Whether talking about shacks or sidesplits, Pierre Poilievre has owned the housing affordability file from the time he became Conservative leader one year ago. This is not because he has all the answers, or warms hearts with his words. It’s because he gives the issue the time and weight it deserves.
After a cabinet retreat in Prince Edward Island where housing was the key focus, it appears the Liberals are finally grasping the practical and political urgency of the situation, as Mr. Poilievre long has. They are listening to what people have been saying in the country’s largest cities for years – and is now being said from Charlottetown to Kingston to Kelowna: The cost and scarcity of housing in Canada is bonkers.
At least in words, there appears to be greater recognition of that from newly minted Housing Minister Sean Fraser. He has added shifts of tone on housing since the Liberal cabinet shuffle in July.
He’s saying reasonable things such as: Maybe the federal government should be more thoughtful about its international student program that has seen “explosive growth” and driven up housing costs in postsecondary communities. And it should start to use the power of the $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund, first promised by the Liberals two years ago, with some political gusto.
In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Fraser added something new to the list: that his government has put a new focus on housing affordability for the middle class.
“This is now not just a crisis for low-income families,” Mr. Fraser said.
“This is a crisis for seniors who are looking to retire under very different circumstances than existed even a few years ago. It is a crisis for students who cannot find a place they can afford to live within an hour commute of the campus. And it is a crisis for young people who are seeking to get into the market who often have two people working in the household, and still can’t afford a place to live.
“It’s not reasonable for us to maintain an exclusive focus, or even a primary focus, that only speaks to low-income social housing.”
This reflects the truth that rents are up across the country, as demand grows and higher interests weigh on pocketbooks. Where I sit in Calgary, relatively affordable by other big city standards, rents are up an average of 16 per cent, year-over-year. The typical price of a home in the country is more than $760,000. The Canadian public is not going to be particularly patient in waiting for the 5.3 million homes economists say the country needs to build by 2030 to solve the affordability crisis.
Mr. Fraser said Canada is looking at a total capital spend that could exceed a trillion dollars to hit that housing target – “not an amount of money that most people can conceive of.” This will have to come both from the private and public sectors.
But it’s needed, not only in the real world, but also in the political sphere. Young people, according to recent polls, are increasingly disenchanted with the governing party. Some believe the Liberals aren’t doing enough on climate change, a concern exacerbated by a summer of wildfires. But economic anxiety about out-of-control costs, especially on housing, is likely an even bigger reason.
Nik Nanos, chief data scientist and founder of Nanos Research, told CTV the Liberals’ popularity is down overall but plummeting among younger voters, the demographic that’s helped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau win past elections. The latest Nanos polling shows the Liberals in third place among Canadians aged 18 to 29 years old with 16 per cent support, compared with the Conservatives and the NDP with 39 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.
Polls are just a snapshot in time, but the trend isn’t good for the incumbents. Although the election is likely two years away, the problem requires complicated solutions and time is not on their side.
Mr. Fraser refutes Conservative claims that the Liberals weren’t paying attention or were negligent as the housing situation worsened. The last two years have been exceptional, he said. “What’s happened in the last couple of years in particular is there has been a shift in the housing continuum in terms of where the intense need is.”
As the former immigration minister, Mr. Fraser appears keenly aware his current and past portfolios have some overlap. He speaks of not decreasing immigration to address housing pressures, but becoming more thoughtful about it.
The country needs new people and workers, and has a moral imperative to welcome refugees. But the Liberals have boosted Canada’s immigration and non-permanent resident numbers to historic levels – and sometimes undercount those who are here. Canada’s ranks are growing quickly, and a BMO analysis earlier this year said that for every 1 per cent of population growth, housing prices typically increase by 3 per cent.
“The people we want to bring in want to stay for the rest of their lives. Let’s plan for it. And then let’s target the people who can improve the quality of life that not only their family gets to enjoy in Canada, but to improve the quality of life for Canadians who’ve lived here for generations, by addressing some of these social challenges – in particular around housing and health care.”
Even before Parliament resumes on Sept. 18, Mr. Fraser said he intends to act by “actually leveraging the federal spending power to incentivize change at municipal levels.” In short order, there will be an announcement on the municipalities that will receive help through the vaunted Housing Accelerator Fund.
BMO has also raised concerns about “an investor class” that’s increasingly dominating the real-estate market, as opposed to the people who actually live in the homes. Mr. Fraser said investors have a key role to play in creating housing units, but he is worried about homes being held by investors that remain vacant.
Ottawa will soon change the financial equation for home builders to get more units built, he added in the interview. Although the minister wouldn’t go into specifics, economists have said it’s time to waive or defer the sales tax developers incur for purpose-built rentals to incentivize new building.
All and all, Mr. Fraser said Canadians should expect to see aggressive action by the federal government to get more homes built, across the housing continuum. The question is not only whether this large task can be accomplished but also whether the Liberals, late to urgency on this issue, can catch up to the Conservatives on the political front.