When it comes to housing in Ontario, the classic political question of whether you’re better off than four years ago depends mostly on whether you own.
People who had property when the Progressive Conservatives were elected have done very well – at least on paper. Across the province, the price of the average house is up 72 per cent since June, 2018, when the Tories took office, according to data from the Canadian Real Estate Association.
But many people who don’t own a home have started to worry that they may never be able to do so. And renters – 35 per cent of Ontario residents – have seen their costs soar as well.
“Housing affordability has definitely become a top-line election issue,” said Matti Siemiatycki, a professor in the department of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.
A survey done by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail found that about seven in 10 respondents were dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the ideas they were hearing from Ontario politicians during the provincial election campaign on how to make housing more affordable. (Nanos randomly dialled 515 adult Ontario residents, using land and cell lines, recruiting them to participate in an online survey between May 16 and 17. The margin of error for a random survey with a sample size of 515 is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
Although the price jumps were highest in the larger cities, with the average house nearing $1.3-million in the Greater Toronto Area, the knock-on effect has hit a wide swath of municipalities within a few hours of the provincial capital.
This has led to tensions among people displaced from communities they had called home. And some homeowners, while pleased with their windfall, are concerned about where their children might live. Others are perturbed by the inequity of market timing, turning some into millionaires while shutting out the less fortunate.
The question, though, is whether the current government will be blamed.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford didn’t create the pandemic real estate boom any more than he controls interest rates. And although the numbers are a little different in each city, real estate has been on a tear in many parts of the world.
The Tories can argue that they formed a housing affordability task force, though they ignored its most controversial recommendation to allow more housing units on residential properties, and that they increased the foreign buyers’ tax and expanded it to cover the whole province.
Mike Moffatt, an economist and senior director of the Smart Prosperity Institute, acknowledged those moves but said they came late.
“I think they could have done that sooner. … I think they may have been a little bit slow on this issue,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s much you can point to in their actions that caused [the housing market] to be where it is, but I think you could say, okay, they probably could have acted faster and maybe, had they, we wouldn’t be quite where we are today.”
A survey done by market research firm Abacus Data for the Ontario Real Estate Association found that 84 per cent of respondents said a party’s ideas for addressing housing affordability could be an important factor when deciding for whom to vote on June 2. (The survey of 1,500 Ontarian adults was conducted between May 5 and 8. According to Abacus, the margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is plus or minus 2.53, 19 times out of 20.)
As they campaign, politicians have to walk a contradictory line on housing. They need to offer hope to young people, immigrants and other would-be purchasers who desperately want prices to fall. But they also need to reassure existing homeowners that they won’t do anything to bring down prices.
The main parties are leaning heavily on the supply issue and promising to make it easier to build homes. But other than the Greens, the parties are unwilling to take on homeowners, a demographic that votes, by forcing city councils to loosen zoning rules.
The Tory housing force recommended doing so, allowing up to four units on any residential plot in the province. However, the government’s subsequent housing bill did not pursue this idea, with the housing minister saying that more collaboration with municipalities was necessary.
Prof. Siemiatycki sees political calculation in the Tories’ hesitancy on this file. He contrasted it with their bulldozer approach on various issues early in their term, including their determination to cut the size of Toronto city council, and argues the pullback on zoning was a strategic move aimed at shoring up votes.
“I think that was a signal that they’ve reached the end of what they felt was electorally possible,” he said.
“These were policies that were going to have a political impact, not just in the 416 [Toronto area code] and especially in the downtown core, where this government doesn’t have a strong electoral base, but was going to start to shift into the [suburban] 905, where this government got elected last time and where elections in Ontario are won and lost.”
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