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Canada revives a war-time housing program amid crunch

The federal government is dusting off a Second World War-era housing plan to ignite the pace of home construction in Canada.

Housing Minister Sean Fraser on Tuesday confirmed Global News’ report from Monday that the minority Liberals were taking the nearly 80-year-old program off the shelf and revamping it.

The program, which was run by what was at the time known as Wartime Housing Ltd., provided standardized housing blueprints to builders.

“In many instances, these homes were being built in a period of about 36 hours, and we intend to take these lessons from our history books and bring them into the 21st century,” Fraser told reporters in Ottawa.

“We are going to be moving forward with a catalogue of pre-approved designs at the federal level.”

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Click to play video: 'Feds to revive ‘wartime housing’ standardized blueprints to speed up builds'

Feds to revive ‘wartime housing’ standardized blueprints to speed up builds

Fraser added the government will begin consultations on the matter in January, with the goal to have them available for developers next fall.

The program from Wartime Housing and its successor, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), saw hundreds of thousands of homes built from thousands of pre-approved plans between the 1940s and the late 1970s.

Many of these homes, dubbed “strawberry box” houses or “victory homes,” were built for returning Second World War veterans, and are still standing in many Canadian neighbourhoods.

CMHC and Ottawa eventually shifted away from the policy, focusing on affordability given the tough economic conditions in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“Strawberry box” houses or “victory homes,” were built for returning Second World War veterans, and are still standing in many Canadian neighborhoods. On Tuesday, the federal government said it was reviving the policy.

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Fraser’s vision for the modern revamp will include various styles of homes.

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“I will be looking for pre-approved designs for multiplexes, for mid-rise buildings, for student housing, for seniors, residences and other small-to-medium scale residential properties,” he said.

“This will include garden suites and laneway homes and different kinds of houses that will solve the challenges that our communities are facing today.”

Homebuilders, of course, can continue to build projects that won’t be included in the pre-approved designs, Fraser added, but he said that process will include several efficiencies.

“The catalogue of pre-approved designs, is going to be tied to existing building codes — the National Building Code, which we will seek to make changes to in the future — but will also be designed to mirror the requirements of provincial building codes that are implemented across the country,” he said.

“We’re going to ensure that the pre-approved designs meet the standards to access CMHC programs so we can reduce the administrative barriers on applicants who are seeking to go through the process.”

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Mike Moffatt, senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute, believes pre-approved housing plans could cut down construction timelines by as much as 12 months. Moffatt proposed the idea directly to the federal cabinet during meetings in Charlottetown this summer.

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The potential for quicker build times has companies like Calgary-based 720 Modular excited for the program.

“Currently how we build, every building is a snowflake,” 720 Modular project manager Craig Mitchell told Global News on Monday.

“If we can move to a standardized framework, all of a sudden now we have a fighting chance to accelerate housing pace because we’re not having to redesign every time we go and build a building.”

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Standardized plans particularly benefit companies like Mitchell’s, who build their homes inside a warehouse, and then deliver them in shipping container-sized portions to the location of the home.

That process is known as modular or prefabricated building, which Mitchell describes as faster, cheaper and greener than traditional building techniques.

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“If the internal guts of the building itself structurally and the layouts are all similar, now we can really move forward and start industrializing construction, by moving some of that work offsite, for example,” he said.

Moffatt believes that builders using standardized designs should lead to more favourable terms from lenders and insurance companies.

“Imagine if you wanted car insurance and you were trying to go to your insurer on a type of car that they had never seen before, that you’d put together yourself,” he said.

“They would have a lot of trouble pricing that insurance.”

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Canada’s housing crisis has been fuelled by a surge in demand and a lack of inventory for years, leading to inflated prices in many markets.

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The minority Liberals have recently been touting the Housing Accelerator Fund, a program designed to entice cities to submit applications for federal funding tied to zoning changes.

They promised the $4-billion fund during the 2021 election campaign. The money was allocated to CMHC in the 2022 federal budget, with the goal of adding at least 100,000 new homes across the country over five years.

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However, the first deal wasn’t announced until September, with London, Ont., being the recipient. Other Ontario cities, Brampton, London, Vaughan and Hamilton, as well as Halifax and Kelowna, have all signed agreements with the federal government.

Tuesday’s announcement is part of the government’s overall housing strategy, Fraser said.

“This particular piece touches on several pillars of that plan, including the development of an industrial strategy. What you’re going to see is an alignment of the municipal approval process with CMHC access with these pre-approved designs that will mirror, for example, the as-of-right zoning for fourplexes in big cities across Canada, which we’re incentivizing through the Housing Accelerator Fund,” he said.

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“We’re essentially trying to unclog the pipeline at every step of the way to create a much faster construction process using cost efficient, and labour efficient and energy-efficient designs that are going to allow us to build the kinds of homes that will solve the housing crisis more quickly and more cheaply without comprising on quality.”

Click to play video: 'Dueling federal housing incentives'

Dueling federal housing incentives

It’s unclear where the provincial and municipal governments stand on the policy revamp given the role they play in housing construction, but Fraser added it would be in their “self-interest” for all parties to work together.

“There will be no requirement that provinces take part in our approvals should they move forward with their own … but by virtue of participating in this process … you’re going to significantly decrease the time for home building,” he said.

“I sense that all levels of government will come to understand it’s in their self-interest to embrace the concept of pre-approved designs, and if we can collaborate with our provincial partners and our municipal partners, we’re going to dramatically accelerate the pace of home building in this country.”

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— with files from Global News’ Mackenzie Gray