Is the national housing strategy outdated before it begins?

Canada needs a new housing strategy.  The federal government deserves credit for prioritizing one.

Problem is, the report released by Mr. Trudeau’s government following months of consultation suggests the strategy may be outdated before it begins.

His government’s “What We Heard” report is discouraging, because it doesn’t engage enough with the enormity of the problem that Canada’s housing market presents younger generations – a demographic that contributed to his electoral success. 

Whereas “seniors” are referred to 27 times in the report, and routinely listed among the groups that are “vulnerable” in the real estate market, the report refers to “young” Canadians just four times, and to “first-time” home buyers only thrice.  Young people are never included in in the report’s “vulnerable” category. 

Regrettably, this depiction of the role that age plays in our housing system is outdated and ironic.  Ironic, because seven in 10 seniors are home owners, and represent the age group that is especially likely to have gained wealth as a result of the escalation in home prices over the last decades.  By contrast, their kids and grandchildren are squeezed out of housing markets where purchasing prices and rents leave behind young people’s earnings in cities across the country.

Younger Canadians are caught in a vice-grip of time and money pressures.  It used to take 5 years of full-time work for a typical young adult to save a 20 per cent down payment on an average home.  Now it takes 12 years across Canada, and far longer still in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Metro Vancouver. 

There is no mention of this deterioration in the standard of living for younger generations in Ottawa’s latest housing report.  This leaves a house-sized omission, and calls into question the quality of Ottawa’s consultation overall.

Beyond glossing over “young” Canadians, the study also suffers because it never mentions the word “wealth.”  It completely ignores how many Canadians have been big winners in the lottery of skyrocketing homes prices. 

Foreign buyers are not the only people reaping big investment windfalls. Lucky timing also benefitted many regular Canadians who started their working lives as teachers, bus drivers, or assembly-line workers, and who managed to purchase homes decades ago when prices were more in reach for what typical people earned.  Now that prices have more than doubled (after inflation) from coast to coast, and soared in our biggest cities, the real estate market has since transformed some of these regular folk into the “well-to-do.” 

In fact, it only takes $1 million in assets to be among the global one-percent.  Many Canadians now fall into this category because of their home wealth. They are often parents and grandparents we love, and are commonplace in the GTA and Metro Vancouver.  Most have been hard-working.  But they generally didn’t become the one-percent because of their earnings on the job.  They got rich while sleeping, watching TV, raising their kids, and eating dinner in their homes.

There is no mention of this wealth accumulation in the “What We Heard” report – not in any of the 27 references to seniors. 

Instead, retirees are depicted almost exclusively as “vulnerable.”  Some are, including my 101 year-old grandmother.  I want to protect her.  And I don’t want my 72 year-old mom to ever become vulnerable.  So I’m glad Ottawa is mindful of their needs.   

But the federal government’s study is inadequate so long as it doesn’t also engage with the privilege many in my mom’s demographic has gained from a housing market that squeezes out those who follow in their footsteps. 

And its study is inadequate if it doesn’t signal as much urgency to ease the housing squeeze for younger Canadians as it does for older citizens.

That’s what a 21st century National Housing Strategy needs. 

That’s what we need to build.  It will require Canadians in our 20s, 30s, 40s (and the kids we represent) to get better organized in the months ahead to ensure those designing the National Housing Strategy no longer ignore our voices.

So far, Generation Squeeze suited up to brief the Prime Minister, the federal Minister responsible for Housing, M. Duclos, and the CEO of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Mr. Siddall.  We followed up with additional meetings with their policy advisors, and made a formal submission to the Let's Talk Housing consultation.  While we will maintain this direct organizational contact with decision makers in the weeks and months ahead, we'll also need to demonstrate the breadth of our voice and influence by spreading out more together.  Specifically, we're going to need many more from our coalition of 26,000 strong to share directly their stories with M. Duclos and Mr. Siddall, and to recommend that the National Housing strategy engage with our #CodeRed policy propositions. 

Onwards.

Dr. Paul Kershaw is a policy professor in the UBC School of Population Health, and Founder of Generation Squeeze (www.gensqueeze.ca), which is building a voice for younger Canadians in the world of politics.

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Is the national housing strategy outdated before it begins?
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