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An employee works on a modular home component at NRB Modular Solutions in Calgary on April 5.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The federal government’s new budget is largely dedicated to building more homes, faster, so that young workers can afford to own one. The Conservative housing plan claims to do the same, only better.

There is one problem: These plans would further force down Canada’s fertility rate, straining our economy and increasing social tensions.

Densification, fourplexes-as-of-right, infill and high-rises near transit hubs all conspire to ensure Canadians have fewer and fewer babies. Environmentalists cheer that outcome. But anyone who wants reliable health care or a good education for their children or clean drinking water or safe streets – or any of the things essential to a stable, happy society – should worry.

The housing measures announced to help with affordability in the 2024 federal budget

Couples who want to have children generally prefer a house with several bedrooms and a backyard – the kind of house so many of us grew up in. This kind of house has fallen out of favour with planners and urbanists because, to be affordable, it needs to be built on the cheap land found at or even beyond the edges of cities, requiring expensive new infrastructure, the paving over of farmland and long car commutes to work, all of which contribute to global warming.

Far better to densify existing neighbourhoods, goes the theory, to concentrate populations near services and infrastructure.

Sure. But have you looked at birth rates lately? When Darrell Bricker and I started researching Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline eight years ago, Canada’s fertility rate was 1.6 children per woman, half a baby short of the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to keep a population stable. Today, the rate has swooned to 1.3.

Fertility rates in developed and many developing societies were falling before the pandemic, and COVID-19 suppressed them even further.

There are many factors influencing fertility – urbanization, the increasing rights of women, the waning power of religion and clan. But housing is also a factor. The more people live in apartments, the lower the fertility rate.

About two-thirds of the people in Spain are apartment dwellers. The fertility rate there is 1.2, and the country has started losing population. But only a third of the people next door in France live in apartments, and the fertility rate there is 1.7, though it is also declining.

About 10 per cent of Australians live in apartments. The fertility rate there is 1.6. On the other hand, more than 60 per cent of South Koreans live in apartments, and South Korea has the world’s lowest fertility rate: 0.7 in 2024, according to government projections.

Again, other factors are also in play. But the nature of a country’s housing stock influences that country’s fertility rate. And as governments in Canada place an increasing emphasis on densification, that will further discourage people from having children.

So what? some will ask. Earth will breathe easier with fewer people. True. But a below-replacement fertility rate – especially one that is steadily falling – means that each year there are fewer workers available to fill jobs, pay taxes, consume goods, support the elderly and generally keep things running.

We are already seeing growing unhappiness among young workers who believe they will never enjoy the life their parents had. Wait till the degrowthers and the neonatalists start going at it. The former want to effectively socialize the economy to ensure equity as growth turns to decline. The latter want to encourage, even force, women to quit school, stay at home and have more babies.

Neonatalist policies are fixtures of illiberal democracies such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and animate parts – especially the alt-right parts – of conservatism in the United States and Europe. They are an element of the Republican Party’s opposition to abortion.

Canadian governments have traditionally sought to overcome the challenges of labour shortages caused by declining fertility through wide-open immigration.

But revelations of international students flooding into Canadian colleges, some of which are fake, to secure work permits have undermined confidence in the system. In any case, the fertility rate in source countries is also in decline.

So go ahead: Infill those neighbourhoods with apartment buildings. Keep that prime farmland pristine.

Just don’t act surprised when, every year, the fertility rate reaches a new low and social tensions a new high. Correlation isn’t causation, until it is.

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