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How Prime Minister Trudeau can address affordable housing crisis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario Dear Mr.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with experts to talk about Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis when he visited the city last week. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario


Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Re: Affordable Housing in Vancouver

Thank you for your recent visit to Vancouver during which you made an announcement regarding transit funding and discussed housing affordability with various media and local experts.

I’m sorry I did not have the opportunity to share my thoughts on what the federal government might do to address our growing affordability crisis. However, since I once advised your father on urban issues during a 10-year stint with CMHC, I’m pleased to offer you some suggestions on what the federal government might do to make Vancouver housing more affordable.

As you acknowledged, this is a complex issue requiring a variety of solutions. Ending foreign investment is not the answer; nor is taxing vacant homes. We need to do more. Much more.

In your opening remarks to the housing experts, you said you wanted to know what the federal government should do, and what it might ‘nudge’ provincial and municipal governments to do.

With respect to controls on foreign investment, while I agree something must be done, before imposing new rules, I suggest CMHC and the Bank of Canada undertake a thorough analysis of what has worked in other countries since I, too, worry about unintended consequences.

What I do know is that your government needs to do a better job of enforcing federal taxation rules already in place. Many in the real estate community know foreign buyers are abusing our principal residence tax exemption and avoiding taxes on capital gains achieved through the flipping of houses. This is costing the government money, and is unfair to those who play by the rules.

A Vancouver housing academic has suggested you intervene in municipal zoning matters and make it illegal for municipalities to zone certain lands for single-family housing. Please don’t listen to him. This is beyond your federal jurisdiction.

However, I do agree you might impose rezoning conditions in return for your cash. For example, it would not seem unreasonable that you require municipalities to commit to increasing densities along new transit lines as a condition of federal funding.

There are many other things the federal government and CMHC might do.

For example, as you know, the operating agreements for CMHC funded cooperative housing projects are due to expire, along with ongoing subsidies to lower income households. You are being asked to extend the subsidies. As the former CMHC Program Manager who approved many of these projects, I would suggest you only extend subsidies provided the cooperatives agree to relocate widows currently occupying two-, three- and four-bedroom units. This could free up hundreds of family social housing units for needy families.

You could also encourage and facilitate the intensification of lower density social housing projects through redevelopment, to increase densities and create a broader mix of housing. Furthermore, higher income residents, who own ‘principal residences’ elsewhere, should be required to move out of government-subsidized housing.

Your government should also promote more innovative forms of affordable housing in Vancouver and elsewhere across the country. In 1970, while your father was Prime Minister, CMHC launched a $200 million ‘innovative low-cost housing demonstration program.’ While the program had its critics, it resulted in a number of affordable housing solutions.

One of my favourites was Bradwin Court in Toronto, completed in 1972 and billed as Canada’s first high-rise rooming house. It offered what today we call self-contained micro-suites.

A new federal affordable housing demonstration program could result in other new, innovative housing solutions. CMHC’s ‘seal of approval’ on these projects would help them get through the myriad of provincial and municipal regulations and red tape that too often stifle innovation.

You might even consider reviving the Canadian Housing Design Council (CHDC), which for many decades, promoted design excellence and innovative housing ideas through its publications and bi-annual competitions. While today there are numerous industry award programs, none in my opinion help spread good affordable housing ideas across the county the way CHDC once did.

There is so much more I would like to suggest, but I’m out of space. But please call when you are next in town. I would like to talk about CMHC’s research and lending programs.