Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Every once in a while, it’s only fair to tip one’s hat to the Conservatives. So many of their barrages of late have been doomed, bizarre or weak, so some credit is due for a clean rhetorical hit.
The party recently issued a particularly on-point political advertisement, contrasting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statements on housing from 2015, 2021 and finally from a press conference held last week. Needless to say, the comparison was stark.
At the beginning of his term, a dewy Mr. Trudeau was keen to “prioritize significant new investment in affordable housing.” In 2021, he lamented that first-time homes were “out of reach for far too many,” and firmly promised change.
Fast forward two years, and we now have a Prime Minister – at a press conference hailing the creation of federally subsidized houses in Hamilton, Ont., no less – reminding everyone that, despite past comments to the contrary, this really isn’t his job.
“I’ll be blunt as well: Housing isn’t a primary federal responsibility, it’s not something that we have direct carriage of,” he said.
This is true! And I’d be remiss if I also didn’t acknowledge this uncharacteristic bluntness coming from a politician on the housing file, which has been in short supply of late.
But the interesting thing to note is that the comment was a clear indication that the Liberals have given up on a file that has proven far too unwieldy to fix. This country’s unaffordable housing crisis appears unsolvable – or rather, it can’t be resolved by a federal government that has this particular alignment of economic and social policies. This government simply does not have the capacity to fix this problem, and Mr. Trudeau’s comment comes very close to a straightforward admission of this fact.
The Liberals want to juice immigration, even though we can’t build homes fast enough for the anticipated wave of new arrivals, and it either can’t or won’t devote the billions of dollars that would be required to recreate the equivalent of the postwar suburban building boom. Further, the Liberals know very well that two-thirds of all Canadians own homes – assets that can only become more valuable as the government gooses demand with no obvious plan to make provisions for increasing supply to adequate levels – and so there is no economic incentive to right-size the problem. Land titles are the equivalent of lottery tickets in this country, and what government wants to make its voters poorer?
So what we’ll get is more of the same demand-side tweaking, like a tax-free savings account that lets first-time homeowners save money for down payments on absurdly priced homes. Governments at all levels will throw nominal amounts of cash around for the odd affordable townhouse or apartment block; these will provide more opportunities for more photo-ops with yet more blunt press conferences. Meanwhile, the dwindling pool of solvent young people who wish to get on the property ladder without massive infusions of intergenerational wealth will fight for these spots like food rations thrown to the impoverished districts in The Hunger Games. Perhaps we can get the poors to compete for their affordable homes with a reality television show, while we’re at it.
And with all of this happening at a moment of worsening social trust, declining quality of life, an exploding opioid crisis and the growth of slums and tent cities around the country, Mr. Trudeau would like to remind us that these are all provincial responsibilities, actually, as he retreats slowly back into the shrubbery.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives – dewy as they now themselves appear to be – do seem to think that there is a role for the federal government in housing. They have issued their policy proposals – a war on NIMBYs, I would call them – and it warms the heart to see. Among other ideas, the Conservatives would cut off federal infrastructure money to municipalities that fail to meet building targets.
But while this nascent conservative urbanism is both long overdue and neat to watch, you’ll have to forgive my cynicism. All of the same economic incentives would apply to a Conservative government, and would a Prime Minister Pierre Poilievre really curb immigration, which would cause Canadians to suffer the economic losses brought about by an aging work force unreplenished by new blood? Would he really borrow lots of money to subsidize or outright build new housing? Is he really going to implement policies that would cut the value of existing homes?
I suspect we could all be doing better with this particular problem, but I retain my long-held pessimism: No one is going to fix housing. Not soon, anyway. And we’re going to suffer the consequences as a result.