Don Iveson is the co-chair of the board of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and an executive adviser for climate investing and community resilience at Co-Operators. He previously served as mayor of Edmonton from 2013 to 2021.
The housing crisis in Canada has taken on a life of its own, and the issue is so massive and unwieldy – with the costs of both renting and buying a home soaring beyond people’s incomes – it can seem impossible to contend with.
During my time as mayor of Edmonton, the city council reduced permit times, increased urban and suburban density, eliminated parking requirements and zoned more “as of right” density. Our partners reduced homelessness by 40 per cent prior to the pandemic while we expanded social housing inventory. But despite all that, and even though buying a house is still somewhat affordable in Edmonton, rents are now rising sharply. Affordable rental stock is being lost, at a time when homelessness continues to grow.
Precarious housing and encampments drive up costs in already strained health and justice systems, and are disruptive for everyone. Whether someone is Indigenous, a newcomer, a veteran or a child, we must act urgently to realize people’s housing rights. Doing so will require a huge effort: Last year, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation found that we need to build around 5.8 million new homes by 2030 to achieve affordable housing for Canadians. We are on pace for less than half that number.
Politicians from all orders of government agree that solutions are needed, but each one seems to be working at cross-purposes. So when a consensus begins to emerge on a difficult issue like the rental housing crisis, it’s time to act. That’s the opportunity that the just-released National Housing Accord (NHA) is offering the federal government. The rental housing shortage is a national problem, and the federal government must take charge.
The accord was designed as a fiscal policy blueprint and was prepared by a coalition of non-profit, private, and public sector housing leaders that put their differences aside to address the root causes of the rental housing crisis. From targeted solutions to end homelessness and address labour shortages, to creating more purpose-built rental supply faster, the accord lays out a clear strategy.
The NHA calls for a housing benefit aimed at supporting the most vulnerable and identifies capital incentives for private-sector construction as well as supports for the non-profit sector to urgently create deeply affordable social housing and co-ops. It calls for a federal industrial housing strategy through the creation of an industry-led roundtable to advise the government in real-time on policy initiatives, instead of the current patchwork of approaches across different ministries. It urges governments to incentivize the construction of purpose-built rental housing by making adjustments to capital cost charges and eliminating the GST/HST.
Make no mistake, it won’t be easy to meet the targets identified by the CMHC. While most new units will provide Canadians the opportunity to own a home, close to 2 million of the prospective 5.8 million units must be for renters.
To meet the G7 average for social housing and to end homelessness, 650,000 of these units will need to be deeply affordable. In Edmonton alone, the wait list is years-long with more than 10,000 households seeking housing and 3,137 people experiencing homelessness. The idea that any one government can address these issues in isolation is nonsense. And it’s just as ludicrous to think the market can solve the problem alone.
The accord also promotes using the National Building Code to drive innovation. New construction methods for modular housing need to be standardized through a catalogue of preapproved designs that can be rapidly deployed at scale across Canada.
There will be costs. Substantial new capital must be attracted to the market, and it will take more than just minor changes to a broken system to get it done. Financing well below current market rates must be extended to the rental housing sector to build more projects faster.
Some argue corporate owners are to blame, but this is not the time to chase pension funds and large landlords out of the sector – their capital and capacity are required to meet the ambitious targets. We can’t build more housing, and in particular rental housing, with less funding.
Canadians don’t need a lesson in constitutional responsibilities, nor do they need scapegoats or lessons in history. What they need are places to live. This accord’s recommendations would allow Ottawa to act now and work with all orders of government across all sectors of the housing market to find real solutions.
Too many people are waiting, including municipal officials across the country, who are ready to act. The time for historic federal leadership is now.