Plans to fix what’s wrong with Canada’s housing market come in two varieties: Urgent calls for immediate action from experts, and the slow-motion – or no-motion – work of politicians and planners in provinces and city halls.
The two sides operate in alternate realities, even as they both observe the same situation, a housing market run amok. Prices to rent and buy are egregious, propelled over the years by low interest rates, a strong economy, a growing population and a scarcity of housing. The chorus from experts – whose reports and evidence grow more voluminous by the month – is build more, a lot more.
On the ground in Vancouver and Toronto, there’s a recognition something’s wrong. Yet there’s also a political reluctance to do something about it now. Maybe later. Maybe next year. The latest pantomimes of action happened this past week. After three or four years of planning and consultation, what’s on tap? Likely more planning and consultation.
Three years ago, the City of Toronto started a process dubbed Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods. Building more housing for the city’s growing population is largely confined to limited areas, where towers spring ever higher to meet massive demand. But data showed neighbourhoods zoned solely for detached homes saw a decline of 220,000 people over two decades.
It means people are crammed into the few patches of land where dense housing is allowed, even as far fewer people than ever are living in the vast areas of the city where single-family homes are permitted. So the call was for the city to loosen up zoning, allowing some multiplexes and small apartment buildings in those low-density areas.
The deadline came this week. What arrived was timid. There’s a proposal to allow three or four housing units where only one is currently allowed – but not just yet. More consultation is needed. City council takes a look in July but a final vote won’t happen until next spring, and small apartment buildings are off the table. The city will further study that in some undefined future, “in appropriate locations.”
Something similar is happening in Vancouver. Almost four years ago, work on a citywide plan began. It’s ready to go and council considers it July 6. There are some good ideas, but the whole thing is marked by timidity. And it’s more conceptual than prescriptive; a city planner last week called the Vancouver Plan “a sense of the future direction.” It is contingent on planners and politicians in years ahead to detail what exactly will be allowed.
Vancouver in June did approve a modest but detailed density plan for Broadway, near downtown along a new subway line. It will allow population growth of 1.7 per cent annually, up a bit from 1.4 per cent of recent years. It took three years of work. While it doesn’t provide all the answers, it is something.
But mostly what’s happening – or rather not happening – in Toronto and Vancouver rejects the best insights of experts. The latest came in late June from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. It concluded that “drastic change is required,” and the primary way to make Canadian housing more affordable is to build millions more housing units, particularly in Greater Vancouver and the Greater Toronto. Earlier this year, an expert Ontario task force said the same, and called for automatically allowing four units of housing of four storeys where one exists today and buildings of up to 11 storeys on transit routes. Premier Doug Ford shelved the report.
Toronto and Vancouver are where Canada’s housing squeeze is most acute. Both are thriving economic engines but expensive housing discourages people from moving there. That saps economic growth.
To attack scarcity, British Columbia and Ontario, and Toronto and Vancouver and their surrounding municipalities, must do more. They’re looking in the right direction, but politics and force of habit have them stuck in the ways of the past.
Cities and provinces have a history of underestimating growth. They look back and extrapolate forward, not taking into account that we are already in a period of housing scarcity. CMHC warned that current planning perpetuates “systematic historical under-provision of housing.”
So where does the leave us? One week after CMHC’s urgent call for action on housing in Toronto and Vancouver, these cities mostly chose continued inaction. And more study.
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