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opinion

If one glances at proposed bills in Ontario or British Columbia to address the long-standing housing shortage, the first take is positive. In Ontario, there’s the More Homes Built Faster Act. In B.C., the Housing Supply Act was tabled on Monday. It sounds like change is finally afoot.

Such optimism, however, quickly wanes when one digs into the details. In both provinces, governments talk a good game but steadfastly resist the biggest change necessary to get a lot more housing built – vastly increased density in the established neighbourhoods of the country’s largest cities.

While the real estate market has pulled back this year, the cost to buy and rent is still stratospheric. In the Toronto region, home prices remain 30 per cent higher than before the pandemic, according to the Teranet-National Bank house price index. In the Vancouver area, prices are up about 20 per cent since early 2020.

Longer term, over the past two decades, prices in Canada have quadrupled. It’s the result of a growing demand – strong economy, rising population, low interest rates – running up against a scarcity of supply.

In B.C., there had been suggestions the province would intervene in local housing, because cities in that province have resisted change. A possible model was California, which has legislated density rules across the state to spur home building.

On Monday, Premier David Eby – sworn in three days earlier – called the Housing Supply Act “incredibly important.” It’s useful, yes, but it seems to promise far less than the “massive housing boom” he said was needed earlier this year.

The basic plan is for the province to work with upward of 10 of B.C.’s cities to decide on home-building targets. Right now, data cited by Mr. Eby’s government show that most cities aren’t planning to build enough. Cities’ forecasts of housing needs are notorious for being too conservative.

Under the new bill, the provincial government can make the final decision if it doesn’t like what the cities offer. Mr. Eby promised a co-operative approach on Monday.

A light touch is unlikely to work, though. Cities in B.C. claim enough housing is being built, so they will now suddenly agree they’re wrong?

The main problem, cited by numerous expert reports and housing activists, is that too much land is reserved for low-density detached homes. This bill doesn’t directly grapple with that primary challenge.

The bill also doesn’t include promises Mr. Eby made when he campaigned this summer for his party’s leadership. His ideas included the province dictating density for cities, such as three homes on lots reserved for one. Mr. Eby on Monday said that’s a future possibility.

The half-measures in B.C. resemble what’s unfolding in Ontario. A provincial report in February detailed a lengthy list of strong proposals to overhaul rules around housing. But the More Homes Built Faster Act, tabled in October, offers watered-down versions of some of those ideas.

For example, the bill would let owners carve their homes into three units without a zoning bylaw amendment. But the government’s own math suggests this change might produce just 50,000 new homes over the next decade – a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million Ontario wants to see built.

Unlike in B.C., Ontario Premier Doug Ford seems less interested in actually building housing than he does in using the slogan of 1.5 million homes to justify major changes to rules around conservation, opening up what is supposed to be the protected Greenbelt and undermining local democracy.

In June, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. laid out the need for several million new homes in provinces such as B.C. and Ontario. The policies on the table aren’t enough. The change necessary is clear – loosening the rules to allow construction of such housing as four-storey apartment buildings with spacious units in neighbourhoods near schools and parks that are currently reserved for detached houses. Ontario and B.C. have both dodged this sort of intervention.

Meanwhile, the forces that have led to out-of-reach housing prices continue to intensify. With increasing immigration, Statistics Canada sees Canada’s population of 38 million jumping to about 50 million in two decades.

Ontario and B.C. are pointed in the right direction but their proposed measures are too timid. The housing market is a mess. Without stronger action, it’s going to get worse.