When it comes to election promises on housing, it’s the details that matter

Posted on August 30, 2021 in Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial

When it comes to housing, politicians do love to throw around big numbers. Canada’s housing supply and affordability crisis is so big, the thinking seems to go, that it’s best to lead with big-sounding solutions.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has promised to build “one million homes in just three years” to give all Canadians the chance “to live on a street with good neighbours.”

Not to be outdone, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau rushed out his housing plank last week, promising 1.4 million homes over four years “to make sure that people have better options.”

They’re targeting frustrated Canadians, especially younger and first-time buyers, who have watched the price of housing rise well beyond the reach of their incomes. But, as always, there’s some fine print involved.

The Conservatives’ “one million homes” promise is actually 142,000 homes, above and beyond what they expect to be produced without their new measures. Understandably, that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it out on the hustings.

By that same measure, the Liberal plan comes down to 100,000 new homes, 20,000 purpose-build rentals, and the important preservation of 130,000 social and community housing units that would otherwise be lost. (In terms of deeply affordable housing, that last one is the biggest commitment of them all.)

At first glance, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh look like he’s promising less — only 500,000 homes over a longer period of time — but, unlike the others, the party didn’t include what’s already expected to be built. If they had, they’d have the biggest claim of all.

Over the next three weeks, we can all expect issues of housing supply and affordability to figure prominently as federal leaders criss-cross the country looking for votes. But when it comes to housing, it’s what happens at the municipal level that matters most.

Where homes, condos and apartments are built and how quickly they go up is determined far more by thousands of mayors and councils than by the prime minister.

So, Canadians looking for real solutions on housing would be wise not to be distracted by the big claims or the buyer-friendly items the parties have put in the window: easier access to mortgages and insurance, extended mortgages, tax credits and incentives.

Making it easier for buyers to take on more debt doesn’t help with supply or reduce the high price of housing. It increases competition for a scarce resource and the risks of economic turmoil if the housing bubble bursts.

They also shouldn’t dwell too much on the headline-grabbing promises to crack down on foreign buyers, house flippers and money launderers. There’s little evidence these will have any significant impact on supply or affordability.

The pledges with a far greater chance of creating positive change are the ones that push municipalities to make better and faster planning decisions to increase housing supply, and target federal funding to create housing that’s affordable for lower earners — a niche the market will never fill.

In that vein, there’s the Liberals’ $4-billion housing accelerator fund, which is designed to help large cities speed up construction of middle-class homes and push urban lands held vacant by speculators into production for housing.

There is also the NDP’s dedicated fast-start fund, which aims to streamline applications and help communities get co-op, social and non-profit housing built quicker, and mobilize federal resources and lands for these projects.

The Conservative platform says municipalities receiving federal transit funding will be required to increase the density of nearby housing.

The details of these and other proposals matter, as do the money and level of political commitment behind them. So far, the NDP and Conservative plans are not costed.

Ottawa usually works through the provinces, but it’s welcome to see federal leaders contemplating a more direct relationship with cities. The housing market is a complex mix of income, supply and demand. There’s no one policy intervention to fix it all, and no single level of government can solve these problems on its own.

But federal policies that support, urge and outright prod municipalities to make better, faster and denser housing possible will have the most effect — especially if they’re backed with the courage to tell existing homeowners things they don’t want to hear. However, that’s about as rare as finding a sensibly priced house for sale in Toronto or Vancouver.

Federal politicians are as loathe as local councils to do much of anything that will upset existing homeowners, who do very well off the housing crisis they all claim they want to fix.

Federal campaigners will spend the next three weeks surfing on voters’ anxieties over the housing crisis.

When they come along touting their parties’ big promises to build housing and make it affordable for everyone, voters should ask for details about how they plan to work with municipalities to get the job done.


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