A vote in every house

A vote in every house

My, oh my is there a lot of activity suddenly on housing. 

About time, of course. But at the same time, shame that it’s all upside-down. I guess when you’re dealing with politicians politicking in political ways, that’s to be expected. 

Momentum got going in October when a previously-announced housing accelerator fund was re-announced (we’re like that, it’s almost charming) to somewhat bigger fanfare. The deal is that the feds are making money available to cities for housing provided they make certain zoning changes. Here’s a handy summary

The Housing Accelerator Fund, a $4-billion federal funding program introduced in the last federal budget, earmarks funds for municipalities to support housing. These incentives are tied to zoning changes that would allow for more mixed and middle housing options to be built.

The CMHC said the top priority for any municipality looking to get federal funding is to end exclusionary zoning.

“Stop low-density zoning and regulation that excludes housing types such as affordable and social housing in residential areas,” it said, adding that cities should “encourage high density by allowing mixed-use development and high-density residential as-of-right within proximity to urban cores and transit corridors.”

In much of the country, zoning restrictions mean developers are only allowed to build either single-family homes or condo towers in residential areas. There is a huge chunk of housing options, often referred to as “missing middle housing,” that does not get built.

As a professional non-expert, I say hell yes. The missing middle is exactly what cities like Ottawa need to make more housing available in urban-ish areas near-ish transit. 

The first city I saw taking advantage of this was Guelph. Then I saw Vaughan. After that came Halifax and other cities. The constitutional purist in me hates this thing. Housing is provincial jurisdiction. So are municipalities. And for sure premiers are bitching. But there is nothing in the way our federation is set up to prevent the feds from spending money in ways they find congenial. Or, you know, useful in the context of an upcoming federal election, I say without the slightest hint of cynicism in my voice. 

That said, I hope the city of Ottawa gets its own ducks in the proper kind of row and greenlights the changes needed to get the money required to build housing units we desperately need right away. Apparently it’s coming

And another thing.

You should never doubt the power of a good electoral fright on politicians’ ability to come up with innovative solutions. Or even with old solutions that are somehow extraordinarily well suited to the times — again. 

When the federal government wanted to get a shitload of cheap houses built for returning soldiers after the Second World War, by golly it got a shitload of cheap houses built. You can see many of them still standing today, lovingly cared for even, in the area between Fisher Avenue and Merivale, just south of Carling. And in many other communities besides. They are small tidy houses built cheaply and quickly on small lots. Perfect for people with modest means. 

This week the feds said this sort of program was going to be revived, except the catalogue of pre-approved housing plans would include a wider variety of housing than the old tiny single family house. 

Again, as a professional non-expert, I say hell yes. Not that we couldn’t have gotten houses built quickly using methods that are less constitutionally offensive. But the thing is, we weren’t building those homes. Now with this program, we just might. When you’re a person in search of housing that’s affordable, timing means a lot. 

In addition to increasing the offer of affordable housing options at a time when so many people are clearly desperate for just that, this initiative does something else. It shows everyone in Canada that Pierre Poilievre is not serious. 

The leader of the Conservative Party has enjoyed a good couple of months ahead in the poll, in great part because he took up an issue that is clearly a sore spot for a lot of people in this country — affordability — and rightly pointed out how sluggish the governing Liberals were in addressing it. 

I don’t know whether voters in this country will think it’s enough to look away from Poilievre — who, it must be said, has been very vocal on who’s to blame but very quiet on actual practical solutions to the crisis other than to keep people working overnight in Parliament. Worth noting also that an Abacus poll commissioned by the Toronto Star showed a certain reversal in public opinion — a five-point drop is not insignificant. 

“It’s not that people are saying, ‘oh, all of a sudden I love what the Liberals are doing and I think the country is back on track,” Abacus CEO David Coletto explained. “It’s more of ‘I’m still anxious about it. I still want change. I’m not any less fatigued with Trudeau, but maybe some of the things that Conservatives have done this week is showing us their true colours.” 

And how. 

I don’t want to make too many predictions about the future but I’ll say this: in order to win an election, the Conservatives have to keep their core supporters (relatively easy) while gaining a significant number of voters who don’t typically vote blue in enough ridings (including in Quebec and/or Ontario), which isn’t so easy. Especially when they play games and don’t offer sensible solutions to real problems. 

If I were advising Poilievre I’d say, dude, do what Stephen Harper did. Take your core supporters for granted and try to make the folks in the middle think you’re safe enough. So far he’s doing the opposite. It might just sink him.