Gimme shelter

The solution to Canada's housing crisis is neither quick nor simple.

- June 25, 2024

Canada needs more homes—and fast.

Figures released by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) last fall show Canada needs to create an additional 3.5 million units in the next six years on top of what’s already being produced annually to restore housing affordability in the face of a rapidly expanding population. That’s 5.2 million units total.

Trouble is, housing takes time to build, especially when economic conditions in the sector remain challenging. Shortages of skilled trades, still-elevated interest rates, supply chain disruptions, and other factors are adding up to make it harder for developers, builders, and non-market housing organizations to meet ballooning demand.

Then there’s the decades-long disinvestment in social and community housing to contend with. As home prices and rents soar to historic new heights in cities and towns of all sizes across the country, affordable options are harder and harder to come by for those who need them most.

“In many ways, the chickens are coming home to roost,” says Dr. Jill Grant, a planning expert and professor emeritus in Dal’s School of Planning. “From the 1980s on, really, the federal government stopped funding much in the way of public housing, leaving that to the provinces. And then the provinces gradually cut back on it as well trying to trim their budgets.”

The result has been an influx of private development. In Nova Scotia, for instance, nearly all new housing created over the past 30 years has come from private-sector developers, says Kelvin Ndoro, a senior analyst with CMHC. Similar patterns can be seen in other provinces.

Little of this development ends up being affordable to buy or rent.

Dr. Jeff Karabanow, a professor in the School of Social Work, also sees a shift in the types of housing attainable to people in different income brackets.

As housing that was once accessible to middle-class populations—say, buying a single-family home—becomes less so, they begin exploring rentals and other housing stock once more readily available to students (see sidebar below right), seniors, and other lower-income individuals. In turn, those individuals are increasingly pushed out of market housing altogether, some ending up in precarious situations or even the streets when they can’t find social or community housing.

“Hence why there is a real need to have some housing stock that sits outside of that market economy,” says Dr. Karabanow. “That’s something we’ve always argued but now it’s so telling.”

'A huge shift' 

For a long time, governments in Canada seemed to be taking a wait-and-see approach in hopes that housing markets would sort themselves out. Then, in 2017, the federal government released a national housing strategy aimed at increasing housing affordability and reducing homelessness.

But the brutal double whammy of steep inflation and escalating real estate prices in many municipalities following the COVID-19 pandemic took many by surprise. There has been an explosion of homelessness—not just in cities of all sizes, but also in rural communities where it has traditionally been more hidden and in suburban environments with never-before-seen encampments. These symptoms laid bare the urgency of the problem.

“All that really seems like a perfect storm,” says Dr. Karabanow.

Experts called into question whether the national strategy was really meeting its goals and suited to new challenges.

The federal government took further steps in March 2023, launching a $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund to encourage local initiatives to build more homes more quickly. The fund, slated to run until 2026-2027, offers cost sharing—a 50/50 split, with repayable loans—for new projects in municipalities that agree to relax local regulations around development and zoning to allow for more density.

While the accelerator program has helped municipalities get more projects off the ground, Dal’s Dr. Ren Thomas says many initiatives in the affordable and non-market housing space have ended up in limbo as they can’t find financing or land for use. Most lack the deep pockets and stockpiled land private developers benefit from.

Still, she sees it as a step in the right direction.

“We are now seeing duplexes, four-plexes, six-plexes that are being allowed in previously single-family zoned areas,” says Dr. Thomas, an associate professor in Dal’s School of Planning.“That’s a huge shift from where we were traditionally postwar. Changing up those neighbourhoods is critical.”

“That’s a huge shift from where we were traditionally postwar. Changing up those neighbourhoods is critical.”

Halifax, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and other cities have all moved to densify their urban environments in recent years, particularly along busy transit corridors with amenities. The housing accelerator has added even more momentum to these efforts and spurred them in smaller communities as well, a boon not only for housing but also for the climate.

Of course, creating more housing with the intention of densifying an area doesn’t guarantee that it will happen, argues Dr. Grant. According to recent census data, one-and two-person households have become the dominant size, which means there are often fewer people than there used to be occupying available units. What’s more, shrinking household sizes also impact demand for affordability, as one person can’t afford as much as a household with multiple earners.

Striving to adapt, the federal government released an ambitious new national housing strategy this spring that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the “most comprehensive and ambitious housing plan ever seen in Canada.” The new measures in the strategy—including the leasing of underused federal public lands—are intended to build on the 2017 plan, leading to the creation of more homes, making renting or buying a home easier, and doing more to support those who can't afford a place to live. It promises 3.9 million more homes by 2031.

The strategy will require even more collaboration with provinces and municipalities if its vision is to be realized.

Prioritizing preservation

If private development and market-reliant mechanisms such as the national accelerator are unlikely to solve the affordability crisis on their own, could the missing piece of the housing puzzle be hiding in plain sight in your neighbourhood?

Dr. Thomas says more economists and planners are beginning to accept that preserving existing housing—and transitioning it to affordable housing separate from the general housing market—is one of the only ways Canada can attain the level of affordability needed.

“We need more protection of existing affordable units,” says Dr. Thomas. She cites research from colleague Dr. Steve Pomeroy of McMaster University that shows Canada is losing tens of thousands of affordable units every year, even as it contends with a growing homelessness crisis in many cities.

Detailed mapping of existing affordable units within municipalities, community benefit agreements with developers that guarantee affordable units, and one-for-one replacement programs such as those in Metro Vancouver and Mississauga all offer potential paths to more affordability, she says.

Dr. Thomas also points to housing acquisition grant programs in Nova Scotia and British Columbia as an innovative way forward. These programs allow community housing providers to apply for fixed-interest-rate loans with up to 30-year terms to help buy existing multi-unit residential properties for non-market housing. The game changer? Funding is available for up to 95 per cent of a property’s cost.

Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador have just launched similar acquisition funds through the Community Housing Transformation Centre, a third-party network supporting Canada’s national housing strategy. These innovations at the provincial level have contributed to the federal government establishing its $1.5-billion Rental Protection Fund in April 2024.

Housing Dal's students

Dalhousie welcomes 21,000 students from across Canada and more than 115 countries to Nova Scotia each year. While this influx of young people enriches the province and its communities, a shortage of housing—including affordable options—has created challenges in communities near campuses.

“Dalhousie must do its part to help solve this issue,” President Kim Brooks wrote in a message to the university community last fall.

Since then, momentum has begun to build. To offer some relief in the short term, the university has adjusted some building configurations to accommodate a larger number of students in existing residences. This has meant converting single-occupancy rooms to doubles and adding new private quarters in previously common spaces.

Meanwhile, the university has taken the first steps towards creating new on-campus housing to meet the needs of its growing student base in the years ahead. Planning work is underway on at least six different sites on Dal’s Halifax campuses. This new on-campus housing could relieve pressure on surrounding neighbourhoods that have had to absorb the growing student population in recent years. 

While some provinces such as B.C. and Quebec already boast robust networks of non-market housing operators to undertake this work (such as co-ops and affordable housing organizations), others, including Nova Scotia, have lower levels of capacity. The federal government proposed a $1.5-million Co-operative Housing Development Program in its 2022 budget, which is due to launch in summer 2024.

The hope is these programs will help preserve what’s already out there.

“If there are homes that can be fixed, fix them, don’t tear them down,” says Sarah, a woman who has struggled to find a place to call home since she lost her own rental nearly two years after suffering a concussion and being let go from her job. “There are too many $2,600 apartments going up.”

She was among the scores of people in downtown Halifax earlier this year who were asked to vacate outdoor tent encampments that served as home during the tough winter months.

Other experts see untapped potential in the rental markets. Ndoro, the CMHC analyst, says governments should be doing more to encourage private homeowners to offer space for rent as a way to build supply and push down rents. Of Halifax’s estimated 200,000 households, approximately 80,000 are renter households. That leaves a big chunk of already built homes that don’t offer rentals but could in what economists call the secondary rental market—that is, private homes converted to offer space for rent.

“We know with an aging population, a lot of people probably have more housing than they need for themselves,” he says. “So why not incentivize those people who already own those houses to put some up for rent or even build secondary units, backyard units and so forth? It does increase the pool instead of solely focusing on developers and builders to make up for that.”

Enticing people to do so is easier said than done in the current economic environment, though, when more landlords are leaving the market due to increasing costs.

Some municipalities have tried to encourage more people to offer long-term rentals by cracking down on short-term rentals on Airbnb and other platforms, but enforcing such rules is tough in many cashed-strapped jurisdictions.

With such measures only beginning to catch on in Canada and some likely a stretch in smaller places, governments have had to step in to offer quicker solutions as well, with the biggest investments in public housing in decades.

Nova Scotia, for instance, has announced investments in hundreds of new non-market public units since last fall with financial assistance from the federal government. Some are being built using modular construction on provincially owned or serviced land, enabling the province to get vulnerable people into homes sooner. But social-housing advocates say far more is needed from all levels of government.

The promise of collective ownership

As the housing crisis and the responses to it continue to play out across the country, some communities are taking the initiative to find solutions on their own by setting up organizations called community land trusts aimed at altering the calculus on how property itself is owned.

“They peel a layer back and offer an alternative to the way we hold land,” says Montreal-based Nat Pace, director of the Canadian Network of Community Land Trusts, an organization that supports the growth of these trusts across the country.

The model first emerged during the civil-rights era in rural Georgia and proliferated across urban and rural Canada starting in the mid-1990s as governments began to scale back funding for public housing. Distinct from nature trusts, which focus more on the environmental stewardship of ecologically precious land, community land trusts are guided by meeting the needs and desires of community members through collective ownership. That can include everything from acquiring and stewarding affordable rental housing to protecting culturally important neighbourhoods and other community assets from gentrification and private development. 

African Nova Scotian communities facing displacement such as Weymouth Falls and Upper Hammonds Plains have set up community land trusts. They are now among more than 40 member trusts in the national network.

“People feel helpless,” says Pace. “This gives them a voice. It can be an empowering thing.” 

“People feel helpless,” says Pace. “This gives them a voice. It can be an empowering thing.” 

For a long time now in Canada, many people have viewed individual home ownership as the ideal. But Dr. Thomas, who lives in co-op housing in Halifax, asks why this is so.

“Decades of marketing has convinced people that this is the way to do it. But is it?” she asks. “There are lots of other different ways to live.” 

This story appeared in the DAL Magazine Spring/Summer 2024 issue. Flip through the rest of the issue using the links below.


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