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In the battle of the housing plans, Ontario’s is better than Poilievre’s

Either leader can find better ideas by looking at what Ontario is already doing — minus the part about the Greenbelt

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Tackling Ontario’s housing crisis has turned into a nightmare for Premier Doug Ford. His government has brought in extensive and intelligent reforms to the planning process and is working aggressively to tackle the construction trades shortage. And yet, his politically ill-advised foray into Greenbelt land development has overshadowed all of that, costing Ford both political credibility and the housing minister who was driving the reforms.

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That leaves the Ford government in a poor position to defend the province against a new threat, bumbling federal political leaders promising to fix the housing shortage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is merely inept, but Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s new housing plan is misguided and could undercut the progress Ontario is making.

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Trudeau is the lesser threat. He has removed sales tax from new apartment buildings, something the Ford government was calling for last year. Not that Ford was the first to suggest it. Trudeau promised the tax removal in 2015, but only just now thought to get around to it. Trudeau promised a $4-billion “housing accelerator fund” in 2021. This month, the fund finally approved its first project. If that’s the accelerator, what does the brake look like?

The Conservative leader thinks he can do better, and Trudeau has certainly left him plenty of opportunity. Unfortunately, Poilievre’s plan is simplistic and off-base.

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He aims to punish cities for housing shortfalls that are beyond their control. Poilievre would compel “big unaffordable cities,” to increase the number of homes they build by 15 per cent each year. If they fail to do so, they will lose federal funds equivalent to the percentage shortfall. Whatever these cities fail to produce in the first year would be added to the next year’s total, making the target even more unattainable. Those that exceed the target will get a bonus.

It’s a plan that’s easy to understand, but there are obvious problems. First, cities don’t build houses, the private sector does. Poilievre’s plan is completely divorced from both industry capacity and buyer demand. And that’s not all: a house or apartment only gets built when there is a buyer who can afford the mortgage and a developer who can make a profit. Cities don’t control that. Neither do they control two other critical factors, the supply of construction labour and the cost of materials.

When Poilievre talks about penalizing cities for failing to meet his targets, he’s really talking about penalizing people who pay property taxes, leaving cities even less able to meet demands for service.

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By contrast, Ontario has tackled a long list of things that really matter. It has set an ambitious target of building 1.5 million homes over 10 years. Cities will not be punished for failing to meet the target. Instead, there are penalties for municipalities that don’t meet approval deadlines, something cities do have control over. The Ford government has also created a $1.2-billion fund to reward cities that meet their housing targets.

Housing development
A new housing development is constructed just outside the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, part of Ontario’s Greenbelt, on May 15. Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario has made it easier to build, allowing three units on a single-family lot without special zoning permission. It changed the Planning Act to establish minimum densities near transit stations. Poilievre would withhold federal infrastructure and transit money from cities until such housing is built and occupied, another thing beyond cities’ control.

Ontario has also reduced fees for building affordable and non-profit housing. The province has tackled the construction labour shortage by boosting he number of people taking trades training and eliminating barriers to out-of-province workers.

These are all real actions, already taken, and they’d make a fine template for a national Conservative housing plan. Sadly, the federal and provincial Conservative parties don’t work closely together.

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Ford, Trudeau and Poilievre are all focused on expanding housing supply, ignoring the delicate issue of immigration-driven demand. In a report this month, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) offered some insight into the connection between immigration and housing demand. The CMHC said that Canada needs 3,500,000 additional housing units by 2030 to restore affordability. That’s on top of what would be produced by current rates of production. That number is based on the premise that immigration will decline after the current federal immigration program is scheduled to end 2025. If immigration keeps going at an aggressive pace after that, Canada will need 4,000,000 extra houses to meet demand.

The federal parties have the power to reduce future housing demand by 500,000 units simply by returning immigration to more manageable numbers. Instead, Trudeau pretends taking taxes off rental apartment buildings is a big deal and Poilievre’s solution is to attack the “gatekeepers,” the municipal politicians and bureaucrats who plan and approve housing.

Either leader can find better ideas by looking at what Ontario is already doing — minus the part about the Greenbelt.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa journalist and author. Contact him at [email protected]

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