Because we are living in an age of deeply unserious politics, we have seen yet another example of how correctly stating whose jurisdiction a particular constitutional responsibility lies becomes the dumbest political scandal. To wit, on Monday, prime minister Justin Trudeau stated that housing is primarily not a federal responsibility, but that the federal government was going to step up and do what they could do help provinces and municipalities with the crisis that we have collectively been sleepwalking into for a couple of decades now. Immediately, opposition leaders, the pundit class and much of legacy media all declared that these words would haunt Trudeau, because as we are all well aware by now, the discourse in this country is completely dysfunctional when it comes to discussions about jurisdiction—something that the premiers have long been able to take advantage of in order to avoid responsibility for the messes that they’ve created and refuse to clean up.
As legacy media has declared that “nobody cares about jurisdiction,” it has given tacit permission for opposition politicians to simply lie about what the government is doing, and should be doing—not to mention about what they would do if they were in government. To that end, Pierre Poilievre summoned journalists to a scrum outside of the West Block on Tuesday, and tried to ridicule Trudeau’s assertion about federal responsibility, pointing out that policies around immigration, infrastructure and taxes are things the federal government has power over, and that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is federal (ignoring of course that it operates at arm’s length from government). None of these, however, are an actual constitutional responsibility around housing, and none of these addresses any of the root problems around the housing crisis.
Yes, the federal government could and should create tax incentives for purpose-built rental housing, but that won’t help if you can’t get a permit or zoning for a rental property, whether a low-rise gentle-density building on a single lot or a high-rise. We cannot forget that in some cities like Vancouver, there are tens of millions of federal dollars for affordable housing projects that are languishing because the city won’t issue the permits for them. The federal government has already mandated housing and density around infrastructure projects they help fund, and they are already finding federal properties that they can either sell or develop into housing—things Poilievre says he would do if he were to form government (but more likely would just take credit for the work already done).
What Trudeau cannot do, which Poilievre pretends he could if he were in government, is force municipalities to give out more building permits. There is no constitutional power to do so, and if you think that picking fights with mayors and threatening to withhold federal infrastructure dollars to do so is a winning gambit and not a recipe for prologued court battles, well, you’re in for a surprise. Trudeau’s government is trying to use a carrot approach with their $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund to incentivize municipalities to use that money to streamline their processes or undertake other processes that can get more housing projects started, but it also took them a year to start getting that money out the door, so there is a lengthy turnaround time for any of these kinds of policies.
Trudeau also cannot force lower rents or stop “corporate landlords” or the practice of renovictions, as Jagmeet Singh demands, because landlord/tenant legislation is entirely provincial. Yes, the Liberals did make some kind of a promise around “renovictions” in the last election, but they have never laid out just what mechanism they hope to use to stop them, which is as much of a problem in terms of the misleading processes that other parties are making on the housing file. Singh also accuses Trudeau of not showing leadership and simply pointing fingers at provinces and municipalities, but he has never articulated just what “showing leadership” is supposed to look like when you don’t have the federal levers to fix the root problems, which are very much about cities refusing density, and the NIMBYism that pervades this obstruction.
Another sub-plot to this crisis has been the concern-trolling around immigration numbers, and how “irresponsible” it is for the federal government to maintain high levels when we have a housing shortage. Frankly, this is not only a gateway to racist commentary (and believe me, I see it all the time in my social media), but we continue to need these high immigration levels because of our labour shortage and aging population. If anything, this should be a kick in the ass for the provinces to do something about the housing crisis, especially as provinces like Ontario demand more control over the immigrants they want to settle in the province. The added issue of international students not being able to find housing is a crisis that the provinces entirely created for themselves by cutting funds to post-secondary institutions and freezing tuitions, which forced those institutions to seek more international students (whom they can soak for much higher tuition). They should be held to account for this.
Because housing is a provincial responsibility, and because municipalities are creatures of the provinces under the constitution, premiers have the power to do something about this crisis, whether it’s abolishing R1-zoning in municipalities, forcing density targets, or using their own resources to build and maintain social housing (particularly in light of the fact that many provinces took federal dollars intended for that housing and then spent it on other things). We should also have legacy media demanding accountability for this from provincial governments like they’re supposed to do. Instead, we get them saying things like “a federal responsibility is what voters tell the federal government its responsibility is,” or demands that the federal government “force the provinces to force municipalities” to do something—because apparently the prime minister can just Green Lantern away Sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution. If the premiers are going to be forced to move, it’s because their voters are demanding action, and that can’t happen so long as we collectively keep making excuses for them and trying to blame the federal government instead.