Desperate to find answers to the current housing crisis, some people seek a scapegoat. It has been disappointing to see policymakers point to immigrants as the cause of the crisis. Government policy bungling is the problem, not newcomers who make their home here.
Immigration Minister Marc Miller suggested international students were a contributing factor to the housing crisis, floating the idea that some people were taking advantage of “a backdoor entry into Canada.” This follows the June 2022 passage of the Prohibition on the Purchase of Residential Property by Non-Canadians Act, which, you’ll notice, has not resolved the housing crisis. The far-right People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier went even further by blaming immigration, calling for closed borders.
Polarized political debate misses the main points. Canada invites people to this country; few who stay permanently enter unannounced. Despite inviting large numbers, policymakers failed to plan for their arrival.
We have the land for housing. Walk any street in downtown Calgary and you will notice acres of undeveloped parking lots. Policymakers have ensured that parking space is more economically viable than affordable housing. Internationally, many cities do not protect parking in their centres. Rather, they build viable communities as their priority.
Poor land use policy is compounded by cities that have walked away from the business of building housing. We moved the public almost exclusively toward “market housing,” believing that housing is an investment. Try to find new condos that are not advertised in some way as “luxury” — it is increasingly rare. The few non-market public housing being built is mired in such complex bureaucracy that getting anything approved and built is just short of a small miracle.
Market and non-market housing are misnomers. Housing in past generations was a home, regardless of the builder. All levels of government and private builders used to help build homes, and public housing was an important part of the mix. Sadly, our newest generations have grown up not knowing that government-built homes are even a possibility.
Paradoxically, newcomers who have international experience may be best positioned to identify solutions for the problems policymakers created. Singapore has a very different approach. More than three-quarters of its population lives in public housing. Its homeless population is decreasing. With a much greater population, it has far fewer homeless than Calgary.
Policymakers have also pushed a “housing first” approach. It is supposed to mean we find permanent homes for people rather than use temporary housing. Unfortunately, this looks more like a “housing if” policy — housing if you can afford it. For the most vulnerable, housing is provided only if you meet a long list of criteria, and only if there is availability after waiting years on lists.
Helsinki has a different housing-first policy in which housing is a right and there is no eligibility criteria. Not surprisingly, Helsinki is noted for its low rough-on-the-street homelessness.
Policymakers are stuck in a 1950s postwar, suburban-investment policy design for homes. Housing is not scarce because there is too little rural and suburban land under development. Housing is scarce because policy has eliminated public housing and made building it such a bureaucratic, rancorous affair that a home is largely out of reach for many.
As supply decreases in relation to demand, prices increase, more people cannot afford a home and the vulnerable end up on the streets. In response, policymakers throw up their hands, scapegoat immigrants and suggest there isn’t enough suburbia being built.
On Sept. 14, Calgary city council will consider the Housing and Affordability Task Force recommendations. Its proposals to address a glut of parking and increase diversity of our housing mix are laudable and important.
This presents an incredible opportunity to open our minds to other housing development models. International cities and newcomers can teach us how to house people differently and solve our current crisis.
Rather than vilify who we invited here, let’s ask newcomers for innovative solutions.
Kelly Ernst is chief program officer for the Centre for Newcomers.