With his party down as much as 10 points in the polls and his big cabinet shuffle looking like a damp squib, Justin Trudeau didn’t step to the podium in Hamilton on Monday trying to hand his political opponents a gift. But when he told reporters: “I’ll be blunt ... housing isn’t a primary federal responsibility,” that’s exactly what he ended up doing.

It was yet another sign that his government still doesn’t get it on the housing file and that it will almost certainly lose the next election if that doesn’t change soon.

In fairness to the prime minister, he was technically correct in his remarks. Unlike national defence or the postal service, the housing market and its growing list of woes do not fall solely or even primarily to the federal government. But when a growing number of Canadians are watching their futures get trampled to death by soaring housing costs, pointing out how the division of powers works in Canadian federalism isn’t likely to be well received. That’s especially true when the leader of the Opposition and his social media team can contrast the prime minister’s statement with his previous words on the subject.

The significant role that previous federal governments played in delivering housing — including, ironically, the one led by his own father — doesn’t help his argument here, either.

“During the ‘stagflation’ squeeze and oil shocks of the early 1970s, the minority Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau (backed by the NDP) legislated the National Housing Act — which spurred the formation of housing co-ops and provided grants to restore old homes and build social housing,” the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ben Isitt wrote back in 2009. “Nearly 1,000,000 low-income Canadians were housed through an array of federal and provincial programs during these innovative years.”

There’s a second truth embedded in Trudeau’s comment, one that’s much more significant than the technicality around the division of powers and responsibilities. If housing isn’t a “primary federal responsibility,” that’s at least in part because his own government refuses to treat it as one. If it could move mountains during the COVID-19 pandemic, why can’t it be bothered to nudge more than the most modest molehills when it comes to housing? When young Canadians are practically begging for a shock-and-awe strategy, why are the Trudeau Liberals giving them shrug-and-blah instead?

That approach was personified by the recent announcement in Hamilton, one that will deliver a grand total of 214 new units of housing. Yes, every little bit helps right now, but when the prime minister is personally announcing such tiny drops in the proverbial bucket, it makes you wonder if the Liberals have any intention of filling it — or if they even know how.

The Conservatives don’t have a quick fix for the housing crisis, of course, and that’s in part because there are no quick fixes here. But at least they’ve figured out how to show they care about it. “We will fight tooth and nail against big cities that say no to more housing,” Conservative housing critic Scott Aitchison tweeted. “And yes, it is a fight for more housing. The gatekeepers and special interests will do everything they can to stop Pierre Poilievre and I. But it is a fight worth having.”

He’s right. As the Globe and Mail’s editorial board noted in a recent piece, the backlog is still at the civic level, where governments continue to slow-roll the sort of major changes that are required. In cities like Vancouver and Victoria, councils have made superficial improvements to their zoning laws that were kneecapped (deliberately, one suspects) by the additional regulations and requirements they imposed. “The housing market is tilted against new buyers and renters,” they wrote, “with existing and new supply running well below demand. This is the root cause of Canada’s housing supply squeeze and blame can be pinned on local politicians who oversee rules that allow — and mostly disallow — new housing.”

Housing may not be the federal government's primary responsibility, as Justin Trudeau said on Monday. But if he wants his Liberals to get re-elected in 2025, it needs to become his party's primary focus — and fast. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver

If Trudeau’s government doesn’t find a way to join this fight, housing-sensitive voters — and especially younger ones — have every reason to give Poilievre’s Conservatives a trial run. Sure, some of them would probably rather continue voting Liberal, while others might find Poilievre’s digital theatrics and populist politicking off-putting in the extreme. But desperate times call for desperate measures and for some reason, the Trudeau Liberals still don’t seem to realize that.

Getting rid of the minister who wrote an op-ed defending said municipal leaders and their role in the housing crisis is a start, but that’s more of a parry than a punch. Trudeau will have to start throwing some real haymakers if he wants to prevent the same young voters who put him in office in 2015 from booting him out in 2025.

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Max,

There is a historical Canadian solution to our housing shortage and if we borrowed from this method we may also enjoy additional benefits such as apprenticeship placements or lessons in managing our expectations.

I am referring to Crown Corporation “the War Time Housing Ltd”.

How is it that Canada built over 40,000 homes under this program with many walk-up apartment complexes in such short
order without many of the modern power tools; houses erected in 36 hours, a window installed every 14 minutes….
We have the land, we have the need, the designs can be updated we need the will to at least attempt to resolve this crisis. Housing will cost us one way or another.

The NFB documented the concept in the short film (video for those under 60).
Who wouldn’t want an affordable home, (under 1,000 SqFt,) that we can own? The McMansions aren’t a solution.

https://www.nfb.ca/film/wartime_housing/

Excellent point and idea!

Great comment. I have several wartime uncles who served and lived in wartime housing with their families until retirement. The houses were small, but were well built. Skinny board tongue & groove hardwood maple and oak floors were common. Many of these federal housing projects on the military bases were later sold to developers. Currie Barracks in Calgary and the Jericho Lands in Vancouver come to mind, and in both cases local first nations were invited to be full partners in the developments.

There is also the federal cooperative housing program which was unique in the world. I lived in three co-ops over 18 years and, though the model was flawed and requires improvements and tighter regulations on income testing and managing suites of different sizes matched to family sizes, it was very successful in supplying stable, affordable rental stock.

Not explored yet is building non-profit rentals en masse as a counterbalance to an unstable market and housing shortage. The government will recover its investment over time, so it's not a giveaway as some conservatives will no doubt call it. Cities can participate by donating land.

What I don't understand is why business "encouragements" and government-mandated housing initiatives aren't being directed toward smaller cities.

Since the destabilizing pandemic where our generous federal government kept so many afloat with so little recognition (quite the contrary thanks to the nasty, algorithm-enabled Convoy Party of Canada) I have the impression that Trudeau and Freeland are now reasonably pulling rank on the jurisdictional stuff, not only as a restorative reminder of how our system works, but also to maintain fiscal responsibility.
If the fact that the majority of their provincial counterparts are Convoy-Party-adjacent also makes it look rather like "putting them in their place" well so be it. Someone has to maintain the important bedrock institutions that guide us because the conservatives have shown that, shockingly, they in fact ARE irresponsible enough to actually throw out the baby with the bathwater, the baby being our precious democracy. Who knew this could even happen, and so easily, but as the Republican gong show continues to unfold as we speak Canadians have NO excuse whatsoever for even CONSIDERING conservatives federally. Period.
In keeping with the irrational, stoked hatred toward the Liberals and Trudeau in particular, it's also unfair to call the cabinet shuffle that happened LAST WEEK a damp squib.

Bedrock institutions are much more valuable to our survival than we give credit to. Yes. If maintaining power is the only thing we must do no matter what the trickle down effect would be. The entertainment of torturing those who have the least power?

We should help build or borrow to build social housing. Capitalist indifference soon becomes punishment when we turn away from acknowledging the suffering. Media that focuses on profit more than reality, helped a narcissist get elected to the south of us. Women and children pay the price.

Once again I have to claim to be old enough to recall the post war housing boom in both the US and in Canada. My husbands family lived in that housing from the early '40's right up to the time his father retired from the Chalk River Nuclear facility. They only bought their last house about 10 years before he retired. Otherwise, for all those years they effectively rented; rent stabilized by the Federal government. You can still find those housing tracts scattered across the nation, by now much altered by their successive owners. I hate to think what some of them would cost now. For all the haste in their construction they have obviously survived because of their simplicity and sturdiness.

Nobody needs McMansions. They are the results of the greed and glory guys who now run the development scams across Canada. "Do you want to upsize this sir"? When I look at the books selling plans for houses they are mostly replicas of McMansions so even if you wanted to build your own, your choices for simplicity are few and far between. And - you don't have the quantity price discount advantage developers have when it comes to ordering the essential materials.

Which brings me to the suggestion that the Federal Government could enact, without spending much or any taxpayer money. PRICE CONTROLS! It would also be an opportunity to experiment with new building technologies that meet "Green" standards, and apply innovations like zone geothermal heating/cooling. If developers would contract to build affordable houses, using the latest best technology for low emission building then the Federal government could twist arms among the materials suppliers to reduce/hold the costs of materials to pre-pandemic price gouging levels and could enforce compliance from developers/contractors by withholding permits or rebates to those who cheat on the quality/compliance.

It is high time that the Federal government leaned on the construction industry to do something useful to create more resilient, sustainable housing - whether it be single family or multifamily dwellings, and time they created new build standards - like accessibility requirements or options that do not jack up prices astronomically. Housing needs to be sited appropriately to avoid flooding, to be sheltered from storms, to be protected against wildfires.

Really - we need some imagination, some clever engineering, some acts of will to reform our outdated and unsustainable housing industry and standards. This is not a burden - it is an opportunity to build survivability into our dwellings against the natural disasters, the crises, the shortages likely to afflict us in the future.

We need to prepare for grid failures, to localize essential resources like water, waste treatment, - we need to construct communities that can rely on their own local resources in the "small is beautiful" model.

Much of the suburban sprawl we've built will become uninhabitable in due course owing to a variety of changes bearing down on us.

If humanity is to survive we have to adapt!