Denley: Ottawa’s mayoral candidates talk housing, offer few solutions

The degree of government scrutiny given to the housing sector is wildly inappropriate for an industry that is producing new neighbourhoods, not nuclear waste.

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It’s no surprise that the major candidates for mayor are talking about housing. The shortage of it is one of the biggest problems Ottawa faces.

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Unfortunately, housing-policy debates quickly bog down in the swamp of complexity created by the politicians and planners who micromanage every aspect of the industry. The pressing question of how we build more houses can easily get lost.

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Politicians and their bureaucratic underlings at city hall weigh in on every imaginable aspect of a proposed housing project. Is it located in just the right spot? How will it affect the environment? Is it too high? Is it dense enough? Is it near the new city rail line? Is it esthetically appealing to city councillors?

The degree of government scrutiny given to the housing sector is wildly inappropriate for an industry that is producing new neighbourhoods, not nuclear waste. The surprise is not that the city is short of housing, but that any gets built at all.

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The Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association says Ottawa is nearly 24,000 homes short of what is required to serve our population right now. Eliminating that shortfall and meeting future demand would require about 100,000 new housing units over the next decade, the Smart Prosperity Institute says, substantially more than the 76,000 dwellings Ottawa’s new Official Plan promises.

This is not just an Ottawa problem, of course. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation said earlier this year that 2.3 million housing units will be built in Canada by the end of the decade, but an additional 3.5 million units would be required to restore housing affordability. That’s defined as housing costing no more than 40 per cent of your disposable income. The last time we had that kind of affordability was in 2004.

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The first step to resolving the problem is for governments at all levels to treat housing as a normal consumer good, the production of which is largely a matter between buyers and builders. Rather than employing planners who want to create the future they would personally prefer, leave choices up to homebuyers.

Let’s stop pretending that most of the city’s future housing needs can be met by intensification. It’s part of the solution, but land in the core is expensive and little boutique projects won’t produce the required housing volume.

Instead of trying to figure out exactly where the housing should go, increase development land supply by allowing new development anywhere that is contiguous with existing development.

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Perhaps most important, realize that developers are not the enemy. They’re the solution to the housing shortage.

Too many people in Ottawa seem to loathe developers because they are in business to make money. That anti-business feeling is what’s behind the complaints about a routine fundraiser held by mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe.

The progressive group Horizon Ottawa, which has endorsed Sutcliffe’s opponent Catherine McKenney, called Sutcliffe’s event “cash for access.” The group purported to be scandalized by the event, hosted by sports entrepreneur Jeff Hunt “at his private multi-million-dollar condo.”

There were apparently no developers at Sutcliffe’s event and he’s not taking any donations from people in the development industry, but that’s still not pure enough for Horizon Ottawa because other types of wealthy people were in attendance. It’s a silly critique. Nothing could be more normal during an election campaign than a fundraising event.

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If you’re going to run for mayor, you’d better have a few supporters with some money in their pockets. Mayor Jim Watson raised just over $410,000 in the 2018 election, a contest in which he faced only the mildest of competition. The mayor certainly didn’t turn his nose up at development industry donors, according to his campaign filings. Sutcliffe is setting a higher standard, which would seem to be the main point.

Sutcliffe, McKenney and candidate Bob Chiarelli all favour more housing. Who doesn’t? They are offering various tweaks and adjustments that might make some difference at the margins, but that’s it. That’s the real scandal.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at:

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