Fraser Forum

Federal government’s impulse to block housing out of sync with priorities of Canadians

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Federal government’s impulse to block housing out of sync with priorities of Canadians

A new front has opened in the simmering jurisdictional conflict between the federal government and the provinces. This time, however, the fight is not over carbon taxes or pipelines, but over where homes can and cannot be built.

Since earlier this year, Steven Guilbeault, federal minister of the environment and climate change, has made clear his intention to prevent Ontario from redesignating some land currently in the Greenbelt (a swath of protected rural land surrounding the Greater Toronto Area) to allow home construction. Specifically, the Trudeau government is considering the use of the Species at Risk Act and Impact Assessment Act to slow or even freeze the planned addition of homes in areas adjacent to, but outside of, the Rouge National Urban Park just east of Toronto.

The federal government’s motivation appears to be the protection of species that might live near the park, and are protected under federal legislation. The provincial government, for its part, controls land-use legislation including that which created the Greenbelt in the first place. It’s also pledged to enable the construction of 1.5 million homes in a decade, with 50,000 homes slotted for the 7,400 acres of Greenbelt lands it intends to re-designate, on condition that builders show “significant progress” in obtaining approvals this year.

How this standoff will end is unclear. But clearly, Canada faces a severe housing shortage—a fact all governments have acknowledged. In other words, millions of new homes, of all sizes, are needed for workers, families, retirees, students and more. The severe lack of adequate housing options is already hurting the prospects of many young and new Canadians who are seeing their earnings and opportunities eroded by high housing costs. Seen in this light, the Trudeau government’s impulse to block housing appears out of sync with the priorities of Canadians, especially as the population continues to grow substantially.

Of course, such scenarios are nothing new in Canada and elsewhere. In a now-canonical essay written in 2014, journalist and venture capitalist Kim-Mai Cutler explored the roots of the San Francisco Bay area’s severe housing affordability crisis. Faced with a crippling shortage of homes in one of the world’s most opportunity-rich regions, governments—especially municipal—tend to focus on hyper-local considerations in specific areas, rather than considerations of general welfare, such as growing the housing supply to meet demand and tame prices. She cited Mountain View city council’s decision to block Google from building badly needed employee housing on its campus, arguing that doing so might imperil the city’s burrowing owl population.

The point is, as important as considerations such as conservation may be, they are not without trade-offs. And when government frustrates the addition of badly needed housing, for whatever reason, it affects the wellbeing of its citizens.

Ontario has spent the better part of a year developing policies to get more housing built faster, including on lands currently within the Greenbelt. These policies are far from perfect. Not only are there concerns about this particular decision’s transparency, but by Queen’s Park’s own estimates all its housing-related changes to date are unlikely to achieve province’s homebuilding targets. But at least these moves share the right intention—the faster easier addition of homes for current and future Ontarians. Ontario needs more pro-housing reforms, not less.

By opposing Ontario’s efforts to enable the construction of needed housing, especially without offering feasible alternatives, the federal government risks further eroding the collective goal of housing a fast-growing country. Considering the scale of Canada’s affordability woes, all governments should focus on removing barriers to housing, not creating new ones.

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