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Costly construction isn’t the culprit behind unaffordable housing

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From the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

By Wendell Cox

Land restriction creates what amount to land cartels. A now smaller number of landowners gain windfall profits, which, of course, encourages speculation

The latest Demographia report on housing affordability in Canada, which I produce for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, reveals that over half of the 46 Canadian housing markets we assess are severely unaffordable. In fact, Vancouver and Toronto rank as third and 10th least affordable, respectively, among the 94 major global markets included in our latest international housing affordability study.

To evaluate housing costs, we utilize the “median multiple,” which divides the median house price within a given market (census metropolitan area) by its median household income. A multiple equal to or less than 3.0 is categorized as “affordable,” while anything exceeding 5.0 is labelled “severely unaffordable.”

Among the major Canadian housing markets, Vancouver (with a median multiple of 12), Toronto (9.5), Montreal (5.4), and Ottawa-Gatineau (5.2) fall into the severely unaffordable category. Vancouver has maintained a high median multiple for several decades, while Toronto has been in this range for approximately two decades. The increased prevalence of telecommuting has recently contributed to Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau’s affordability challenges, leading to a surge in demand for larger homes and properties in more distant suburbs. In contrast, housing in Edmonton (4.0) and Calgary (4.3) remains comparatively affordable.

In Toronto and Vancouver, the implementation of international urban planning principles, particularly those promoting anti-sprawl measures like greenbelts and agricultural preserves, has led to unprecedented price hikes. This “urban containment” approach has consistently driven up land values where it has been adopted. And high land values rather than increased construction costs are what explain the substantial disparity between severely unaffordable and more budget-friendly markets.

Land restriction creates what amount to land cartels. A now smaller number of landowners gain windfall profits, which, of course, encourages speculation. Maintaining or restoring affordability requires eliminating windfall profits by ensuring a competitive market for land.

Another issue arises from urban planners’ preference for higher-density housing, such as high-rise condos. Some households may prefer high-rise living, but families with children typically seek housing with more land, whether detached or semi-detached. When they’re priced out of good housing markets, their quality of life suffers and they may even fall into poverty.

The troubling paradox is that unaffordable housing is far more common in markets like Vancouver and Toronto, which have embraced the planning orthodoxy — which is supposed to produce affordable housing. The same applies to international markets like Sydney, Auckland, London and San Francisco, where urban containment and unaffordable housing have gone hand in hand.

What’s the solution? Give up on urban containment and make more land available for housing. But wouldn’t that threaten the natural environment, as critics of Ontario’s recent attempt to allow development of a sliver of its greenbelt argued?

Not at all. It’s true that land under cultivation in Canada has been declining steadily over the years. But the culprit is improved agricultural productivity, not urban expansion. According to Statistics Canada, between 2001 and 2021, agricultural land shrank 53,000 square kilometres. That’s about equal to the land area of Nova Scotia. And it’s about triple all the area urbanized since European settlement began. Even in Ontario and B.C. where most of the severely unaffordable markets are concentrated, urban expansion from 2016 to 2021 took up less than one-quarter of the agricultural loss over that period. Urban expansion is not squeezing out agricultural land.

Given all this, what should we do about affordability? In my view, three things:

First, it’s essential to acknowledge that Canadians are already addressing the issue by relocating from pricier to more affordable regions. Housing is more affordable in the Atlantic and Prairie provinces and areas in Quebec east of Montreal. So it’s not surprising there is now a net influx of people to smaller, typically more affordable, locations. In the past five years, markets with populations exceeding 100,000 have collectively witnessed over 250,000 people moving to smaller markets.

Second, make more land available for development in increasingly unaffordable markets like B.C., southern Ontario, and the Montreal-Ottawa corridor. One way is with “housing opportunity enclaves” (HOEs), in which traditional, i.e., not high-density, housing regulations would apply, but essential environmental and safety regulations would. The aim would be to provide middle-income housing at the price-to-income ratios that were typical before urban containment came along and housing across the country was largely affordable.

Market-driven development would be ensured by relying on the private sector to provide housing, land, and infrastructure, a model that has been successful in Colorado and Texas. Current residents would maintain their property rights but could sell to private parties and First Nations for development.

HOEs would be situated far enough outside major centres to take advantage of low-priced land, prioritizing areas with the largest recent agricultural land reductions. Communities likely would resemble Waverly West in Winnipeg or The Woodlands in Houston, with ample housing space and yards for families with children.

These new communities would attract people working at least partly from home. Jobs would naturally follow, creating self-contained communities where most commutes occurred within the HOE. To ensure a competitive market and prevent land cost escalation, HOEs must have ample land available.

Third, public authorities should allocate an ample amount of suburban land to safeguard reasonable land values in the Prairie and Atlantic provinces, as well as in Quebec east of Montreal. This would allow currently more affordable markets such as Quebec City, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Moncton and Halifax to accommodate interprovincial migrants without jeopardizing their affordability.

Provincial and local governments would need to monitor housing affordability multiples on at least a five-year cycle, and legislatures, land use authorities and city councils would have to allow enough low-cost land development to maintain price-to-income stability.

It’s not enough just to provide enough building lots to meet projected demand. The goal should be to enable builders to provide housing at prices middle-income households can afford. The key to that is affordable land.

Wendell Cox is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He is the author of 2023 Edition Of Demographia Housing Affordability In Canada and has been featured on Leaders on the Frontier – Cost of Living Under Crisis With Charles Blain.

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Trudeau gov’t set to introduce another internet regulation bill this week

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From LifeSiteNews

By Anthony Murdoch

While the Trudeau government claims its forthcoming ‘Online Harms’ bill is being created to protect kids, Conservative Party of Canada head Pierre Poilievre said that the federal government is just looking for clever ways to enact internet censorship laws.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is introducing its “online harms” legislation this week, spurring fears that this may mean the revival of parts of a lapsed bill from 2021 which looked to target free speech by banning certain legal internet content. 

The new bill, by Liberal Justice Minister Arif Virani, was posted on the House of Commons notice paper for February 26, 2024, and will soon be read in Parliament. 

The Online Harms Act will modify existing laws, amending the Criminal Code as well as the Canadian Human Rights Act, in what the Trudeau Liberals claim will target certain cases of internet content removal, notably those involving child sexual abuse and pornography.  

The new bill will also create an ombudsperson who will be charged with dealing with public complaints regarding online content, as well as put forth a regulatory function that will be charged with monitoring internet platform behaviors.  

While the Trudeau government claims the bill is being created to protect kids, Conservative Party of Canada head Pierre Poilievre said that the federal government is looking for clever ways to enact internet censorship laws.  

During a February 21 press conference, Poilievre said that Trudeau is looking to, in effect, criminalize speech he does not like. 

“What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the word ‘hate speech?’ He means speech he hates,” said Poilievre. 

Virani had many times last year hinted that a new Online Harms Act bill would be forthcoming in 2024.  

Of important note is that the new Online Harms Act looks to amend Canada’s Human Rights Act, to put back in place a hate speech provision, specifically, Section 13 of the Act, which the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper had repealed in 2013.  

It was feared that if passed, it would target bloggers and social media users for speaking their minds.  

Bill C-36 included text to amend Canada’s Criminal Code and Human Rights Act to define “hatred” as “the emotion that involves detestation or vilification and that is stronger than dislike or disdain (haine).”  

If passed, the bill would have theoretically allow a tribunal to judge anyone who has a complaint of online “hate” leveled against them, even if he has not committed a crime. If found guilty, the person would have been in violation of the new law and could have faced fines of up to $70,000 as well as house arrest.  

Two other Trudeau bills dealing with freedom as it relates to the internet have become law, the first being  Bill C-11, or the Online Streaming Act, which mandates that Canada’s broadcast regulator the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) oversee regulating online content on platforms such as YouTube and Netflix to ensure that such platforms are promoting content in accordance with a variety of its guidelines.  

Trudeau’s other internet censorship law, the Online News Act, was passed by the Senate in June of last year.    

The Online News Act  mandated that Big Tech companies pay to publish Canadian content on their platforms. As a result, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has blocked all access to news content in Canada.

Critics of Trudeau’s recent laws, such as tech mogul Elon Musk, have said it shows that “Trudeau is trying to crush free speech in Canada.”

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Alberta

Canadians in three provinces will spend roughly the same on debt interest as K-12 education

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From the Fraser Institute

By Grady Munro and Jake Fuss

From 2008/09 to 2023/24, the federal government is projected to have run deficits every single year, with no interruptions. This has resulted in federal net debt (total debt minus financial assets) increasing by $603.6 billion (inflation-adjusted).

For more than a decade, Canadian governments have increasingly relied on borrowed money to fund their excessive spending habits. However, as debt has continued to pile up so have the costs associated with this debt—namely interest costs. A recent study shows that in some of the largest provinces, governments now spend nearly as much or more on debt interest costs than on K-12 education.

Since the 2008/09 financial crisis, governments across Canada have fallen into the habit of utilizing debt to fund their spending habits. For example, consider the federal government.

From 2008/09 to 2023/24, the federal government is projected to have run deficits every single year, with no interruptions. This has resulted in federal net debt (total debt minus financial assets) increasing by $603.6 billion (inflation-adjusted). Conversely, from 1996/97 to 2007/08, the federal government actually lowered its net debt by $348.1 billion (inflation-adjusted). Clearly, there’s been a shift in the government’s approach towards debt accumulation.

This is not simply a federal problem, as provinces have also seen their debt burdens rise as well. Cumulatively, provincial and federal net debt has increased by $1.0 trillion (inflation-adjusted) from 2007/08 to 2023/24.

Government debt carries costs, primarily in the form of the interest payments, which represent money that doesn’t go towards paying down the actual debt amount, nor does it go towards providing government services or tax relief. And since governments must utilize tax revenues to pay interest, taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for servicing government debt.

But how much do Canadians actually pay in debt interest costs?

Using data from the most recent fiscal updates, a new study compares combined (federal and provincial) debt interest costs for residents in three of the largest provinces (OntarioQuebec and Alberta) with what those provinces expect to spend on K-12 education in 2023/24. The study utilizes combined debt interest costs because Canadians are ultimately responsible for interest costs incurred by both the federal government and the province in which they live. The following chart summarizes the comparisons from the study.

As is clear from the chart, combined interest costs for residents in these provinces are nearly as much or more than their province expects to spend on K-12 education in 2023/24. Specifically, combined interest costs are $31.5 billion for Ontarians, which is only $3.2 billion less than the province will spend on K-12 education in 2023/24. Combined interest costs for Quebecers ($20.3 billion) will actually exceed the $19.9 billion the province will devote towards K-12 education. And combined interest costs for Albertans are only slightly lower than the $8.9 billion that will be spent on K-12 education.

In other words, taxpayers in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta are paying nearly as much or more to service federal and provincial government debt than they are paying to fund K-12 education in their province. This budget season, it’s important to remember the costs associated with growing government debt.

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