Mayors say housing crisis is 'dire,' 'desperate.' Is Ottawa doing enough?

WATCH: In a candid conversation on the season premiere of ‘The West Block’ London’s mayor Josh Morgan tells host Mercedes Stephenson that all levels of government need to get around the same table and cooperate because “blaming one level of government or another does not get more units in the ground quicker.”

The mayors of two of Canada’s rapidly-growing cities say the housing crises their residents are facing is “desperate” and “dire,” and are encouraging all levels of government to work together to solve them as quickly as possible.

In a joint interview with Mercedes Stephenson that aired Sunday on The West Block, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek and London, Ont., Mayor Josh Morgan said they are welcoming federal funding programs dedicated to the building of new housing units, but added more needs to be done to turn things around.

“There’s no time for delay here,” Morgan said.

Both Gondek and Morgan give similar explanations for why their cities are facing a housing crunch: interprovincial migration driven by people leaving higher-priced jurisdictions; international immigration, including students from abroad and refugees fleeing the wars in Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere; and growing local job markets that are attracting workers.

“It’s really sort of the perfect storm,” Gondek said.

She said ever since the COVID-19 pandemic exposed vulnerabilities people faced when it came to housing, “we’ve been taking in a lot more people, over 60 individuals a day if you break down the math, and we just can’t keep pace.

“So it’s really come to this critical point.”

A City of Calgary report this year noted the city’s population increased by three per cent since last spring, marking “the most significant annual increase in population in Calgary’s history.” London was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in Ontario in 2021 and remained in the top three last year, according to Statistics Canada data.

Morgan said the number of people experiencing homelessness in his city jumped from 300 at the start of the pandemic to around 2,000 today. In Calgary, Gondek said 245 families are currently in need of housing.

“The housing situation is very desperate,” Morgan said.

The Liberal government has begun rolling out housing announcements as it faces criticism and a slump in the polls. Last Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Ottawa was removing the GST on construction of new rental apartment buildings — a move Trudeau first promised in the 2015 election that brought the Liberals to power.

A day before, London was announced as the first city in the country to sign a deal with the federal government under the $4-billion national Housing Accelerator Fund.

The city can tap $74 million in federal funds through its proposal to allow four units to be built on a single property, even in low-density neighbourhoods, and for high-density developments to be built without the need for rezoning.

Morgan said the federal funds will allow for 2,200 more units to be built on top of the 9,400 units already committed over the next three years.

“(The funding) will really allow us to take things to the next level,” he said.

The accelerator fund was first announced in the spring 2022 federal budget, but applications weren’t accepted until July. Morgan said he and city staff worked hard to ensure it filed its application quickly.

During the announcement last Wednesday, Trudeau blamed municipalities for the fact it took 17 months to get a single project approved under the program. He said London was the fastest to respond to federal calls for plans that eliminate barriers like zoning rules that slow down the approval and building processes.

“I don’t think anyone partner can say they blame the other,” Morgan said. “I think we all have shared responsibility for this.

“That means the federal government, the provincial government, the municipal government, the building sector and the not-for-profit sector, and of course the financial sector, all have a role to play in the creation of housing.”

Gondek said Calgary has created “a really strong application” to the Housing Accelerator Fund that she hopes will be approved quickly.

City council is currently deliberating a revamped municipal housing strategy aimed at addressing affordability and availability. Many of the measures are meant to align with federal calls to remove building barriers, such as exclusionary zoning.

Last Thursday, Gondek posted to social media a letter she received from Housing Minister Sean Fraser that explicitly tied approval of Calgary’s housing fund application to passing the priorities laid out in the city’s housing strategy.

“We will never solve the housing crisis in Calgary if it is not legal to build the homes required to meet the moment,” Fraser wrote in the letter that Gondek released on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“(In) order to receive a positive decision from me on your application — you must end exclusionary zoning in your city.”

Gondek didn’t address Fraser’s demand during the interview with Stephenson, but she said the money Calgary could receive if its application is approved would “make a big impact on the lives of many Calgarians” facing homelessness or having trouble finding a home.

“There’s going to be a lot more needed and we’ve got to collaborate as three orders of government, or we are never going to be able to address this very big issue we have,” she said.

“But this is a really good start.”

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is estimating Canada will need an additional 3.5 million new homes by 2030 to restore affordability. Trudeau has not committed to meeting that target.

Gondek and Morgan agreed municipal leaders need to be part of the conversations with provincial and federal counterparts on tackling the housing crisis together. That includes putting partisanship aside and not resorting to casting blame on any level of government.

The stakes, Gondek said, are simply too great.

“It’s incredibly dire and we have to take action quickly,” she said.

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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