Carolyn Whitzman is a housing and social policy consultant, an expert adviser to the Housing Assessment Resource Tools project, and an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s department of geography, environment and geomatics.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tries to pretend the high cost of housing isn’t a federal problem, Pierre Poilievre won’t stop talking about it. His description two months ago of a postwar Niagara house as an overpriced “tiny shack” may have been pretty tone-deaf for a politician who lives in a multimillion-dollar publicly funded home, but the Conservative Leader hit pay dirt last week with a heartwarming story of how he lived as a student with his single father near a Calgary rapid transit station. He called for politicians to get serious about affordability for single parents, students, seniors and others in housing need, by getting many more new high-rise apartments approved by municipalities near federally funded public transit.
Mr. Poilievre is absolutely right on many of these counts – and also dead wrong on others.
We do need a lot more housing. Canada has fewer home completions now than it did in the early 1970s, when we had half the population and larger households. But we also need to consider who needs what kinds of housing where, and at what price, and we need to understand that a purely private-sector supply response will never end homelessness or help those most in need.
Well-located purpose-built rental – defined as housing built specifically for long-term rental accommodation – fell off a cliff in the early 1970s, largely because of federal taxation changes that rewarded ownership speculation and ended support for large-scale purpose-built projects. This has left Canada dealing with two unfortunate realities. On the one hand, millions of Canadians are reliant on private-market rental housing stock in decades-old apartment buildings that desperately need energy-efficiency upgrades while maintaining affordability that’s rapidly being lost because of rent increases (even above guideline), tenant turnover and the resulting rent adjustments, occupancy changes, and conversion of rentals into Airbnbs. On the other hand, there is the problem that Mr. Poilievre correctly highlights: exclusionary zoning by municipalities that continues to block new purpose-built rentals where they are most needed – and not just studios and one-bedrooms, but the kinds of three- to four-bedroom flats that European cities produce.
In its National Housing Strategy, the federal government set out a headline target of reducing “core-housing need” – a term that refers to households that pay more than 30 per cent of their pretax income, or live in overcrowded or uninhabitable homes – by 530,000 households before 2028. The Housing Assessment Resource Tools project breaks down households by five income categories, including very low-income households, which are mostly on fixed incomes such as welfare and pensions, and low-income households, mostly reliant on minimum wage. According to the 2021 census, only 3 per cent of Canadian households are very low-income - having less than 20 per cent of median income – but two-thirds of them are paying much more than they can afford on rent, which is a national average of $420 a month. And homeless Canadians are reliant on welfare rates that haven’t increased in real terms since the 1990s.
In fact, 76 per cent of families living in unaffordable, overcrowded or uninhabitable private homes, or who are unable to afford adequate housing in their area, are low- or very low-income households, and can pay a maximum of $1,050 a month on rent. That’s more than 1.3 million Canadian households. In cities like Vancouver, two people on minimum wage can’t afford an average one-bedroom apartment.
Many more Canadians are struggling with housing but don’t get counted by Statistics Canada’s definition of core-housing need. Those who don’t “count” include the more than a million students who don’t live with their families, the hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless, and the people living in inadequate congregate housing (including seniors in long-term care). The metric also doesn’t capture the apparent rise in suppressed household formation – the hundreds of thousands of adults still involuntarily living with their parents or roommates because of a lack of affordability – nor does it cover the hundreds of thousands of families with young children who are forced to engage in the ”drive until you qualify” approach to finding affordable housing farther and farther away from cities. All told, close to four million low-income households – including one-person households – need housing that costs less than $1,050 a month, including all homeless people, most students living independently, people in congregate housing and those involuntarily doubling up. There are also two million more moderate- and median-income households – including larger households of more than four people – who need rental housing at less than $2,520 a month.
Yet in Canada, two-bedroom monthly rentals cost $3,918 in Vancouver and $3,370 in Toronto, on average. While simply building supply can have a positive effect on runaway housing costs, zoning changes to allow the construction of millions of new rentals in big cities will at best keep market rent prices to inflation, not reduce cost by two-thirds, as is needed to achieve housing affordability for the majority of those in housing need. The city of Auckland in New Zealand, for instance, has been engaging in one of the world’s most comprehensive efforts to add supply since 2016, and it hasn’t been able to bring down costs below inflation.
So in order to help students and seniors, we need to scale up non-market housing, which was as much as 25 per cent of construction between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, then virtually disappeared with the federal government’s retreat from housing policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Mr. Poilievre is right – we can’t wait for 737 cities with populations higher than 5,000 people to separately consult on 737 new zoning codes. A simple “recommended” national zoning code should be linked to federal infrastructure funding, with four storeys as of right in all residential or mixed-use areas (six storeys if non-market), eight storeys within 400 metres of a bus stop (12 if non-market) and 20 storeys near train stations (30 if non-profit). There should be no limits on units or floor-space area, no parking minimums, or setbacks or other design junk that gets in the way of accessibility and energy efficiency.
But more importantly, he’s setting the terms of debate for a looming federal election in which housing will invariably be the No. 1 issue. While the Liberals and the NDP seem to be tripping over themselves to assure everyone that they will ensure that home values will stay high, millions of young Canadians are faced with no viable option except to turn to the only party that is speaking to their shared reality.
What’s with the silence from allegedly more progressive parties on the doubling of the quantum of non-market housing, a policy that has been recommended by everyone from the industry body for community housing to one of Canada’s big banks?
Why is the Liberal Party still droning on about protecting high home values while promising to make new home ownership easy? The Liberals should drop this obvious lie – voters can see the impact of housing speculation on increasing generational wealth inequalities for themselves – and heed their own legislation by focusing on the federal role in ensuring renters’ equal rights. The federal government is already involved in health care and other human-rights issues – so why not housing? Conditional transfers can mould provincial and municipal behaviour. Bully the provinces into long leases, ending no-fault evictions, higher welfare, more supportive housing and, yes, rent regulation. Renter rights can’t be sacrificed on the altar of more supply.
And why is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh prioritizing owners’ returns over renter rights? British Columbia, which is the only NDP government in power in Canada, is the most pro-housing supply province. Build on that. Income-based housing targets, leasing public land to scale up non-market housing, and tax change to lessen wealth inequalities should be talking points for the “workers party” right now.
The NDP used to talk up industrial strategy as a key for the future. Why not talk about the potential of modular housing as an export industry and promote building-code change to scale up family-sized, accessible, energy-efficient flats, instead of trying to outflank the Liberals and Conservatives from the right?
The Liberals and NDP are inexplicably refusing to listen to evidence, polls or frustrated young people. They need to up their game – or they will get trounced in the next election.