By Ian Croft
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
With many younger Canadians suffering from an expensive housing market, Martin Shields, MP for Bow River, took it upon himself to directly talk about this issue as he rose in the House on May 2.
“We are talking about a very important topic today,” said Shields. “We need homes for families. We need homes for dignity and homes for a purpose. The Conservatives want to bring homes for those reasons. Under the Constitution, and we know the federal government and the provincial government know the roles, but it is the provincial governments that create municipalities. They are a creature of the provincial government. The Liberal government, in its programs on housing, has not worked well with all the levels of government partners, which has been mentioned by the Liberals. For example, there is the big city mayors’ group out there. I do not remember the city mayors’ group being here in Ottawa to work on this crisis, so there are partner problems. In eight years of the Liberal government, housing costs across Canada have doubled, and Canada has the fewest homes in the G7 but the most land to build it on. We have a lot of land. However, the regulatory burdens, the impact assessments and the red tape have increased delays and costs over the last eight years.”
Following this Shields then went on to talk about the bureaucracy that is currently in place, which is serving to hinder municipalities in their assistance with helping Canadians obtain housing.
“Municipal people tell me about the number of forms they need to fill out. When I was mayor (Brooks), we hired a grant writer, a grant finder. Even being a small community of 15,000, we hired a person to try to find the grants and then fill out the forms. The red tape has increased for housing, so there are greater barriers. There is more staff in Ottawa, but dealing with applying for grants in the programs the government has set-up has not become more efficient. There are a couple of problems. There is not a clear definition. We see the words ‘affordable’ and ‘attainable’. Affordable housing refers to it costing less than 30 per cent of a household’s income before tax. Attainable housing has a few more points to it and applies to a broader population in our country. Attainable housing refers to being adequate in condition, which means it is not on that renovation show where they are fixing up a house that is falling apart. It is a house that is liveable. It also means it is appropriate in size, with the number of bedrooms, the kitchen or whatever living space is needed. Also, it is accessible to services, meaning it is located in areas where people can get the services they need. Attainable housing is available in a range of housing types.”
Shields then took the opportunity to point out how the desired effects of attainable housing haven’t come to fruition.
“If some of the pieces for attainable housing are missing, then we have a problem,” said Shields. “We are not just building for affordable, we are building attainable housing. Under the government, and because of its policies on a range of files, the principles of attainable housing have been out of reach for so many Canadians. I can remember when I was mayor we developed certain kinds of lots. I was speaking at a conference with developers, and I told them we were going to have 60-foot lots in the community. The planners were going nuts and saying that we needed 30-foot lots. I told them how things worked. If one builds a bigger lot, people would build a bigger home on that lot instead of going out and building on an acreage. If one builds that more expensive house in one’s town, the domino effect is going happen, where that person moves out of a more affordable house, leaving it for someone else, into a bigger house. Attainable includes a whole range of items. The whole range is needed, and municipalities can do that if one works with them.”
Shields then also pointed out how certain wording within the national housing strategy program leads to a problematic situation.
“According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, within CMHC’s national housing strategy programs: ‘…there is no standard definition of affordability. Rather, each program uses its own unique definition, which can lead to the construction of units presented as ‘affordable’ but which in reality may require households to devote more than 30 per cent of their income to housing.’ That is problematic. There are organizations that really need more partnerships. Many people in the House know what Habitat for Humanity is, and it is one of those great non-profits out there that does a great job of providing housing through working with families and communities. For example, I was just at an opening of a project, where the town donated the land, paid the fees and put in the servicing. The company these people work with supplied a lot of help, such as manpower, to work with the family.”
From here Shields then discussed some non-profit organizations that are succeeding in allowing Canadians to properly afford and own a home.
“Habitat for Humanity is a great example of a non-profit. That is the kind of partnership that needs to be developed. Those work because the people are very much involved with them. Another one that I have run across in my riding is called Life at Key. It is an innovative program. Instead of increasing the down payment, which we often see as a huge barrier, this model works with a payment that requires only 2.5 to 5 per cent initial payment. It involves co-ownership, equity in the property and making additional payments at one’s own schedule. That is an innovative process. That is now happening in three or four communities in Alberta, and it is moving east with this proposal. That makes housing attainable, and we need those kinds of programs. I have a community in Taber, with a housing initiative, that went out with a piece of land. They have great land in their community. They built a lake, pathways and then modular homes that they purchased, or homeowners could purchase modular homes. There are large lots. They have worked at this. It is another step for attainable homes. They have done a good job of that.”
Following this Shields also pointed out some municipalities that have succeeded in developing new housing programs, and how this could be put onto a larger scale with the assistance of the federal government.
“I have communities such as Standard and Arrowwood,” said Shields. “They have gone out and built serviced subdivisions within an hour of Calgary. The demand is now there. Those communities have gone out and built those service lots and roads, and all of the things. That is what municipalities could do if the federal government worked with them. Somebody mentioned the concern about a clause that says there is a penalty. Well, if they have worked in municipal government, they have gotten grants that may have been for one year, maybe two years. Sometimes those projects are complicated, and in two years it has not gotten done. There is a mechanism to go back to the grant funding and say, ‘We are this far through it, but we need an extension for a year.’ Absolutely, but that is working with partnerships, and that is what we are talking about doing. Municipalities are the partnerships that need to be worked with, but the government has to be a partner in the room to get it done.”
Shields then proceeded to talk about how approval has become difficult for these municipalities, which ultimately hinders their entire development of affordable and attainable housing.
“When we talk about some of the challenges that municipalities have, it is getting harder to do all the things they need to do for approvals. For example, to change a culvert under a road, it used to be that there could be a plan to go ahead and do it. It would take so much money, and if they had the equipment, they could go do it. Now, there has to be an environmental study one year, and the culvert cannot be replaced until the next year. It is those kinds of costs that keep increasing on the municipalities. There is a challenge that the bureaucracies keep building above them. It makes it problematic for municipalities to do what they need to get done with the money they get in grants, and that is why the federal government needs to work with them. What we need to do is spend money in the right direction. This is a crisis. Earlier, the crisis in Nunavut was mentioned. In 1942, somebody built the Alaska Highway in a very short period of time because there was a crisis. They got that highway built from Dawson Creek all the way to where they needed to have it in Alaska, over territory where they said nobody could build a road.”
Finally Shields pointed out that we are right now in a position of crisis, and to solve this problem, we need to have unity between all different levels of government.
“How can we not get housing materials to Nunavut now? This is problematic,” said Shields. “I listened to our MP for Nunavut talk about the housing crisis they have, and we cannot figure out how to get materials there at the appropriate time to build the appropriate housing they need. This is a crisis. We have the capability to do those things. We are not getting them done because we do not view it as a crisis. This is problematic. Let us look at the flooding on the Lower Mainland that occurred recently. It wiped out bridges. It wiped out roads and railways. How was that fixed? They got all the construction people together from municipalities in a month. It was a crisis because we needed the rail, the roads and the bridges going. In a month, they had those things repaired to have things moving. When it is a crisis, we need to get all the people in the room. The federal people need to get the big city mayors in the room. The municipalities and provinces need to be in the room. They need to be in the room, and they can resolve it. It is not just building programs and shipping it out. We want homes for people. This is a crisis. We need it now.”