Chairman's Desk

The Liberals tied immigration to housing: they need to prove it can work

The revamped Liberal cabinet retreats to Prince Edward Island this week while their party languishes in polling and the Conservatives surge. Underestimate Trudeau at your peril, perhaps, but something seems to have become particularly challenging.

While it is difficult to put your finger on just what that something is, it has become clear that much of that something is Canada’s housing crisis.

Apart from the PM himself, perhaps no one feels the heat on the way to Charlottetown more than Sean Fraser, the new housing minister. Fraser got this job because the Liberals have embarked on a strategy to tie immigration (Fraser previously led this portfolio) inexorably to housing, supposedly using newly arrived skilled labour to build the houses we desperately need.

All well and good, but it doesn’t seem Canadians are having any of it. The problem is, most Canadians aren’t convinced this works — and with house prices swelling, interest rates rising, and immigration continuing exponentially, I fear by combining these issues so closely the Liberals risk sparking a major backlash against their record-setting immigration plans.

Fraser has outlined his answer to the conundrum: add more supply through incentives to local governments and increase immigration rates to, in part, provide the labour required for this.

The new housing minister tackles this after the prime minister bluntly argued, “housing isn’t a primary federal responsibility.” On cleanup duty, Fraser later stated the federal government should be more active in developing and enacting housing policy, as it once was.

This, of course, is the right approach. Nevertheless, Fraser’s major challenge will be convincing Canadians that high immigration levels are good when many can’t afford homes.

This week, videos of Canadians tearily lamenting the cost of living went viral. The narrative that, after eight years in office, this government has left many — the very ones they promised to fight for — behind is beginning to set like cement.

Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has taken the government to task on housing with brutal effectiveness. He has managed to own this rhetorical stance while still supporting immigration — making the disconnect between the Liberal’s immigration policy and inaction on housing even harder to ignore.

Under Fraser’s oversight, immigration increased exponentially but integration remained plagued with accreditation issues and failed to correspond with housing supply: the national housing strategy has only resulted in just over 100,000 homes. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation determined 5.8 million more are needed over the next decade. In 2022, our population grew by over a million.

The Bank of Canada also acknowledged recently that immigration drives up housing demand. As the problem becomes more acute, this is where people will focus — not on the “mirage of economic prosperity” immigration otherwise contributes to.

The Liberals, if they are to have any hope of winning the next election, must convince Canadians immigration is in their near-term interests and that it will result in more houses being built. That’s a tall order when voters are being priced out of even the remotest dream of owning a home. It’s a disconnect that also dissuades immigrants from wanting to come here in the first place.

By failing to acknowledge this and rectify the integration issues in our immigration system so newcomers can positively contribute to the housing supply, the Liberals risk allowing the social cohesion they so value to fray. And when that starts, the uniquely Canadian support for significant levels of immigration will fray with it.

That would be a terrible shame. No one needs a lecture on the fundamental role immigration has played in our past and the crucial role it will play in our future — much less that it is simply right.

What isn’t right is an approach to this issue driven by complacency and inaction rather than by a fundamental commitment — not just to policy statements but to actually building new homes.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on August 20, 2023.

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