Housing – its exorbitant cost and short supply – has become a major political issue in Canada.
The average single family house price in this country, as of March 2022, was well over $850,000. That’s a 25 per cent increase in a one-year period.
Rents for basic one-bedroom apartments are over $2,000 per month in Vancouver and Toronto, and average over $1,500 per month across the country. To make matters worse, rental accommodations, especially those suitable for families, are in extremely short supply almost everywhere in Canada.
In its most recent budget, the federal Liberal government announced some measures to deal with housing, mostly through increasing supply.
Trudeau government actions include an accelerator fund of $4 billion over five years to assist municipalities with their planning and regulatory processes, a plan to stimulate rental construction by converting some repayable government loans to builders to non-repayable ones, and, almost as an afterthought, a modest amount of direct cash support to those in dire straits when it comes to a place to live.
That cash would come in the form of a one-time payment of $500 to individuals and families facing housing need. The budget offers no details as to how this would work. It promises those details sometime in the future.
Activists and advocates are happy the federal government is back in the housing game, but criticize the budget’s almost exclusive focus on supply. They recognize the Liberals’ good intentions, but worry their approach is too private sector and corporate focused.
Ford favours more suburbs; Horwath wants human-scale development
Whatever the federal government’s intentions, however, housing remains primarily a provincial responsibility.
As we get to election day on June 2 in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario’s provincial political parties are rolling out their housing proposals.
At the end of March, Doug Ford’s Conservative government put out its plan, which has a heavy focus on streamlining the regulatory and approval process for new development, by reducing red tape.
It is a plan which will encourage suburban sprawl and which takes little note of environmental considerations.
Ford has made the previous Liberal government’s foreign buyers’ (non-resident speculation) tax province-wide – it had been limited to Toronto and the densely-populated Golden Horseshoe on the western end of Lake Ontario – and has increased that tax from 15 to 20 per cent.
Ford’s plan however, has no other measures to curb price inflation fueled by speculation. Nor does the Ford plan address the growing corporate take-over of the rental housing sector, what economists call the financialization of housing. The Conservative government has not put forward any measures to protect tenants, aside from its intention to speed up the work of Ontario’s Landlord and Tenants’ Board.
Ontario New Democratic leader Andrea Horwath criticized the Ford plan for its failure to offer real help to those most in need of housing.
Now, as part of her party’s newly-unveiled election platform, Horwath has given us her plan.
There are, as yet, few precise details, but the NDP’s approach is more people-and-environment and less corporate focused than that of the Conservatives.
To start with, New Democrats emphasize development within existing urban boundaries, as opposed to endless suburban sprawl. To achieve that, they would align growth with increased investment in public transit.
They would also update zoning rules to encourage the middle ground of housing – between single family homes, culprits for so much sprawl, and massive high rise apartment buildings. That middle ground includes duplexes, triplexes and townhomes.
Quebec has historically favoured that kind of housing, to great advantage. The urban landscape of Montreal and other Quebec cities is marked by block after block of duplexes and triplexes, in densely populated but human-scale and family-friendly neighourhoods.
When this writer moved to Toronto in the 1970s, he had never lived in a free-standing house. He had always lived in small apartment buildings or flats (in duplexes). When he tried to find a duplex-flat to rent for his young family in the Queen city, he was surprised there were none. The family ended up in an apartment building in suburban Scarborough.
Measures to control prices and rents
Ontario New Democrats would control price inflation in housing through an annual speculation and vacancy tax on residential property, modeled on B.C.’s. A two per cent tax, over and above the existing tax that applies exclusively to non-residents, would “apply to all speculators who own houses they don’t live in”.
An important initiative for renters, who often feel neglected by homeowner and landlord friendly Ontario governments, would be New Democrats’ plan to “bring back real rent control for all apartments.” The NDP would introduce a pay-what-the-previous-tenant-paid rule “eliminating the financial incentive for landlords to squeeze out tenants to raise the rent.”
As well, the NDP proposes a major program for those who experience housing insecurity but cannot get into scarce social housing, a “portable housing benefit.” This benefit would help low-income Ontarians maintain their housing costs at no more than the recommended 30 per cent of their income.
The NDP calculates there are 311,000 households in Ontario which pay rent far in excess of their ability to pay. High rents force those folks to skimp on other necessities of life, such as food and medical expenses.
The housing chapter is only a small part of the NDP platform, which includes pledges to set up Canada’s first dental care and pharma-care programs, in collaboration with the federal government.
New Democrats also propose raising the incomes of childcare workers, an end to privatization of the electric grid, expanding universal public health insurance to include mental health therapists and counsellors, elimination of the salary cap for health care workers, and increasing Ontario’s minimum wage to $20 per hour.
In addition, an Ontario NDP government would institute 10 days of paid personal emergency leave for all workers and create a new Ontario Benefits program for all casual, part-time, freelance contact and gig workers. These benefits would “follow the person, not the job.”
The 2022 Ontario NDP platform is far more thorough and comprehensive than recent federal NDP platforms.
If the coming campaign focuses on tangible plans and real issues – rather than the superficial ephemera that too often dominates our politics -this document should stand the New Democrats and their leader in good stead.
Having said that, New Democrats would be well advised to further develop their housing proposals.
In the years to come, housing seems destined to become the biggest political issue in Canada, both federally and provincially. At few times in this country’s history has the challenge of finding a reasonable place to live been so daunting for so many. There is a need for helpful solutions, other than dropping all regulations and zoning requirements and allowing our already too extensive urban sprawl to grow and multiply like an uninvited virus.