Watching first-time director Pierre Poilievre’s new film, Housing hell, I kept thinking of Michael Moore’s 2002 movie, Bowling for Columbine.
That’s a compliment. And a criticism.
Mr. Moore’s polemic docu-comedy is a gold standard for the genre. He identified a real problem – Americans murder one another with shocking frequency – and offered explanations and solutions, which ranged from plausible to dubious.
One memorable head scratcher from Mr. Moore’s was the assertion that Canadians are so unconcerned about crime that they don’t lock their doors – a proposition he “proved” by walking up to a few Toronto front doors and opening them. He was on to something, and he was also way off base.
Housing hell is kind of like that. The star of the show, Mr. Poilievre, has a grand theory of why housing is so expensive. His 15-minute docu-ad gets some important things right. It also gets some important things wrong.
And despite the film’s desire to blame everything on a certain Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it studiously avoids criticizing the role of one of his signature policies: immigration.
Let’s start with what Mr. Poilievre gets right: that Canada has a housing problem.
Housing costs, particularly in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and anywhere in or near the Greater Toronto Area, are unusually high. And housing inflation is squeezing Canadians hard, even as inflation in other goods and services has returned to close to the Bank of Canada’s 2-per-cent target.
Take housing out of the mix, and Canada barely has an inflation problem. But housing prices in the 11 largest Canadian markets are up 332 per cent since the summer of 1999, according to the Teranet-National Bank House Price Index. In Toronto, prices have risen 388 per cent. In Vancouver, they’re up 446 per cent.
And Statistics Canada says rental inflation is running at 8.2 per cent a year – nearly triple the rate of the rest of the Consumer Price Index. The average one-bedroom apartment rents for more than $2,600 in Toronto and nearly $2,900 in Vancouver.
Mr. Poilievre says government is to blame. He points to two causes: government “gatekeepers” and the federal budget deficit.
Let’s start with the accusation against the gatekeepers. As the film points out, the Canadian population has nearly doubled since 1972, but the number of homes built last year was the same as five decades ago. As a result, there’s a large shortfall in housing supply. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates that the country’s supply of homes will be 3.5 million below the level of demand in 2030.
Part of the reason is those gatekeepers. Since the 1960s, municipal rules have made it hard to build. Cities have made it especially difficult, and often impossible, to add homes in the most desirable places. Zoning from Vancouver to Toronto has been extremely restrictive in the neighbourhoods where most people want to live, namely established areas close to public transit.
Canada doesn’t have many American-style gated communities, with walls and guardhouses. But our cities have long been invisibly gated – by zoning.
Things are changing fast, however, with cities and provinces rewriting the old zoning rules, or scrapping them outright. British Columbia in particular is pushing hard to remove zoning roadblocks.
In short, Mr. Poilievre is not wrong that government gatekeeping is one of the authors of our housing mess. Though it’s important to point out that the gatekeepers in question are not the people on the other side of the aisle from him in Question Period.
Mr. Poilievre’s second alleged perpetrator of housing inflation is the federal budget deficit. This is where his script starts to lose the plot.
He claims the deficit is a driver of higher housing prices. He also says it’s so big that the Trudeau government has “been borrowing more than lenders will lend.” A certain group of voters may want to believe that, but it’s so demonstratively untrue that I laughed out loud.
More importantly, Canada’s budget deficit is relatively small, despite all the political hay the Conservatives keep trying to make out of it. At 1.4 per cent of GDP last year, it’s one-quarter the scale of the United States budget deficit. But despite the U.S. running much bigger deficits, Canada is the country with the bigger housing bubble.
Mr. Poilievre nevertheless claims that, if and when he forms government, “by getting back towards a balanced budget, we’ll bring back down inflation and interest rates on your mortgage payment.” It’s a promise that has obvious political appeal. But economically speaking, it’s not the answer.
Which brings me back to the elephant in the room, which Housing hell never mentions: immigration.
In the long run, over decades and centuries, Canada can match housing supply to housing demand, regardless of whether the national population is 40 million or 400 million. But in the here and now, a surge in new arrivals, particularly since the pandemic – with one million new residents in 2022, and likely more this year – has introduced housing demand at a far faster pace than supply can be built.
It’s simple math. There’s no getting around it. And both the Prime Minister and the man after his job would rather not talk about it.