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OPINION: Back to the future

Joe Byrne, party leader of the P.E.I., at a nomination meeting on Thursday night. Byrne will be the party’s candidate in Charlottetown-Victoria Park.
Joe Byrne, party leader of the P.E.I. New Democrats. - Stu Neatby

NDP leader Joe Byrne examines housing crisis; historical roots and remedies for the future



You know what’s good about the housing crisis? We’ve all woken up to the fact that we have one. Even the banks. An RBC report this September declared that Canadian housing affordability was at its worst level in nearly 30 years.

All of us are concerned now, and we have come to realize that no one sector is going to solve the challenges. It will take us all — governments at municipal and band, provincial and federal levels, private developers and landlords, community and tenant organizations.

Regrettably, there has been a tendency to lay blame on some particular factor — on immigration, Airbnbs, a job boom.

RELATED: PC MLAs say lengthy delays in building permit approval contributing to P.E.I. housing crisis

But the fundamental problem is not some recent phenomenon. The truth is that we have housing shortages because for more than two decades both federal and provincial governments chose not to invest in housing; they quit backing provincial, municipal and other community efforts to provide accommodation. We are now living with the consequences of that poor policy decision.

There is a path forward to address the need. What’s wanted is an over-arching strategy, one that has years-long vision for all aspects of housing — building, owning, managing and maintaining. The core of that strategy lies chiefly in public, not-for-profit responsibility to provide for the future.

The path forward actually uses the lessons of the past. We need to get back to using the resources of all parties, not just the commercial, as government has done for 20 years, relying solely on private developers to supply the market. The provincial government became the biggest landlord in the province, but it did not get past providing public housing for seniors and certain families.

It left it to private builders and managers to serve everyone else, according to market forces. Except for some seniors’ units, P.E.I.’s government has not built public housing since the early 1990s.

So, what’s the NDP concept of good housing? It’s the idea of genuine neighbourhood: a healthy, inclusive mix of generations and household composition, with options that fit a broad range of budget, and suit people with different needs.

It has public transit. It’s close to stores and services, and friendly to walkers, cyclists, wheelchair or scooter users. Its buildings incorporate the best technology to reduce carbon footprint. There’s green space, and there’s parkland close by.

New Democrats believe in a chiefly public strategy, with these as the main prongs:

- The responsibility of the provincial government to lead, and to actually build and manage a number of affordable homes for a variety of clientele;

- partnering with the federal resources of CMHC;

- backing (money, expertise, facilitation), for municipalities, and also non-profit community groups (co-ops, Habitat, CMHA, and labour groups), to construct and operate housings;

- continued encouragement for private developers to construct housing of various kinds, using results-related incentives such as tax advantage, to include types and income-levels;

- elected resident boards for on-the-scene management of public housing;

- a provincial land bank to acquire and protect land to be used for affordable housing;

- using statutory regulation to set rules about quality of construction and upkeep inspection, about quotas for affordable units, about conditions for short-term rentals, and about tenant rights and other matters under the Rental of Residential Property law.

Can we afford it? The simple answer is that society can, and has to. How could we not use our collective wealth to provide what is essential to health and quality-of-life for all our citizens? To boost the revenue from current taxation, we can apply a room tax and/or a portion of HST to short-term rentals, and use the commercial rate of tax for any operation which gets used for that purpose.

A program for investors, including immigrant investors, to put their money into 5-year affordable-housing bonds with a moderate yield of interest.

With its history of social-justice fairness and activism, and with the belief that housing is a human right, the NDP has a clear vision here; and the conviction that it can be done. It’s time to get going.

- Joe Byrne is provincial leader, PEI NDP

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