How do you solve a housing crisis?

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Canada is short 3.5 million homes. And there’s no single smoking gun to blame.

Supply has lagged demand for decades. Record population growth means more people than ever need a place to live. The building industry faces rising material costs and labour shortages. Canadians struggle to afford what’s on the market as rents and interest rates soar. And as the climate crisis escalates, floods and wildfires threaten more of the country’s existing housing stock while potentially causing families and entire communities to be displaced.

So how do we tackle that huge, complicated mess? Too often, the discussions pit landlords and investors against tenant rights groups and organizations fighting homelessness. But two key organizations — the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and REALPAC, a national association of apartment investors, financiers and landlords — recognized they had shared interests.

To explore that common ground, they approached Mike Moffatt, one of Canada’s foremost experts on housing policy and a key leader in the partnership between Smart Prosperity and The Natural Step. “We were seen as a trusted third party. We understood the issues, but we didn’t have a preconceived position.” says Moffatt.

Finding consensus

In June 2023, Moffatt and his team brought together more than a dozen different representatives from industry, the social sector and academia to discuss how federal policies could create more rental housing — and make more of it affordable.

“We basically locked ourselves in a room for eight hours and said, okay, nobody leaves until we figure out how to solve this thing,” Moffatt recounts.

The process could have easily gone sideways, he said. Instead, participants found a surprising amount they agreed on, starting with the seriousness of the situation. Everyone in the room truly believed Canada is facing a crisis.

The next step was looking at the wide range of bottlenecks — from the lack of cross-sector coordination to lengthy approval times. Defining those issues allowed the group to then debate ways to address them. “We had difficult conversations, but nothing ever went off the rails,” Moffatt says. “We left the room with a general, very high-level consensus of what the solution should look like.”

That consensus laid the groundwork for a National Housing Accord published in August 2023, which was subsequently endorsed by more than 70 organizations across the country.

Informing federal action

The report provides a 10-point plan for bringing together public and private builders, the non-profit housing sector, investors and labour to address Canada’s rental shortage. Several of its recommendations found their way into the federal government’s fall economic statement, including eliminating the GST/HST on purpose-built rental housing and creating a catalogue of designs pre-approved by the CMHC to help fast-track construction.

That still leaves plenty more to do. But as Moffatt points out, Canada has successfully managed housing crises in the past — like the massive crunch following World War II. And that means we can do it again.

“Policy doesn’t change that quickly. And even when it does, homes take a while to get built,” he says. “But I’m cautiously optimistic that we are moving in the right direction.”