Housing draws big attention and promises, but little action

Little in concrete news came after a week that local, provincial and federal governments dedicated their attention to Canada’s historic housing challenge — with promised solutions planned for later days.

Monday brought a report that housing inflation hit a record high at the end of last year, with prices at the end of 2021 26.6 per cent higher than 2020, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. On Wednesday, Ontario’s premier and housing minister met with the mayors of the provinces biggest cities on the issue of affordability. The next day, federal Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen huddled with his provincial and territorial counterparts.

After Ontario’s mini-summit, the provincial government dedicated $45 million to the province’s 39 biggest municipalities to help them modernize their management of applications for housing developments. Provincial Housing Minister Steve Clark, as well as the group representing the municipal leaders he met with, Ontario’s Big City Mayor’s, also promised to find more ways to collaborate on housing, and shared a similar message: they need more help from Ottawa.

Following Hussen’s ministerial meeting, the federal government shared that it’ll be funding the construction of 10,000 new affordable homes, instead of its earlier goal of 7,500.

As one local leader, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, said to iPolitics on Wednesday, solutions to current housing problems are “not going to be solved from one three-hour meeting, or overnight either.”

“It’s really going to take a principle-based approach in terms of tackling it,” Vrbanovic said. “It’s one that’s going to require collaboration among many partners — not the least of which are the three orders of government.” The private sector, not-for-profits, financial institutions, the work of academics, and buy-in from communities are all also necessary to solve the issue that’s been brewing for years, Vrbanovic said.

“The best way for us to solve (the crisis) is when all three levels of government work together,” Clark said Wednesday.

Over the last two decades, increases in housing prices and rent have significantly outpaced Canadians’ incomes. Nationwide, Canadian home prices quadrupled from 2000 to 2020, real estate agencies’ data shows, while the average family’s income grew only 37 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. The pandemic brought more of the same, but quicker.

Housing affordability issues have also been amplified by scorching hot markets in some of Canada’s biggest cities, including Toronto, its suburbs, and its nearby cities, which — known collectively as the Golden Horseshoe — is home to more than a fifth of the country’s entire population.

Ontario also faces a larger housing supply shortage than many other provinces in Canada, which trails the rest of the G7 in what it has available, a recent report by Scotiabank found. Premier Doug Ford’s housing strategy is relies on increasing supply, which the government’s tried to do by cutting red tape, and speeding up developments through its controversial use of minister’s zoning orders — fast-tracking projects through usual local checks.

Housing affordability will worsen in Ontario if it doesn’t speed up its pace of construction, which it’s not projected to do, Scotiabank concluded.

Ontario, along with the other provinces, relies on the federal government for funding through programs that are part of the National Housing Strategy, a 10-year, $70-billion plan Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government unveiled in 2017. Clark’s been publicly pushing for $490 million more than Ontario’s been allotted in Ottawa’s Housing Strategy, and its Reaching Home homelessness strategy.

Hussen said in a short interview Friday that he’s “happy to connect with (Ontario’s government) further and explore ways” to build more housing, and that the ministerial meeting he hosted the day before was used to reiterate the importance of working together.

Other ways Ontario is keen on Ottawa’s help on housing is through legislative changes it promised in the fall election.

The federal Liberals’ campaign platform featured a housing plan with 17 specific promises, which included significant moves to ban blind-bidding, crack down on speculation, house flipping and other home-profiteering, and banning foreigners who don’t live in Canada from buying homes for two years.

Hussen wouldn’t say when asked on Friday which of the government’s housing promises Ottawa will introduce and when, only that the federal budget — which will be tabled this spring — could contain some. Other promises, like, for example, ending blind bidding, would require agreements with provinces, he said.

Hussen plans to host another discussion with his provincial and territorial counterparts next month, in what he described as a “housing supply summit.”

Its purpose, he said, is “to tackle these issues that face all of us and require all of us to come together to work on it.”

“(It’s not just up to) a federal government, not just provinces and territories, but also municipalities, private sector, (the) non-profit sector — we need everyone to tackle this housing challenge together,” Hussen said.

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