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A few weeks ago, an Australian housing advocate put an app online that compared the population density of cities around the world.

It should come as no surprise to learn that while the likes of Vancouver and Toronto seem to be big, busy cities, they are far less dense within 10 kilometres of the civic centre than places such as Paris or Tokyo. This is what North America decided after the Second World War: to build out with sprawling suburbs, rather than building up.

In the past decade, that thinking started to change, as home prices began to surge. Housing advocates in Canada, this space included, have for years called for a focus on building up. Too much central land is wasted on low-density housing. Allowing more people to live near the centre of cities means a much better use of public assets such as transit, parks and sewers.

The ideas are, finally, taking wider hold. Density is reliably the main recommendation in expert reports. The latest, earlier this month, comes from the Task Force for Housing & Climate, a group helmed by former Edmonton mayor Don Iveson and former federal Conservative minister and deputy leader Lisa Raitt. The task force described housing density as “the single most powerful opportunity for building more and better housing.”

The task force, which was smart to incorporate climate with the challenge of housing, had four main arguments, the first of which was “legalize density.” It may sound odd to suggest density is somehow illegal but that is in fact exactly the current reality. And building up doesn’t mean seas of skyscrapers: Paris and Tokyo are densely populated but buildings are typically on a modest scale, often only six or so storeys. Yet such buildings are exactly the kind of housing that cities such as Vancouver and Toronto specifically prohibit across much of civic land.

The task force’s calls also included stronger building codes, from more efficient homes to climate resilience; increased productivity in construction with factory-built housing; and – as has been recommended before – tighter rules on homes in areas at high risk of fire or flood.

Such to-do lists have become widely agreed on. The bipartisan task force is on trend. This space a year ago highlighted the left-right consensus on housing. After years of debate, there are a lot of good ideas on the table. There are enough reports. Stepped-up policy action is what’s needed.

The ideas behind density are starting to become political reality. Density is a central focus, to varying degrees, for government policy action in recent months, led by the NDP in British Columbia, with a series of legislation last fall. The task force highlighted B.C.’s decision to push cities to significantly increase density, especially near major transit hubs. The NDP is also leading on important details such as potentially opening up what’s called single-stair design for apartment buildings. This was among the task force’s calls.

The federal Liberals had moved slowly, but there’s been progress since the fall. Ottawa’s housing accelerator program has led to cities across the country agreeing to modest increases in density. It may not seem like enough – the deals generally revolve around allowing fourplexes on a single lot – but it represents the start of a decisive shift from the past.

Policy changes to date mark just the beginning of a necessary overhaul. More homes are under construction than ever before; housing starts so far this year, even with high interest rates, are near record levels.

The task force report took its cue from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s target of building upwards of six million new homes to ease high prices to buy or rent. Skeptics are quick to say the number is impossible to reach, while forgetting that Canada built almost double the number of homes, per capita, a half century ago.

What’s certain is much more can be built, if governments allow it. Change can happen fast. Consider tech-industry-fuelled Austin, Tex. It was long beset by rising housing costs but has fewer restrictions on new homes. Increased supply has driven rent down about 10 per cent. Now consider San Francisco, where rent is nearly double Austin’s. It is not a mere coincidence that in 2023 San Francisco issued permits for 1,076 apartments while Austin handed out 11 times that figure, 11,745.

The lesson is simple: if there’s political will to turn good ideas into action, prices can be tamed.

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