbon in their construction methodologies.”
Another leader of the effort is Smart Prosperity Institute senior director Mike Moffatt, an economist and high-profile advocate for affordable housing who will serve as the task force’s co-ordinator. In an interview, he struck a similarly urgent tone.
The push to build sustainably partly reflects a concern, exemplified by the recent political controversy over plans to develop Ontario’s environmentally protected Greenbelt, that governments will deprioritize environmental considerations in the rush to construct more housing stock, in ways that negatively impact both homeowners and the greater good.
The task force’s recommendations – which Mr. Moffatt suggested will touch on a variety of policy instruments, including tax measures, municipal zoning changes and building codes – will be delivered in a report slated for early 2024. The group is aiming to put out its findings before the release of federal and provincial budgets in which housing needs are likely to be front and centre.
Adding to the challenge is that, as reflected by the selection of co-chairs, the group is aiming for proposals that will have cross-partisan appeal. Ms. Raitt said she believes that voters such as those who previously elected her in the suburban Greater Toronto Area increasingly share all three of the task force’s priorities: affordability, resilience and emissions reduction.
Although the group is just getting started, a few of the ways its members see climate and housing imperatives aligning are already evident.
One promising area is easing zoning rules and expediting approvals processes to encourage faster building in cities, rather than sprawl into underserviced areas.
Mr. Iveson and Mr. Moffatt cited the importance of pursuing urban density and proximity to public transportation, to reduce both emissions and the costs of day-to-day living. Ms. Raitt noted that bureaucracy-shrinking approaches are likeliest to appeal to Conservatives, as opposed to layering on “policy after policy after policy that at the end of the day make building cost-prohibitive.”
Potentially more sensitive is the matter of whether and how to prioritize relatively low-risk areas for development over communities that are likeliest to face climate-change effects, or that lack the infrastructure to contend with them.
“We can’t put houses in flood plains, because they won’t last, and these investments by Canadians and by their governments need to go the distance,” Mr. Iveson said. “We need to build in smart places that don’t have fire exposure, that don’t have water exposure, that don’t create worse heat islands in our cities.”
In addition to ideas about where new homes should be located, the task force’s leaders have some early thoughts about how to construct them.
Both Mr. Moffatt and Mr. Iveson said Canada needs to embrace the prefabrication approach to homebuilding, which is much more common in some European countries, as opposed to building from scratch on-site.
Doing so, they said, could simultaneously reduce costs, reduce waste, ensure greater energy efficiency, and help address the skilled-labour shortage that threatens to slow construction. And if the change involved greater use of mass timber, a type of extra-strong wood building material that is more common in prefab projects, it could also significantly decrease each home’s carbon footprint.
Mr. Moffatt acknowledged that while the emissions-reducing benefits of changes to processes and materials are fairly clear, less is known about how such changes would affect extreme-weather resilience. This, he said, is an example of the kind of question the task force needs to pursue through research and analysis.
Mr. Iveson said he would also like the group to examine whether there are ways to address a misalignment between how buildings are initially valued and their long-term sustainability.
Hopefully, Mr. Iveson said, houses constructed now will have century-long lifespans. If they do, benefits such as savings on utilities bills because of energy efficiency, or lower insurance costs because of strong fire protections, will gradually accrue across generations. But taking that into account at the outset could require changes such as building-code overhauls, or rethinking how mortgages and financing for rental buildings are structured.
It’s unclear whether the task force will be able to tackle such fundamental questions. According to Mr. Moffatt, the group will seek solutions that can be announced and implemented quickly, and that are in line with political realities such as budget constraints and the need for public buy-in.
“In an ideal world, we’d spend two to three years doing this,” Mr. Moffatt said.
“So the process is moving faster than I think is ideal, but it’s absolutely necessary given the extent of the housing crisis.”