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A construction worker is seen on top of a low-rise condo development being built in Coquitlam, B.C., on May 16.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In the fight to alleviate the housing shortage, there’s been no shortage of good ideas. What has been too often absent is political will.

A missed opportunity came in early 2022. An expert panel commissioned by Ontario Premier Doug Ford delivered a blueprint this space and others hailed. It called for widespread reforms. The ideas included, without special approval at city halls, four homes on a residential lot across the province, 11-storey buildings on streets with transit and unlimited density beside transit hubs. Mr. Ford shelved the boldest proposals.

The thinking behind increased density was already well established in public debate – this space backed the ideas for years – but it hadn’t been taken seriously by governments. The pandemic price surge forced it on to the political stage. In 2021, the federal Liberals promised to pay cities to reform zoning. Last year, as Mr. Ford said no to major changes, David Eby in British Columbia promised an overhaul in his successful run to become leader of the NDP, and premier.

Policy ideas started to become political reality only this year. The Liberals’ housing accelerator money this fall pushed cities across the country to agree to reforms that generally include measures such as four homes on one lot and increased density near transit. But it is Mr. Eby and his B.C. government that has gone the furthest, in the province where housing prices first spiralled out of control.

Mr. Eby didn’t invent the future. What the NDP did was turn readily available good ideas into a series of legislation. Cities in B.C. have been instructed to quickly loosen their zoning rules. This includes, without special permissions, multiple homes on a residential lot and significant density near busy transit hubs. In the Vancouver region this means at least eight-storey buildings within 800 metres of a SkyTrain station and 20 or more storeys within 200 metres.

The NDP won power in 2017. Their first big action on housing was a tax to quell speculative demand, foreign and domestic. Like all political parties, the NDP underestimated the housing situation. The real issue – a lack of supply, and all the civic rules that restrict building – wasn’t addressed.

It is said overnight successes are years in the making. It’s true on B.C. housing policy. Could the NDP and Mr. Eby, a former housing minister, have acted earlier? Yes. But now they’ve set a template for the rest of the country to follow. With a provincial election next fall, Mr. Eby is willing to stake part of his political future on housing reform.

Change will still take time. A 201-page analysis the NDP put out showed most of the new housing would be built in the back half of a decade-long outlook. The estimated tally is at least 216,000 more homes than would have otherwise been constructed. This would in part address shortages Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. has identified. The B.C. analysis also suggested those additional homes, over the next five years, could reduce the price of buying or renting by roughly 9 per cent compared with business as usual.

The NDP got the big picture right. It’s also working to get the details right. One welcome new idea, a favourite of housing activists, is what’s called single-stair design. It’s a common way to build apartments in Europe and would allow for more spacious homes.

The need for higher levels of government to act is clear. Cities remain too cautious. Federal money has cajoled some cities to change but others are resistant. City council in Windsor, Ont., last week voted against reform. This is a city that’s seeing billions of dollars of federal investments but barely gets more homes built than its neighbour Amherstburg, a town a fraction of Windsor’s size.

In Toronto, which has moved too slowly, the federal Liberals are holding back their offer of $471-million from Ottawa’s housing accelerator cash. Toronto is reworking its proposal, after a city council vote last week to do more, as the Housing Minister Sean Fraser has asked. The reforms in B.C. were specifically cited as a model.

There are still big challenges. Infrastructure such as sewers has been neglected. Federal and provincial investments will be key to make sure inadequate infrastructure doesn’t slow new housing.

The problems in housing were first felt in B.C. and it’s the first place finally taking action on the scale needed to do something about it. The rest of the country should copy the B.C. blueprint.

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