Canada's big-city mayors want action on affordable housing crisis

VANCOUVER – The mayors of Canada’s largest cities say there is a growing housing crisis across the country, with many people unable to buy homes because of record-high household debt, new economic realities and changing demographics.

The Big City Mayors’ Caucus met Thursday in Vancouver, ahead of the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, emerging with an invitation for their provincial and federal counterparts to meet and address the problem.

“Housing affordability is putting home ownership outside of the reach of many Canadians, and we need to think hard about what that means in terms of what policies can we do to support housing affordability, how can we stimulate new rental housing, as well a what we do about existing social housing,” said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

“We need to start working with the federal government and our provincial governments on a national view of housing.”

The average price of a new home more than doubled from 2001 to 2010, the mayors pointed out.

Just 10 per cent of new residential construction in the past 15 years has been dedicated rental housing, yet 32 per cent of Canadians live in rental units, according to the federation.

Saskatchewan needs 6,500 to 7,000 new housing starts a year to meet demand and attract workers, the group said, and Metro Vancouver needs an estimated 6,000.

An astonishing 42 per cent of Canadians under age 29 still lived with their parents in 2011, compared to 26 per cent in 1981, the federation said.

There is a crisis of homelessness, as well, said the federation, with 1.5 million families in need of housing and an estimated 300,000 in shelters and on the streets.

Calgary and Waterloo have more than 3,000 families on wait-lists for affordable housing, and Metro Vancouver has 4,100. In Ontario, more than 150,000 people are waiting, and in Ottawa the wait can be up to seven years on a list that has swelled to 9,000 families.

Diane Finley, the minister responsible for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, was not available for comment.

Earlier this month, Finley spoke at the annual meeting of the Canadian Housing & Renewal Association in Ottawa, where she said her government has invested $15 billion in housing and programs to address homelessness since 2006.

“We also recognize that safe, affordable housing is important to Canadian families,” Finley told the group

She said the federal government’s Economic Action Plan 2013 extends the investment in affordable housing to 2019, with additional federal funding of $1.25 billion over five years.

But the big-city mayors fear that $1.7 billion in federal housing investments annually will disappear. Already, that budget will shrink by $500 million a year beginning next year, they said.

“That’s going to put enormous pressure on the provinces and, in Ontario’s case, the municipal sector because housing in a municipal responsibility in Ontario, whereas it’s provincially regulated in the rest of the country,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said.

Like other infrastructure, the affordable and social housing that does exist is reaching the end of its shelf life, Watson said.

“A lot of these units are at the stage of 40 or 50 years old, and they’re showing their age,” he said, adding that Toronto alone has hundreds of uninhabitable rental units.

Diane MacKay, of the Conference Board of Canada, said the housing crisis that has been unfolding for years has all kinds of impacts, including on the ability to draw workers.

The problem is more prominent in Western Canada, including Saskatchewan, she said.

“Even housing for executives is at a state of crisis, because you cannot attract talent at that level unless you have good housing, located near good schools, with good access to services of all kinds including culture and health care and so on. It’s a problem at all levels of the economy.”

The solution requires more than government funding, she said.

“The governments should not be in the business of building housing. The governments should be in the business of setting policy,” she said.

“Businesses should be in the business of building houses, and how do we facilitate it in a way that makes it profitable to engage?”

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ annual convention begins Friday and continues to June 3.