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Housing might seem like a local problem, but the issue is one fully entwined with matters of national concern. Ottawa needs to step up to help fix Canada’s housing shortages.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Housing in California is a hot mess.

The problem starts at the civic level, where a thicket of rules makes it difficult to get anything built, a situation exacerbated by entrenched homeowners who oppose new density. The result is that the state builds only 100,000 units a year. That’s roughly half of what gets built in Canada – yet California’s population is slightly larger.

State legislators tried in recent years to dilute the control wielded by city councils, but failed against local lobbying efforts. The breakthrough came this year; last week Governor Gavin Newsom signed several bills into law. One would end single-family zoning in most neighbourhoods, to allow for duplexes. A second bill would encourage higher density in cities, especially near transit, by simplifying rules around the building process.

California’s problems may be extreme, but they are the same as in Canada – high housing prices, after too little has been built. The problem there and here has festered over decades, owing to restrictive local zoning, a difficult approvals process that too often requires drawn-out public hearings, and the undue political influence of current homeowners over city councils.

Exerting pressure from above has long been talked about in the U.S., but only recently emerged in reality. It’s been propelled by the extremes of the housing market, where prices have rocketed out of reach of many people.

In Canada, the Teranet-National Bank house price index is close to 20 per cent higher than a year ago, and prices are up more than 30 per cent in almost half of the markets, including Halifax and Hamilton. The squeeze is no longer a Vancouver and Toronto story. It’s everywhere.

All of this pushed housing onto the federal election stage. The Liberals and Conservatives both promised to use Ottawa’s heft to get more built.

The Liberals proposed a $4-billion “housing accelerator fund” to add to housing in Canada’s largest cities. The goal is to get 100,000 “middle-class homes” built by 2025 – which would be a significant number if it is on top of what would already be otherwise built. The Liberal fund would go to cities that build more than they have historically, that add density and cut approval delays, and that “tackle NIMBYism and establish inclusionary zoning bylaws.”

The plan is good. Making sure it happens is the challenge.

And while the Liberals won re-election, yet another minority government in Ottawa indicates they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. The Conservative platform pledged to use Ottawa’s infrastructure money to get more housing built. The specific idea was to tie transit funding to increased density near new transit. Building around transit is not new, but Ottawa’s billions could, if done right, increase density in a wider area of a kilometre from each station. That could start to make a real difference, as it would include swaths of low-density housing. The Liberals should freely borrow this plan.

Both parties, no surprise, also promised measures to help people buy housing. While politically popular, these ideas would just further inflame a bad situation by increasing demand rather than getting at the real problem: supply.

The need to overhaul how our cities are built is obvious. The City of Vancouver, in one example, has grown more slowly than the surrounding suburbs, and that’s not forecast to change. This is the exact opposite of what should occur. In another example, look at Toronto. While the city has added a bunch of tall towers, population density across much of Toronto, including right beside the downtown core, is actually lower today than it was a quarter century ago.

Housing might seem like a local issue, and some may feel Ottawa – or provincial governments – would be overstepping their bounds, but the issue is one fully entwined with matters of national concern: economic growth, climate heating and immigration. A lack of affordable housing makes it more difficult for people to move to where jobs are, and if it’s too expensive to live centrally, they’re forced into suburbs and cars. Meanwhile, Canada is welcoming 400,000 immigrants a year – a strategy that has to be paired with a real plan to get a lot more housing built, fast.

City councils across Canada – as in California – have failed to adequately plan to get the needed amount of housing built. The cost is enormous, on people trying to buy a home, and on the country’s potential. It is time for higher levels of government to step in and push change.

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