The dust has just settled around Canada’s federal election. If you have been following the election campaign, you know that all the contesting parties campaigned about tackling Canada’s housing crisis and global climate change.
The centerpiece of the elected Liberals’ housing program is a “first-home savings account” — where the money would go in tax-free and could be withdrawn without any taxes owing on investment gains.
The program, which the Liberals estimate would cost the federal treasury some $3.6 billion over the next four years, is meant to make it easier for some first-time home buyers under 40 to scrape together enough money for a down payment.
The party has also committed to:
- Building, preserving, or revitalizing nearly 1.4 million homes by 2025-26.
- Doubling the Home Buyer’s Tax Credit.
- Investing $4 billion in a new Housing Accelerator Fund for municipalities.
- Pledging $1 billion in loans and grants to develop a new rent-to-own program between landlords and renters.
Trudeau said he would also reduce the price charged by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation on mortgage insurance by 25%.
According to a May report from Scotiabank, Canada has the lowest number of housing units per 1,000 residents than any G7 country, and “the number of housing units per 1,000 Canadians has been falling since 2016 owing to the sharp rise in population growth.” So the problem is pretty straightforward – no enough houses. But the solution is not simple. The government cannot just build more houses without considering the impact it will have on climate.
So what government can do?
According to Hannah Teicher, a researcher at the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate solution, “The priority needs to be maximizing and reusing the existing building stock.”
She points to the abundance of apartment buildings purpose-built for renters across Canada after the Second World War, many of which have fallen into states of disrepair.
“If we retrofit those buildings then we preserve all the embodied carbon that was already sunk into them,” Teicher said, adding that a national retrofit initiative would also generate employment opportunities given the scale of the needed work.
“Of course that is just one piece of it because we can’t meet all of the current housing needs with existing buildings.”
Another option to consider is the aging commercial real estate buildings which are not in demand post-pandemic. Recently in Calgary, an aging office tower was converted to a housing unit.
Keith Brooks, programs director for the non-profit group Environmental Defence says, “We need to be thinking about building more as they build in Europe, quite frankly, where people are less dependent on having their vehicles and where they can access the things that they need within a short distance, whether that’s walking or biking or taking public transit.”
Many municipalities are relaxing the zoning laws by allowing alternate housing in the place of single-family housing layouts. In Portland, for example, the city council voted in 2020 to allow for duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in most areas previously zoned as single-family. There can be up to six units on a single lot, though half of those units need to qualify as affordable housing.
A Statistics Canada report published in mid-January found that in cities such as Toronto and Montreal, people were moving to the suburbs in unprecedented numbers. “Urban sprawl continues, with Toronto and Montreal both experiencing record-high population losses to surrounding areas,” the report said.
Suburbs should not be an afterthought in the effort to combat climate change, according to Teicher, as the trend toward urban sprawl will be difficult to stop in the coming years.
“Density can take a lot of different forms … and there is a lot of possibilities for densification in the suburbs,” she said.
“One way to start is with gentler infill, adding one or two additional units to a suburban lot. Or building smaller buildings: row houses, townhouses, and smaller apartment buildings.”
Another issue is the size of homes being built in many suburban settings. Square footage is directly related to carbon output per capita, Teicher said. Bigger homes require more materials and more energy to cool and heat, and the larger spaces often lead to residents filling them with more “stuff,” which also has carbon footprints.
“If we reduce average square footage even a little bit, there is a lot more space for a lot more people, with a lower carbon footprint,” she said.
The good news, Teicher added, is that many of the solutions to both the housing and climate crises are already available.
“Most of this is not rocket science. We do know how to do it. So rather than imagining some new program or some new approach, let’s look at what we’ve already been doing,” she said.
“Because we haven’t done enough and, we’re running out of time.”