The housing crisis caused by Canada’s immigration boom was a preventable nightmare

Doug FirbyHas Canada courted too many immigrants to our country? The answer is no … and yes.

No, because accepted wisdom tells us we need skilled workers – a lot of them – to fill the employment gaps created by retired boomers like me. Economists tell us that if we fail to address the worker shortage, our economy and standard of living will dive faster than a Kingfisher into a lake.

Yet, governments at municipal, provincial and federal levels have spectacularly fumbled a series of urgent actions needed to accommodate the inrush of temporary and landed immigrants who – guess what? – aren’t too interested in sleeping in the streets.

Our political leaders have created, enabled and, in some cases, negligently assisted the emergence of a housing crisis that, in a few short years, has turned our country from an affordable land of opportunity into a debt-sentence nightmare. In this dark new world, it’s not just new arrivals who can’t find an affordable place to live, but also younger generations of citizens born in this country whose incomes don’t come close to sustaining the monstrous mortgages required to own a home.

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This turn of events is as deeply regrettable as it was once preventable. The consequences are multifaceted and far-reaching. And it starts with a shift in our attitudes toward people who come here, seeking opportunity.

The polling firm Environics reports a significant increase in the number of Canadians who think immigration levels are too high. A year and a half ago, about 27 percent of respondents felt that way. Today, 44 percent of respondents do.

“That’s the biggest one-year change in opinion on this question since it was first asked … in 1977,” Environics reports.

Immigrants are increasingly being made the scapegoat for the explosion in housing prices. In the same period mentioned above, Canadians who feel that way jumped from 15 percent to 38 percent. Worse, Leah Hamilton, vice-dean of Research & Community Relations at Mount Royal University in Calgary, cites research that shows negative attitudes toward immigrants can develop when situational factors  –  such as housing shortages, inflationary pressures and a rise in anti-immigration ideologies  –  combine to create a fear that citizens must “compete” with immigrants for jobs and housing. (Yeah, like, we’re all just dying to sling coffee at Tim’s.)

How did we get into this crisis so quickly? The problem started with the Trudeau government, although all levels of government share some blame.

The feds rightly believed (and still do) that we need more so-called “economic immigration” – i.e., immigrants with skills that are useful to our country if we are to avoid economic stagnation. With that goal in mind, in November 2022, the Trudeau government announced wildly ambitious targets: to take in 500,000 immigrants a year by 2025, with almost 1.5 million new immigrants coming to the country over the next three years. To put this in perspective, that’s about eight times the number of permanent residents each year – per current resident of the country – than the United Kingdom and four times more than the United States.

Canada’s population grew by more than a million (2.7 percent) in a single year – the fastest rate in the country’s history – and by June 2023, its population reached an important landmark: 40 million. Temporary and permanent migration accounted for 96 percent of this population growth.

A few months later, the federal government signalled it wants to welcome 485,000 permanent residents in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025 and 2026.

You know where this is going.

Municipalities, asleep at the switch, simply have not planned for enough housing. And, in some cases, provincial governments are resisting growth, as well. Quebec, for example, which has 23 percent of the country’s population, stated it would only accept 10 percent of the country’s immigrants, or about 50,000 people a year. (The rationale given was that it wants to protect the French language.)

That leaves three-quarters of the rest of the country’s population to absorb 90 percent of the new arrivals – putting even more pressure on those regions.

Developers, meanwhile, face an evil stew of discouraging factors: inflated materials costs, labour shortages and increasing local government fees. (Toronto, in an egregious example, recently voted to increase developer fees by 46 percent over the next two years.)

Meanwhile, zoning rules erect barriers to multi-unit buildings in many areas that are limited to single-detached or semi-detached homes. As if that’s not enough, a complex and time-consuming approval process can delay projects for years.

Provinces have tried to intervene but with limited success. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s ill-conceived plan to give over sections of the Greenbelt protected zone to development was abandoned when it encountered a furious public backlash. And rightly so. Ford’s government failed to recognize the paradigm shift – we simply cannot build enough sprawling single-family homes to meet the need; we need lots and lots of high-density housing.

The British Columbia government, meanwhile, imposed construction targets for 10 municipalities in September 2023 to build more than 60,000 new housing units over five years. Municipalities responded that there aren’t enough planners to get the projects on stream in time to meet the deadline.

It is, in plain language, a s**t show.

Already, there are disturbing signs that our immigration policy is about to collapse on itself. The Institute for Canadian Citizenship has reported that growing numbers of immigrants to Canada are deciding to leave rather than stay.

Given these vexing challenges, the Trudeau government is backing off slightly on its immigration targets. Immigration Minister Marc Miller recently tabled new targets for the next three years in Parliament, which call for the number of new permanent residents to hold steady at 500,000 in 2026. Yet the targets for this year and 2025 will increase, as planned, to 485,000 and 500,000, respectively.

Miller also announced the federal government will cap the number of student permits over the next two years. For this year, the number will be about 360,000 undergraduate study permits for 2024 – 35 percent fewer than in 2023.

It’s not enough. Given that we are not even close to building housing fast enough to accommodate new residents, bringing nearly 1.5 million more people into the country by 2026 could turn the current housing crisis into a full-scale disaster.

Two things need to happen. First, the federal government must dramatically cut its immigration targets while the housing industry gets a chance to catch up to the demand. Secondly, there needs to be a national consensus on how we are to add housing that is affordable, sustainable and timely. Economic and regulatory roadblocks must be aggressively identified and removed.

And it falls to provincial governments to force their municipalities to get in touch with the times. We can’t afford Not In My Backyard resistance to high density anymore.

If we accept that our country needs to keep bringing in skilled workers to do jobs that will keep the economy alive, then all levels of government had better learn how to work together to provide the housing we need in communities we want to live in.

And they’d better get going fast.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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