To solve the housing crisis, we must get government building housing again

Posted on April 6, 2024 in Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
April 02, 2024.   By Jennifer Hassum Contributor

To solve today’s housing crisis, we should look at how Canada successfully solved the housing crises of the past, and that means building nonmarket housing.

In Canada, the rent is too damn high — and it’s shaking political parties and coalitions to their core. Roaring rents and prices are destroying lives, shattering dreams and scattering families across the country as young people and young families search for places they can afford to live.

Much of the public discussion on a solution has centred on land-use reform: altering zoning to allow denser housing construction.

Predictably, there is little to no movement on land-use reform from Canada’s right-wing leaders. Doug Ford’s Conservatives recently rejected a very modest proposal to legalize building fourplexes in Ontario. And Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, despite his talk, refuses to call Ford out — although he is now Canada’s most famous NIMBY.

It is the left that is looking to remove red tape to promote development, with David Eby’s government in B.C. arguably the nation’s leader.

Land use changes are absolutely necessary. But we should be clear: on their own, these changes can’t return Canadian housing to affordability — not any time soon.

To bring down rents substantially, homes that are newly legalized must actually be built — and at a sufficient speed and scale to bring prices down.

I’m an optimist. I won’t say that this is impossible. But as the inimitable Mike Moffatt has pointed out, given the scale of our housing shortage, this will take decades.

We cannot wait for the market to fix itself.

This is a moment that calls for bold thinking. But it is also a moment that calls for old thinking. Because to solve today’s crisis, we should look at how Canada successfully solved the housing crises of the past.

That means building nonmarket housing.

Nonmarket housing is a catch-all term that describes any type of housing that is not privately owned — co-ops, non-profit apartments or public housing. It is not just inhabited by those receiving social benefits, but by people at every income level.

It can be wonderful. I know: I lived in a nonmarket home for many years when starting out as a young professional and loved the gardening, events and community in my building.

And building more nonmarket housing is a political winner. According to recent polling conducted by the Broadbent Institute, 8 in 10 residents of the seat-rich GTA and Lower Mainland supported federal government action to build nonmarket housing, either exclusively or at the same time as allowing more private development.

It’s a political winner because it provides people at all income levels with relief. This is because there is simply no profit built into the system.

Nonmarket homes’ affordability can deepen as buildings age. A report by the Co-Operative Housing Federation of British Columbia found that over a 10-year period — from 2008 to 2019 — a co-op apartment in Ottawa that rented for $170 per month less in 2009 rented for $420 less in 2019.

The federal government used to build nonmarket housing directly. Following the end of the Second World War, the federal government built or funded hundreds of thousands of nonmarket homes.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, Conservative and Liberal governments pulled back. The result? Nonmarket housing — something familiar to our parents and grandparents — became a rarity. But social-democratic parties from B.C. to Ontario are leading the charge to bring it back, through public developers or grants of funding and land.

Nonmarket housing is not something that we should pursue instead of an increase in private sector construction. We can do both. It’s not either or. It’s yes, and.

Zoning prevents the construction of badly needed homes, market- and nonmarket alike. And new private homes still help to ease our brutal shortage.

But the private sector alone — even freed of zoning — can’t provide relief to Canadians crying out for help. It’s clear: to solve today’s challenges, we need to look to yesterday’s solutions.

We need to look to the postwar housing boom. We need the government to get back into building housing.

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