Over the two years between the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, housing emerged as a pillar of both the Liberal and Conservative platforms. From our cramped, makeshift kitchen offices, we’ve heard much about Canada’s hot housing market through the pandemic, juxtaposed against the affordability and scarcity challenges experienced by many.

While Canada’s housing crisis is not new, calls from Canadians across the country to reduce the cost of living and make housing more affordable have now provided an impetus for change. Appointing a minister of housing was the first step in what needs to be an aggressive housing agenda focused on increasing supply, addressing housing insecurity, growing the building-trade labour force, and unlocking federal support to make it all happen.

In 2019, the National Housing Strategy Act included the historic recognition of housing as a human right. At the same time, according to Statistics Canada, 235,000 people will experience homelessness in any given year. At the other end of the spectrum, the Canadian Real Estate Association placed the average selling price for a home in August 2021 at $663,500, an increase of 13.3 per cent year over year. Both statistics point to an unsurprising failure in Canada’s housing market. Housing in Canada is viewed largely as an investment rather than a right and this ideology guides our entire housing policy.

We’ve passed the threshold of waiting to see if we can will our way out of this crisis. Co-ordination and intervention are needed at every point on the housing spectrum.

Many municipalities still allow NIMBYism to fuel policy by allowing homeowners to dictate the housing mix and density of their neighbourhoods, even to the detriment of their neighbours. While municipal governments may be closest to the electorate, their proximity has meant that, in practice, local politics takes precedence over sound housing policy. Indeed, municipal zoning rules are one of, if not the biggest, barriers to housing development and densification.

With provinces primarily delegating authority to municipalities on housing policy, what business does the federal government have getting involved? The reality is, we’ve passed the threshold of waiting to see if we can will our way out of this crisis. Co-ordination and intervention are needed at every point on the housing spectrum.

The federal government has the power to intervene in housing policy in a way that municipal and provincial governments can’t. First, it has deeper pockets and can invest millions more dollars than other jurisdictions. The federal government can also ensure other infrastructure programs support and prioritize housing densification. It also has the power of convening — it can bring together the right parties to move forward in a way that others cannot. Finally, it has the power of financial regulation – we saw this at work most recently when the so-called stress test for mortgages was increased. The federal government also has a shared responsibility for First Nations on-reserve housing.

Given the urgency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s move to create a ministry responsible for housing was a positive step. The new minister responsible, Ahmed Hussen, is charged with implementing critical commitments from the Liberal housing plan, including building, preserving and repairing 1.4 million homes between now and 2025. In this position, he should also take a co-ordinating role to ensure a more effective delivery of the patchwork of supports for those with housing needs. Hussen will likely continue to hold responsibility for the National Housing Strategy and addressing homelessness, responsibilities which carry over from his former role as minister of Families, Children and Social Development. (He will also serve as minister of diversity and inclusion.)

A housing minister must also understand that Canada’s population growth, and overall economic competitiveness, requires a housing market that offers both quality and affordability. If Canada wants to maintain its commitment to welcome upwards of 400,000 newcomers a year, we need to ensure people have a place to live. As a former immigration minister, Hussen is uniquely positioned to make this case.

It will also be critical for a housing minister to work with other ministries to ensure Canada has the labour supply we need — which may require sectoral workforce development strategies, skills training, labour transitions and attracting immigrants with relevant skills. To build the homes needed, the government will have to work collaboratively to ensure a broader diversity of individuals are encouraged and offered the opportunity to learn construction and skilled trades. The minister will need to work closely with a large group of public- and private-sector stakeholders to make this a reality.

More broadly, the new minister needs to work with provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous peoples, non-for-profits and industry counterparts to identify and address the barriers to housing in a way that isn’t happening now.

Having a minister responsible for housing sends a clear message: Housing is a human right and all those living in Canada deserve a safe, comfortable and affordable place to call home. But we can’t stop there. Hussen needs to move quickly to provide housing for all of those who are unhoused heading into the winter months, to work collaboratively to address the supply-side issue of housing by unlocking federal support, and to unite all stakeholders around the goal of addressing Canada’s housing crisis as quickly as possible.

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Katie Davey hosts the Femme Wonk podcast and is Editor of PPF Media.

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Kathrine Feenan is a Senior Policy Lead with the Public Policy Forum.