Why Daniel Blaikie is right — and wrong — about housing policy in Canada
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Now, on to this week’s column.
Daniel Blaikie, NDP MP for Elmwood-Transcona and son of former NDP stalwart Bill Blaikie, has become something of an online celebrity in recent weeks. In a House of Commons speech that went viral, he lashed out at Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre’s housing message, one that predictably lays all the blame for Canada’s dangerously overheated market at the feet of the Trudeau Liberals. Instead, he argued, much of the pain felt by renters, immigrants and young Canadians is the result of the failure — one shared by both Conservative and Liberal governments — to build affordable government housing the way we did in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Housing prices in Canada have been doubling for a long time,” Blaikie said. “They doubled every few years under the last Harper Conservative government. So don’t tell me that this is a product just of the last little while. It’s a problem, and it’s a growing problem. But it’s been growing for a long time.”
He’s right. The failure of government to build affordable housing isn’t the only reason why house prices in this country have shot through the roof over the last two decades. Interest rates that only seemed to keep going down and immigration levels that boosted demand for housing were also key drivers. But the decision by the Chrétien Liberals to get out of the business of government housing, and the refusal of the Harper Conservatives to get back into it, has resulted in an approximately 500,000-unit shortfall of affordable housing. As Blaikie noted, if you multiply the 15,000 to 20,000 units the federal government used to build every year by the 25 years that have passed since the Chrétien government cut funding for them, that adds up to … well, approximately 500,000 units.
Building more affordable housing is a key part of any strategy to bring some sort of sanity back to our housing markets, and it’s one a Poilievre government would almost certainly avoid. Another key part is more market-oriented housing, which the NDP and people like Blaikie sound far less unenthusiastic about. But the beating heart of any successful housing strategy in this country involves going after the biggest enemy in all this: our own behaviour.
As cartoonist Walt Kelly famously observed in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So it is for housing in Canada, where politicians on both sides of the House of Commons talk a good game about affordability and opportunity and then fall over themselves to prop up the existing system — and pour rocket fuel into its engines as required. The Harper Conservatives did this when they laid the groundwork in their 2006 budget for the spread of zero-down, 40-year mortgages — the same volatile financial cocktail that nearly blew up the U.S. banking system a few years later. The Trudeau Liberals have done it through new tax incentives for homebuyers and shared equity programs backstopped by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, including a new tax-free savings account for first-time buyers. And make no mistake: if the federal NDP was ever to form government, they’d probably do it, too.
But all of these demand-side supports are simply adding fuel to a raging fire, one that’s already singed the lives of millions of young and new Canadians. We’re even worse when it comes to the supply side of the picture. Witness the outbursts of NIMBYism that inevitably greet any attempt to add density in established neighbourhoods, regardless of its merits or the impact it might have on affordability. The latest ludicrous outburst occurred in Stouffville, Ont., where a proposed townhouse development — townhouses! — along the community’s Main Street was met with the usual complaints from existing residents. They even posed for the stereotypical “older homeowners with arms crossed” photo, either because they are unaware of the trope they’re perpetuating or because they simply don‘t care.
There’s been some progress on this front in places like Vancouver and Toronto, where the politics have become so glaringly obvious that even the most tone-deaf elected official can read the room. But even there, it’s been the result of hundreds — or heck, maybe thousands — of small battles, each one exacting its own toll and taking its own extra time. The truth of the matter, when it comes right down to it, is that most homeowners don’t want housing to be more affordable if it means the value of our property has to go down in the process, or that more people are going to move into our neighborhood. And that, of course, is exactly what has to happen.
Don’t even get me started about the idea of taxing some portion of the capital gains in our homes, a policy that would help take some speculative activity out of the market and reduce upward pressure on prices. As Generation Squeeze has written repeatedly (and backstopped with public opinion research), there’s a good case for taxing homes worth more than a million dollars, and doing it in a way that protects seniors or other existing homeowners who didn’t do anything other than be in the right place for a long time. But unless younger voters coalesce around this issue in a way that’s never happened before, it’s a case that leaders from our major political parties will never make.
The real problem, in other words, is us. It’s tempting to think we can solve the housing crisis by doing things that only affect other people or electing a government that will push some magic button in its midst. But until we confront our own attitudes, biases and behaviour here, we’re never going to do more than just tinker at the edges. And maybe, just maybe, that’s how a lot of people would prefer it.
Trudeau versus the Trudeau Foundation
As a general rule, I enjoy being right about things — probably a little too much, as I’ve come to learn over my 43 years on this planet. But when it comes to the recent news about the Trudeau Foundation, whose CEO and entire board resigned on Tuesday in the wake of revelations about a major donation from a Chinese national and the ensuing politicization of their work, I’m not exactly thrilled about it.
As I wrote in a column last month, the choice of David Johnston as a “special rapporteur” on potential foreign interference in our elections came with some very big risks for the prime minister. “By drawing even more attention to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (and the money it accepted and subsequently returned from a Chinese billionaire), he risks permanently politicizing its work and undermining its reputation.”
As it turns out, that took less than a month. The Trudeau Foundation is probably permanently wounded here, and maybe even fatally. That’s a shame, given the good it’s done for Canada and Canadians over the years. As entrepreneur and journalist Miro Cernetig noted in a tweet, his experience as a volunteer adjudicator on its scholarship committee left him highly impressed with its work. “This is an important foundation that has funded great scholars with one of the best scholarships out there.”
Cernetig thinks the Trudeau Foundation will live on. Me? I’m not so sure. Either way, we should probably all reflect on the collateral damage that’s been done here and whether it was necessary in the first place.
As if one shoutout wasn’t enough, I want to give Generation Squeeze’s Paul Kershaw another nod for his recent column in the Globe and Mail. It dovetails with the one I wrote a little while ago on the federal budget and its impact on young people but adds some detail and nuance I hadn’t considered. “The biggest increase in new spending is for Old Age Security (OAS), which will grow by $85.6 billion between now and 2027,” he wrote. “The budget also adds $49.3 billion in new money for medical care — half of which ($24.5 billion) — will go to the 20 per cent of Canadians over 65, according to national data about how medical spending is consumed by age. This adds $110 billion in spending for retirees — equal to 84 per cent of the projected deficit.”
This is another conversation we’ve yet to truly have in our country: the ongoing intergenerational transfer of wealth from younger people to older ones, and the injustice that’s inherent in that. But I’ll save that rant for another day.
The other piece that caught my eye recently was from Evan Scrimshaw, who took a look at the new data from Janet Brown (the best pollster in Alberta, bar none) and what it means for the Notley NDP’s prospects in the May election. As usual, his analysis was unsparing:
“This poll makes clear what the NDP have to do — they have to paint the UCP not just as dangerous ideologues, but as economic idiots. They need to take a message that the UCP is led by a crazy person and expand it to they’re not to be trusted on the economy. That the safe pair of hands, Finance Minister Travis Toews, is retiring helps this argument, and allows the NDP to take a specific weakness and make it a broader narrative about Take Back Alberta, Danielle Smith, and the UCP at large.”
Good news: if you like Scrimshaw’s take, you’ll love my recent Maxed Out episode with Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley. In it, I ask her about the Alberta NDP’s plans for Calgary, its economic message and what she makes of some of Danielle Smith’s recent decisions. If you haven’t listened already, I’d encourage you to check it out — and, as always, leave a comment or rating on Apple if you’re so inclined.
My latest column was about Jagmeet Singh’s reaction to the news about Loblaws CEO Galen Weston Jr.’s raise and why it speaks to an underlying weakness in his own leadership. As I’ve said many times, I’d surrender my very modest kingdom for a federal NDP leader with true economic literacy and the ability to demonstrate it effectively.
No particularly fun or funny letters this week, although I had one listener suggest “Counterpoint” or “On Point” for the new closing segment of the podcast. I’m currently inclined towards “The Closer,” but it’s still a work in progress.
That’s all for this week. Until Elon breaks the bird app, you know where to find me: