I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Quebec and Youth Summit of February 2000, in which I participated as a young, elected official of a student union. The Summit brought together youth from across the province to debate and commit to actions that could improve our prospects in the province. One especially vivid memory is of the time the Chair of the Summit and then Premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, with various organizations threatening to leave the room, put his fist to the table, and said: “No one is leaving this room before we all make commitments to fix the issues at stake!” Needless to say, we stayed and several overnight hours of negotiations followed. At the end, the Government of Quebec made significant investments in youth programs, while workers and student unions, employers’ organizations and other youth associations also made commitments of their own. (Incidentally, the summit was co-chaired by then Quebec Minister of Education, now Premier, François Legault.)
Maybe it’s my unconscious French bias, being after all from Quebec, but this experience has always brought to mind the notion of “Estates-General,” which is when the King of France would bring together the whole of society—clergy, nobility and commoners—to advise him on key national and fiscal issues. As recently as 1995, the Government of Quebec called Estates-General on Education and a public commission conducted consultations with stakeholders from across civil society to reflect and suggest ways to modernize and improve Quebec’s educational system.
I think a similar approach could work for Canada’s growing national housing crisis.
This occurred to me as I was participating, this past April, in a housing panel alongside fellow economists from a variety of organizations at the Spring Conference of the Ottawa Economic Association (OEA) and the Canadian Association of Business Economics (CABE). Being surrounded by some of the most brilliant economic and policy minds in the country made my brain buzz with thoughts and ideas.
And none too soon, because housing in this country is in crisis.
As of the most recent figures, rental housing vacancy rates in Canada were 1.9 per cent (compared to 3.1 per cent a year ago), leading to a swooping 5.4 per cent rent inflation from 2021 to 2022, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CHMC). Conditions on the homeownership markets aren’t any brighter—while the MLS composite price index shows that house prices have decreased 15.4 per cent on average over the last year, sharp increases in mortgage rates offset most affordability gains for homeowners, especially for first time homebuyers. If we continue to ignore this trend, housing challenges in Canada may deteriorate into increased social inequities and lead to broader socio-economic issues that will be much more difficult to tackle.
We can act now and seize this unique opportunity to shift the landscape. But, to be successful, Canadian housing stakeholders will need to come together as one.
The other “long COVID”
To be sure, the pandemic, which sent millions of Canadians to work from home, is a big part of why this is happening. Now, large employers from the private and public sectors are recruiting country-wide, advertising jobs “located anywhere in Canada.” Canadians embraced this arbitrage opportunity to enhance their working conditions while also reducing their relative cost of living by relocating accordingly. This made the housing challenge, previously mostly a large urban centre phenomenon, a country-wide issue that I observe weekly in my work with small- and medium-sized municipalities across the country.
Simultaneously, population growth in the country, fostered in part by much needed increases in our immigration targets, skyrocketed demand for housing and triggered sharp increases in prices both for rentals and homeownership. To restore housing affordability to levels recorded in the early 2000s, the CMHC estimates that the pace of construction will need to accelerate by 3.5 million units between now and 2030. This would require roughly doubling the annual number of housing starts over the 2022-2030 period, and likely trillions of dollars in investment in housing alone.
One thing I learned from working as a civil servant at CMHC and as a senior political staffer advising on the National Housing Strategy, however, is that it would be a mistake to take housing in isolation—i.e., without considering what would be needed to make new housing development a social integration success. The challenge hence goes above and beyond housing itself—the last thing policy-makers want is to build an abundant supply of housing in otherwise deserted areas. Consequently, significant investments will also need to be made to surround this new housing with necessary commodities and services: sewers, roads, resilient electricity grids, public transit, internet access, schools, and so on.
But the critical and brutal fact is this: no government—federal, provincial, territorial, municipal—will ever manage to fix this situation alone. The National Housing Strategy put forward by the Government of Canada is merely a down payment on what’s needed to start improving our housing situation. Even if they were perfectly coordinated, our various levels of government wouldn’t be able to make the necessary investments to meet our national housing challenge.
Part of my action in politics was motivated by my deep belief that we are stronger united and that on broad complex issues, the solution doesn’t belong solely with the government. That’s why I’m convinced what we need is a broader mobilization of all local, regional and national driving forces to nudge the needle on housing. We need to bring all of them—industry, civil society and governments of all orders—to participate in a Canadian Estates-General on Housing.
A generational opportunity
Canadians are done with the finger pointing and disjointed actions on this issue. The Estates-General on Canadian Housing would be a process of local, regional and provincial mobilization and consultation that would culminate in a week-long national Summit where every participant would agree to contribute to solving the Canadian housing challenge and commit to measurable and reportable actions over the short-, medium- and long terms. Ideally, the convener of this Estates-General would be an organization whose interests are diffuse enough to avoid any one stakeholder being able to take advantage of any others.
Because when it comes to housing, challenges are high—but the stakes are even higher. If Canadian housing stakeholders can come together as one, we have in front of us a generational opportunity to make our communities and our country better, ensuring a society where every Canadian can achieve their full potential, starting with finding a home that meet their needs and that they can afford. This will require compromise and candid discussions, but I believe, just like the Quebec and Youth Summit, it would improve our collective prospects immeasurably, immediately and for the long run.
Learn about many of the other ways KPMG in Canada is working with governments and the public sector to solve shared challenges and make life better for all Canadians here.
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