The Sunday Magazine

What will the federal election mean for Canada's housing crisis?

Canada’s major political parties have responded to a severe lack of affordable housing by promising to make it easier for people to buy a house. But for people who find it difficult to cover the cost of renting, there’s not much immediate relief on offer. Michael Enright asks why it seems impossible to get adequate affordable housing built in this country with Leilani Farha, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing; John van Nostrand, an architect and planner; and Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and advocate for the homeless.
The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright spoke to John van Nostrand, Cathy Crowe and Leilani Farha about the housing crisis in the run up to the federal election. (Migo Bayona/Laura DaSilva/CBC/Idil Mussa/CBC News)

Finding housing — let alone affording it — is fast becoming close to impossible for many Canadians. 

The average price of a house in Toronto is more than $800,000. The rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver tops $3,000 a month. A studio apartment in Edmonton can cost as much as $1,500 a month. 

That is, if you can find a place to live. 

In Vancouver, the vacancy rate hovers around one per cent, which means many adult children can't afford to move out of the house and young people worry they'll never be able to own a home. 

In this election campaign, the NDP has promised to build half a million new affordable housing units, but that could take 10 years. Meanwhile, the Liberals and the Conservatives are focused on helping middle-class home buyers.  

Will tomorrow's vote mean we will get more affordable housing in the near future? 

John van Nostrand is an architect and planner. (Migo Bayona)

John van Nostrand is an architect and planner. He is the founder of SvN Architects and Planners, which has pioneered new approaches to land development and housing in areas of rapid growth across Canada and the developing world. 

"I don't think it's going to change much, especially if government continues to think they can finance housing … They get stuck in the trap of having to conform with all the existing legislation. They can't be seen to be doing something different. They can't be seen to be putting people in established neighbourhoods without real concern from that side," he said. 

"We're all talking about the need for fundamental change, but one part of that is understanding why we got to where we are ... [T]here obviously are new ways to look at things as well. One of the one of the biggest problems [is] we build buildings that cannot change over time."

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse and advocate for the homeless. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, educator, filmmaker and advocate for the homeless. She is also a distinguished visiting practitioner at Ryerson University, and her most recent book is A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse

She says it's important to hold the next Canadian government to account on their promises to build more homes to help tackle the housing crisis. 

"It depends on the result, of course, but a certain type of minority government could do that," she says. "[I]t did it in the past with the Liberal government with the minority NDP helping push that forward." 

"Governments are going to have to be convinced to go back to what they used to do, which was building 20,000 new units a year. This was circa the 1970s, 80s, 90s. There are multiple strategies needed, but we do need new construction. We've got 1.7 million people in housing need and over 200,000 homeless alone."

Leilani Farha is a UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)

Leilani Farha is the United Nations' special rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, the world's top watchdog on housing. She is also the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty, a non-governmental organization based in Ottawa. 

Farha says that, while all of the political parties have acknowledged the issue of housing, she believes that resolutions in regard to financial interests in the housing market are necessary. 

"All of the parties have recognized that what Canada's facing with respect to housing is unsustainable and there's a real kind of crisis at hand," she says. "I don't think the solution is going to be found simply in building more units... there's a lot at play here.

"There's no doubt that the affordability of housing is one of ... the most significant social issue facing cities. Not just in Canada, as it's a global phenomenon. I see it everywhere I go and I travel a lot. My sense is that we need a huge paradigmatic shift around housing. Part of it is related to this new housing landscape ... It's related to these big financial actors."

The panellists' comments have been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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