The pain inflicted on many Canadians by the out-of-control housing market has escalated to new levels, as has the desire to pin the blame on someone.
At the top of that list, according to a recent Leger poll, is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When asked which level of government should be assigned the most blame when it comes to housing, 40 per cent of those surveyed pointed at Ottawa; 32 per cent blamed their provincial leaders; 22 per cent weren’t sure who was at fault; only 6 per cent called out their local city council.
Given the depth of the problems, the instinct to look to the top makes emotional sense. But the answers betray an absence of understanding of how housing operates in Canada. The power to decide what is built where rests with mayors and city councillors.
Blame Mr. Trudeau, for sure. The federal Liberals brought Ottawa back into housing policy in the late 2010s for the first time in decades. But for all their various efforts, and many billions of dollars of low-cost loans to builders, the result after eight years in power is barely more than 100,000 new homes, when millions are needed. The Liberals also drove immigration higher without thinking enough about housing, and subsidized homebuyers rather than making use of Ottawa’s financial tools to dampen demand.
The provinces oversee cities and for too long ignored civic rules that heavily restricted new housing. It’s only in the past year that premiers in Ontario and British Columbia were finally roused that something might be amiss.
The real blame – which seemingly eludes most Canadians – belongs to cities, as this space has long argued. The core issue, amid the surging demand of a rising population, is an inability to build enough new homes. Too much land is zoned for low density. Building four-storey apartment buildings, the essential change, is illegal on most civic land. So, yes, Ottawa could eliminate federal sales taxes on purpose-built rental buildings. But the key need is in an abundance of land on which to erect – quickly – these homes.
The ongoing bottleneck plays out this week at city councils in Calgary and Vancouver. Both are weighing modest new density, to allow several homes on lots restricted to one or two. It’s a nice change but far too little. Yet even this small step comes with hesitation. Calgary council voted against it in June. After a backlash, it’s taking a second look. Mayor Jyoti Gondek calls it a “defining moment.” She’s right. In Vancouver, council spent four years pondering a citywide plan and, belatedly, is set to approve a bit more density to allow a few hundred additional new homes each year. It’s not nothing, but close to it.
A massive problem needs a massive response. And that’s not happening.
Mr. Trudeau is dangling $4-billion to push cities to loosen zoning, a program that’s years behind schedule. This lack of urgency deserves a lot of blame. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre proposes a stick, to withhold federal funding from recalcitrant cities, and like Mr. Trudeau, offer money for cities that do more. Given the slow-motion approach at city councils, the stick sounds pretty good. But Mr. Poilievre’s stick, according to the party, is a soft touch. It would aim to increase building by 15 per cent. It’s not nothing but it’s not much.
Restrictive zoning, with developers basically begging city halls to build, is a waste of money. The rules hinder supply but also make it more expensive to build. Aryze, a small developer in Victoria, has made the case that permissive zoning would lower costs to build by eliminating rampant delays.
Provinces, on the left and right, are now moving to encourage cities to enact change. B.C. has legislation pending this fall. Perhaps Premier David Eby is bold and goes big. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has talked big but the results are underwhelming. Big cities like Ottawa, Mississauga and Brampton are way below provincially mandated targets. Further, the need for more homes has morphed into a total distraction, building on the Greenbelt, which Mr. Ford’s own experts say is unnecessary.
Don’t prevent construction, speed it up. In 1974, Canada saw 257,243 homes built. That number has never been eclipsed, which is absurd. It’s time, in the words of Conservative MP Scott Aitchison, to “legalize more homebuilding.”
That’s exactly it. There’s plenty of blame to go around but the answer is clear. Legalize housing. And it’s city halls that have their hands on the switch.