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Condominiums are under construction on Broadway Ave. in Toronto, on Oct. 5.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As Canadian politicians of all stripes try to tackle the cost of housing, a leading urban think tank is urging them to be more creative.

The Canadian Urban Institute issued a nearly 240-page report Thursday calling attention to the challenging state of the country’s cities, which are struggling with housing affordability amid a pandemic hangover that has hit municipal budgets and hurt main street businesses.

The report, which was done in collaboration with the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, includes dozens of prominent contributors on topics including economic recovery, governance and reconciliation. But the section on housing – a central political priority for the federal government, provinces and cities – may be the most closely read.

Among many suggestions, the CUI calls for making more use of public land to build housing, as well as land now used by institutions such as universities and hospitals. It recommends a national strategy that encompasses immigration, housing and labour. And it urges the creation of government incentives for converting underused office buildings for residential use, while acknowledging that many sites are not suitable for such a change.

CUI president Mary Rowe said cities are at an inflection point, trying to recover from the pandemic at a time of increasing urbanization. About 56 per cent of Canadians live in a community of at least 100,000 people, according to the 2021 census. And even many smaller communities are seeing rapid growth in population and housing costs.

“We’ve got this moment to be reflective about how we invest,” Ms. Rowe said.

“You need a mix of housing choices and we haven’t been … thinking about what those conditions need to be for that diverse mix to be created.”

Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser has recently begun pushing in this direction, using the promise of funding to persuade cities to loosen zoning rules that for decades have restricted development in many areas.

Money offered through the Housing Accelerator Fund, announced in 2022, has typically been contingent on municipal governments allowing multiunit residences across cities, as opposed to setting aside wide swaths of land for only single-family homes. This approach has been contentious among some city politicians, but most have gone along with the changes.

Last week Mr. Fraser set out criteria for Toronto to obtain such funds. They included increasing required density near transit stations, allowing four-storey buildings throughout more of the city and weakening rules designed to prevent development projects that would cast shadows on parks and schools.

Mr. Fraser has been signing such deals with cities across the country, and provinces have also sought to streamline development approvals and encourage housing construction. But the scale of the problem remains vast. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the country must add 3.5 million homes by 2030 to achieve housing affordability.

Other sections of the CUI report include less mainstream recommendations. Among them are providing homes instead of just temporary shelter to the unhoused, as is done in Finland, and a human-rights approach to housing.

The latter suggestion came from Elizabeth McIsaac, president of the Maytree Foundation, an anti-poverty organization.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody gets a house tomorrow. What it means is that the government is going to be accountable,” she said in an interview. “It’s not individual people coming forward and saying, ‘the government needs to give me a home.’ It’s rather, where are there systemic issues that are making it impossible for the markets to provide affordable housing?”

She added that both the federal government and Toronto have pledged to approach housing through a human-rights lens, with mixed progress.

“In the Toronto context I think it’s promising,” she said, citing the appointment of a deputy ombudsman for housing. “On the federal level I feel that the narrative has been very consumed with the question of supply and has not been sufficiently focused on those in greatest need. When you take a human-rights approach to housing you prioritize those in greatest need.”

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