In a recent interview with BNN Bloomberg, former Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps said that the federal government’s decision to step back from housing issues in the late 1980s has had long-term detrimental impacts on the country’s housing landscape. She pointed to the period when Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) was actively involved in housing policy, noting that there was “a significant amount of national investment in housing as well as housing policy and strategy.”
“The decision that was made back in 1987 to get out of housing at the federal level has resulted in 30 years of underbuilt housing, and also 30 years of not really analyzing good public policy on housing,” Copps said. “I think that’s a big issue.”
Shifting Policy Landscape
Copps, who also served as a Liberal deputy prime minister during the 1990s, recalled that in the 1970s, the federal government played a more active role in housing initiatives. These included specialized housing projects aimed at senior citizens and Indigenous communities.
However, the situation changed during the 1980s when housing policy responsibilities were transferred to provincial governments. Copps said some provinces, like Quebec, allocated funds for social housing, but many did not. “When the provincial governments took over the money (intended for housing), a lot of them didn’t actually spend it on housing,” she added.
The Federal Return to Housing Policy
According to Copps, it wasn’t until 2017 that the federal government, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal administration, decided to re-enter the housing policy arena. This marked the start of new collaborations to address the housing shortage and affordability issues that have been affecting Canadian cities for decades.
“Now five years later, we’re looking at a problem that has been percolating since we signed off on housing back in 1987,” Copps observed. “Sometimes a national government needs to be at the table to fix problems and leaving it up to 10 provinces and three territories is not always the right way to go.”
Encouraging Migration for Housing Relief
In addition to advocating for an increase in housing supply, Copps suggested that a federal housing strategy should also include incentives to move people away from overpopulated urban centers.
“The other thing we need to look at is what the housing prices are in rural and remote communities versus urban areas and how we can encourage people to move around. We learned during the pandemic that everybody doesn’t have to live in downtown Toronto,” Copps said.
She concluded by highlighting the importance of having a national government involved in solving the crisis: “There’s lots of opportunities to make people think about migrating elsewhere and getting maybe extra points for a registered homeownership investment plan. These things should be built into the thinking and to have that you really need to have a national government that is not just looking at building housing.”