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OPINION: Municipalities becoming 'scapegoats' for housing crisis

'Municipalities can only approve new housing — they can’t build it themselves,' writes political columnist, adding it's unfair to make them the 'punching bag'
Premier Doug Ford, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are shown in separate file photos during stops in Barrie.

Municipalities, it seems, have become the scapegoat for the failure of federal and provincial governments to address the housing crisis.

You know, that level of government which receives well under 10 cents of every Canadian tax dollar and has no constitutional power beyond that which the provincial government of the day allows it.

The Doug Ford government in Ontario was early to the blame game, suggesting cities were largely at fault for the fact sufficient housing wasn’t being built and threatening to punish municipalities financially if they didn’t reach certain targets – 23,000 new units by 2031 in Barrie’s case.

The province even strong-armed 29 municipalities into signing pledges to meet those targets, as if that was a credible solution to the problem.

Now, the federal government has jumped on board with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggesting municipal approvals were at fault. Actually, more than suggesting. Trudeau blamed Canada’s mayors for the fact it took 17 months from the time the $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund was created to the time the first project was announced.

Yup, every mayor in Canada, all 3,500 of them, was asleep at the switch, it seems.

Recently, Trudeau and federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser doubled down, tying money from Ottawa to municipalities’ willingness to speed up approvals and loosen zoning regulations.

At least the Liberals, despite the crazy rhetoric, were using a 'carrot' to see more housing built and went a step further, eliminating its share of the HST on purpose-built rentals.

Pierre Poilievre, the federal Conservative leader, took the 'stick' approach, threatening to withhold federal funding to cash-strapped municipalities which didn’t increase the number of new housing units by at least 15 per cent each year.

Even The Globe and Mail recently joined the chorus of voices with an editorial titled 'Blame Trudeau for housing, sure – but the real fault belongs to your local mayor.' Ouch!

It will certainly come as news to this country’s mayors that they adjust interest rates, regulate the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), train skilled trade workers, control the cost of materials, set immigration levels and determine federal tax laws, all factors which are often blamed, to some degree, for contributing to the housing shortage.

The crisis is real. The CMHC estimates this country will build an additional 1.7 million housing units over the next seven years, based on current trends.

But the CMHC also says Canada needs another 3.45 million units on top of that by 2030 to solve the affordability problem, or four million additional units if current immigration levels continue.

But municipalities can only approve new housing — they can’t build it themselves. It is unfair to make them the punching bag for Canada’s housing problems when the evidence suggests they’ve been pretty good at the one thing they control: approvals.

The Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario reported earlier this year that there are more than 1.25 million new homes ready for building permits across the province but not yet constructed. The figure for Barrie at the time that pledge was signed was just under 14,000 and many more have been approved since then.

No amount of casting blame will get those homes built.

Barry Ward is a veteran editor and journalist who also served on Barrie city council for 22 years. Fair Comment appears regularly in BarrieToday.