Pierre Poilievre has tapped into something.
No, I’m not referring to the “crypto bro” community, which he thrills with ridiculous claims that cryptocurrencies will let Canadians “opt out of inflation.” Nor am I talking about the cohort of disenfranchised, libertarian-learning Canadians who delight at Mr. Poilievre’s non-specific promise of more “freedom.” Rather, the Conservative leadership hopeful has seized on something broader that transcends party and ideological allegiance: the festering, largely unacknowledged angst over the truly ludicrous cost of housing in Canada.
Various governments over the years have paid lip service to the increasing desperation around housing unaffordability in Canadian cities. They’ve tweaked a policy or two, or thrown some money at the situation in futile efforts to increase supply in areas where neighbours won’t tolerate density.
The recent federal budget made a big show of listing housing as one of its top three priority pillars, but it stopped short of proposing measures that would actually disrupt a market that, among other things, saw a 20.6-per-cent increase in the national average sale price of homes, year-over-year. Rather, the budget offered plans to marginally improve the purchasing power of those who are already in a position to buy (with, for example, a tax-free saving account for those who are able to save $40,000 over five years) while allocating billions of dollars to build new homes, but without the conditions needed to ensure that the areas best suited to density actually see greater density.
Legislators in New Zealand, where the house-price-to-income ratio is comparable to Canada’s, introduced sweeping urban-planning reform last year that boldly abolished single-family zoning in the country’s biggest cities. Canadian legislators, meanwhile, have spent the last several years looking at their shoes while housing unaffordability reaches crisis levels, and ignoring recommendations from their own task forces struck up to address ballooning costs and insufficient supply.
That has created an opportunity for Mr. Poilievre, whose frustration with the “gatekeepers” and scoffing tone at Canada’s ridiculous housing market is resonating with a generation of Canadians who see homeownership as not simply beyond reach, but as an issue that has long been neglected by those in power.
On Monday, Mr. Poilievre posted a five-minute video from in front of a tiny house in Vancouver, which is now listed at $4.8-million. He lamented that it was once the type of home that could have been purchased by working-class people and paid off over a reasonable period of time. “But now, 40 years later,” he said, “could young people with a similar working-class background own the exact same house? The answer is no.”
“Why is that?” Mr. Poilievre asks, with palpable exasperation. “Shouldn’t our working class be better off today than it was 40 years ago?”
His tone is perfect for the swaths of young Canadians who have done everything right, but who not only can’t afford to live where they grew up, likely can’t even afford to live hours away. (The average home price in Barrie, Ont., about an hour and a half north of Toronto, is over $1-million, up 32 per cent over last year.) Plenty of politicians have talked about the problems with a housing market where only the wealthy can own property, but few have channeled the frustrations of a generation in the way Mr. Poilievre has.
Conspicuously, however, Mr. Poilievre’s polemic about how the gatekeepers are “blocking the poor, the working class and our immigrants from the privilege of owning a home in this country” does not specifically outline a plan to increase urban density, nor does he identify levers that a Poilievre federal government would pull to compel provinces and municipalities to allow multi-family homes where they are currently not permitted. While lesser-known Tory candidate Scott Aitchison has proposed tying federal funds to requirements for greater density, Mr. Poilievre has only pledged to reduce the application costs of zoning changes, or the “governmental cost associated with building things.”
There is a reason for his reticence, of course: Mr. Poilievre does not want to alienate existing homeowners who would be remiss to see the value of their nest-egg suddenly plunge when a new fourplex is built next door. It’s the same dance politicians always play over housing: try to placate the millennials with words, studies and maybe some cash, but make sure the boomers – who are more reliable voters and donors – stay happy in their $4-million, structurally compromised bungalows.
In that sense, Mr. Poilievre is no different from the gatekeepers he decries. But he does have an edge in at least being able to channel the angst of young Canadians who have been priced out of buying a home, and calling out the absurdity of a housing market that has been off the rails for years. He may or may not turn that into actual policy, but for now, his polemics will be enough to win him broad support.
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