After nearly eight years in power, one thing has become abundantly clear about Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government: it can’t communicate to save its increasingly vulnerable political life. From the carbon tax to COVID-19, its otherwise good policies are consistently undermined by a total inability to explain them to Canadians. And for some reason, it seems determined to add its response to Canada’s housing crisis to this list.

Witness the op-ed published last week in the National Post under Minister of Housing Ahmed Hussen’s byline that almost seemed designed to irritate young people in Canada’s biggest cities. It began with the patronizing suggestion that housing “is not a political issue,” one that was undermined almost immediately by a lengthy political attack on Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre. But as Matt Lundy, an economics reporter for the Globe and Mail, noted on Twitter, “I assure you, we think it's political!”

Hussen went on to suggest that Poilievre’s criticism of municipal politicians and their role in choking off new sources of housing supply was unwarranted. “We see it differently,” he wrote. “We trust the mayors of Canada’s communities to do the right thing.” The problem is they have consistently done the wrong things on this file for as long as the Liberals have been in power — and, to be clear, even longer. But that doesn’t seem to register with Hussen.

Neither does the fact that by discouraging Canadians from criticizing local governments and their well-documented habit of slow-walking new development and catering to NIMBY concerns, he’s implicitly encouraging them to blame someone else. That someone, of course, could easily be his own government. After all, his op-ed talks about the creation of 500 new housing units in the City of Hamilton like it’s a real contribution to affordability rather than a tiny drop in Canada’s woefully empty housing bucket. As pro-density advocate and economist Mike Moffatt noted, when compared to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s projections, which show we need 5.8 million new homes over nine years to restore affordability, those 500 units amount to 0.0086 per cent of what’s required.

Yes, the Liberal government implemented a national housing strategy in 2018, an $82-billion plan to build more social housing and help first-time buyers get into the market. That’s more than the Harper Conservatives did while they were in office, and it marked a welcome return by the federal government to the table. But so far, it’s been insufficient to meet the growing challenge housing poses for so many people. It’s like trying to fight a house fire with a water gun — sure, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not doing much for the people in harm’s way.

That doesn’t seem to have gotten through to the Liberals. In his op-ed, Hussen wrote: “We are putting Canada on track to double housing construction over the next decade. And we are just getting started.” But after eight years in power, and with a housing market that is more treacherous and less affordable than ever, Canadians don’t want to hear that the government is “just getting started.”

Why am I making such a big deal out of a bad op-ed? In part, because Hussen’s piece managed the unusual feat of annoying his party’s allies more than it did its enemies, one that confirms my longstanding critique of this Liberal government’s biggest weakness. But it’s also because it betrays the sort of thinking on this file that’s happening around the cabinet table and within the inner circles of the Trudeau government. Those tables and circles, of course, all happen to be filled with people who own homes (in some cases, multiple homes) and aren’t nearly as exposed to the pain this issue is inflicting on so many.

Speaking of which, there’s a very telling line right at the beginning that might offer a window into what's going on there. “For hundreds of thousands of Canadians across the country, the most important issue right now is housing,” Hussen wrote. But he’s vastly underestimating both the scale of the problem and the number of people it’s affecting. It’s not “hundreds of thousands” of people who are affected by soaring rents, rising ownership costs and a growing mismatch between the number of people we’re bringing into Canada and the number of homes we’re building for them. It’s many millions, from young people who can’t get into the market to seniors who can’t find a way to downsize and parents who know their kids won’t be able to afford to live on their own any time soon. For all of these people, it is the most important issue they face — a genuinely existential threat to their future, their family or their prosperity.

So make no mistake: plenty of Canadians are more than happy to politicize this. If anything, they probably think it hasn’t been politicized nearly enough. The fact that younger voters in Canada’s big cities and suburbs are more open to Poilievre than they’ve been to a Conservative leader in decades should be a huge, flashing warning sign to the government. That support, after all, has nothing to do with his habit of posing with anti-LGBTQ bigots or non-existent climate policies, and it’s definitely not a product of his charm or charisma. It’s a reflection of the fact that he’s the only federal leader who seems to be taking this issue seriously. If the Trudeau Liberals don’t start doing the same, they’ll deserve to lose the next election.

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What a terrific opportunity for the NDP to distinguish themselves from the Liberals.

It doesn't help matters that industrial arts programs have been dropped in the school system with the idea that we need more computer savvy people to run the country. The ultimate goal of the education system seems to be to produce more teachers when in fact there shouldn't be this North American construct of a social hierarchy and rank related to one's chosen career. Right now we need the skilled trades but this has been discouraged by educators who aren't familiar with work. Yes we need more family physicians but society need plumbers, electricians and skilled trades. Why don't we see and treat them as equals?

If Poilievre has a genuine housing plan it's a mystery why it hasn't been published. He seems to be so well-fuelled by public support for his criticism of Trudeau that he is escaping scrutiny of his own lack of a viable policy on housing.

A Liberal change in leadership and a renewed policy framework could help. So could the NDP by defining in advance the specific policies they would support in another Liberal-led minority government.

Max Fawcett rightly touches on the role cities play in zoning for demographic growth, but two points come to mind. First, cities are creatures of the provinces, not the feds. The most effective tool the feds have is financial resources. Trading funding for transit and defined housing targets under a legally binding contractual agreement with municipalities spelling out specific zoning and urban design parameters would no doubt have a powerful effect on a number of files including affordable housing, climate adaptation and quality of life. If a particular premier objects then that leader could be asked how much s/he wants federal cash; urban projects funded by the feds could be designed to not be dependent on provincial funding participation.

Second, density and development are complicated subjects. Merely up zoning for "density" everywhere could result in terrible and inhumane urbanism and the continuance of car dependency. Urbanists like Jan Gehl and others have spent their lives analyzing and promoting urban design for humans. The feds could use high capacity urban and regional rail to stimulate the conversion of suburbs to real self-sufficient and compact towns filled with walkable neighbourhoods, contained by thousands of hectares of protected food-producing land.

So far all we have is tinkering on the ground while all the energy goes into solution-free political posturing and empty rhetoric over the airwaves. We don't need cowardly Housing Lite. We need bold action now more than ever.

As it has been said before neither the Provincial or the Federal Governments want to become landlords.
Assisted housing plans are for municipal leaders and councils to govern.
But aside from Habitat for Humanity and a few others no one want to take it on. It is easiest to leave it to builders that manage tenants on a regular basis, but that has turned in to lets load the market with Condos!

Housing is such a multidimensional issue it is hard to both describe the problems and propose viable solutions when we have not even defined or accounted for all the variables. Yes, all three levels of government have woefully failed with this portfolio. Yes, municipal planning, is one barrier the other two levels like to blame, but those levels don't have to deal with the 24/7365 aggravations of direct community input, manipulative developers, corporate profiteering, responsibility downloading from provinces and feds with little or no commensurate fiscal support.

Municipalities have so little control over big infrastructure issues , not just housing but roads, utilities, public safety, education, health care..... Municipalities are always the beggars fighting over the scraps from the Federal and Provincial feasts.

Where is the three level coordination about industrial policies, about land allocation, about land preservation and conservation? If there is any we don't get to hear about it and most likely it is nominally invoked when big, life changing decisions are being made in legislative chambers and then finally municipalities, indigenous reserves, territories, etc. are finally brought in for their "prior, informed, consent".

I wonder if Mayors and municipal councillors ever get tired of being treated like toddlers throwing tantrums?

And finally, I'm not sure public social housing will solve the affordability crisis as long as the asset stripping hedge fund raiders are allowed to operate without let or hindrance to create housing bubbles, renoviction crises, and other assorted real estate scams and frauds.
I am also nervous about the activists calling housing a human right. In our profit driven economy, a human right is an object of scofflaw scorn. Lack of shelter is just another of the tragedies of the commons.

I agree with a fair amount of what you say, although I do think part of the problem is less complicated than it seems. It's no accident that the federal government stopped building affordable social housing, and then over time we stopped having enough of it. So, like, if they build a bunch it will help a lot, and if anyone who squeals "But it should be left to the free market!" is put in stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables, that would be good too. Yes, there are other interventions needed, but just building the homes would be a dashed good start.

I really wish people would stop saying "tragedy of the commons". First, there is no such thing. Garret Hardin who coined the term was fundamentally wrong because he didn't understand how real commonses worked. Second, he was wrong with an agenda--he was backing private property regimes against common property seen as quasi-socialist, and ever since, the term "tragedy of the commons" has been an economically right wing catchphrase. Third, most of the things people apply the term to nowadays are in fact "free" market arrangements, not commonses, of which there are hardly any nowadays (and those that exist are not tragic so nobody says that about them). Fourth, so that means progressives who use the term are undermining themselves, letting markets and right wing economics off the hook and proliferating a meme fundamentally hostile to their own outlook.

The term "social housing" is too limited in Canada. More times than not it pertains to subsidized housing projects managed by a central agency, and glosses over self-managed cooperatives (publicly financed projects with income subsidies) and cohousing (private investors investing in their own housing on a non-profit basis). "Social housing" today also carries the taint of big ghettoized public housing slab blocks from 50 years ago.

Vienna has had over 80 years of experience in this realm and carries the distinction of having over 60% of all housing in the form of publicly-owned rentals. Subsidized and non-subsidized, housing for special needs and average citizens, the full range is present. All nine states and the federal government of Austria are full participants in funding public housing for a range of incomes.

Canada can learn from places like Austria. One advantageous model would focus on a non-profit, break even form of financing where the city donates the land and both senior governments fund the construction with rents set to inflation after capital and debt servicing costs (sans land costs), maintenance, depreciation and replacement reserve contributions are calculated. (No profit margins and rent scales set to inflation only but with a floor and a ceiling.) Removing land costs and profit motives from the rents will make a big difference in places like Vancouver and Toronto. Energy efficient design will keep operating costs lower over the lifespan of the buildings.

Subsidized units could be applied to a portion of some projects while subsidized incomes and housing for special needs could be applied to another 20%-30% across the board. Locating every project near transit and within walking distance of shops and offices will also help with affordability by keeping family budgets away from onerous car expenses and long commutes common in suburbia, two facts of life not usually accounted for when people move to the 'burbs for "cheaper" housing.

Diversity in housing along with planning and urban design measures are key considerations when we talk about affordable housing.
In this now-revived port strike the workers are referring to excessive profits, especially during the pandemic, as are the grocery workers again I hear, in a news piece this morning about Unifor; might this be a bellwether for the systemic change needed?
This is extremely tricky for the Liberals as governance increasingly IS these days of end-stage capitalism, especially with a majority of conservative premiers applying constant neoliberal pressure, but the Liberals fortified by the NDP are our last bastion of FAIRNESS, which conservatives are proudly, utterly devoid of.
Max, you and your generation's extreme frustration on this is wholly understandable, so much right now is absolutely unsustainable, but the Convoy Party of Canada who defended insurrection AND has NO climate plan any more than they have a housing plan totally cancels them out.