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stephen quinn

Earlier this week a much-esteemed colleague asked to pick my brain about what urban and municipal issues might make it to the federal election agenda.

It's been a while since my inglorious days as a junior city hall reporter, but eight years of covering that beat along with transit and the surprisingly frequent meetings of the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District have left me with a chronic case of civicitis; I am now programmed to care about what happens in this city.

Still, the only response I could immediately muster was "slim pickings."

This was not going to cut it with my colleague, so after much thought I came up with the following salient analysis: "Uh, I dunno. No one can afford to live here?"

Little did I know that days later Toronto Mayor John Tory would distill my thoughts down to their essence (though much more eloquently) when he said that Toronto's affordable housing shortage is threatening employers' ability to attract workers.

Working backward from housing, Mr. Tory says the lack of affordable housing affects the ability of cities to create and maintain jobs. Cities, he argues, are the economic engines of our country. Therefore any candidate who is serious about the economy must also be serious about solving the affordable housing crisis in cities.

At the same time, no city in the country has succumbed to the filthy lucre of tiny, overpriced downtown condominiums the way Toronto has. No, not even Vancouver.

Now it may be exactly the sort of housing Mr. Tory's theoretical workers are looking for, but let's put that one aside for now, because what afflicts Canada's cities, and especially Vancouver, goes much deeper than that.

This week, the leaders of Canada's largest cities met once again to demand the federal government do more when it comes to housing, municipal infrastructure, transit and transportation. Housing though, was the focus. The mayors clearly believe that the megaphone of a federal election campaign will amplify their voices and, as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson put it in a speech, make the federal leaders understand that "they ignore housing at their peril."

But really, do they?

I have very low expectations of what a federal government of any stripe can do when it comes to creating affordable housing (or even the conditions for the creation of affordable housing) in Canada's major cities. That file has been pushed to the provinces and the cities themselves.

We all know that much of what's being built isn't what is actually needed. Want affordable rental housing for a family within the city limits? Sorry, that ship sailed in the mid-1990s when the federal government got out of the business. In fact, they're now ending support for the tens of thousands of co-ops across the country that have put families into affordable urban housing in the first place. No doubt the federal government will point to its Economic Action Plan, but the money that is being directed to housing isn't keeping up with demand. The evidence is to be seen in the years-long waiting lists for subsidized housing and the low vacancy rates in major cities.

Big city mayors though aren't giving up hope. Through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities they've launched a campaign to keep housing, infrastructure and transit on the federal agenda.

On the housing issue they're asking for three things, including tax incentives to encourage private developers to develop more purpose-built rental housing. Secondly, they want federal agreements that have provided subsidies to social and co-op housing renewed and strengthened. And they want the federal government to partner with provinces and cities to eliminate homelessness.

The other part of their campaign puts the platforms of the major parties side by side for easy comparison. So far the Liberals have provided the most detailed and perhaps most ambitious plan. It's likely the most expensive as well. The NDP plan is short on details but promises an urban affairs minister within 100 days of being elected.

The Conservatives promise help for seniors and people with disabilities but beyond that they focus on home ownership and tax credits to help pay for renovations.

We see this locally as well. While speaking with North Vancouver Conservative candidate Andrew Saxton recently, nearly every question about rental housing was answered with what his party will do to make home ownership more affordable. My impression was that he was surprised to learn that a great number of people in the Lower Mainland are renters.

So I give the Federation of Canadian Municipalities credit for trying to push housing onto the agenda. I wish them luck.

But in an election campaign that is only about dividing and conquering, maybe housing isn't enough of a wedge issue to merit much attention.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.