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Chris Spoke: This election is an opportunity for Ontario to get serious about housing

Commentary

It’s been a week since Ontario announced the membership of its Housing Affordability Task Force. The idea is that these experts will work in consultation with as many stakeholders as possible to develop a plan to address the province’s housing affordability crisis.

I have some ideas for changes that they should include in their final output. If accepted and successfully implemented, these would do a lot to unlock the massive potential of missing middle housing development in Ontario’s cities.

To place this all in context, consider the following: to accommodate future growth, we’ll need to build at least one million new homes in Ontario over the next ten years. That’s much more than the approximately 720,000 that were completed over the last ten years.

There are 850,000 detached and 250,000 semi-detached homes in Toronto alone. If it were legal for these to be converted to lowrise multi-unit housing, or what planners call missing middle housing, converting just 15 percent of them to fourplexes (or 10 percent of them to sixplexes) would deliver half of those one million new homes.

Here are a few ideas to allow for more missing middle housing throughout the province that I’ve organized into three categories: pre-election, platform, and post-election.

Pre-election

The next five to six months should be used by the province to demonstrate that it’s serious about addressing housing affordability with strong supply-side reforms while not actually touching land-use rules—yet. (Meaningful land use liberalization is as much a third rail in Western politics as any, but it is necessary. It should be saved for the first 100 days following the election.)

Specifically, the province should make three big changes that would set the stage for a boom in missing middle housing development once those land-use rules are updated.

First, it should exempt buildings of up to eight units from site plan control.

Currently, any development project featuring more than three or four units, depending on the municipality, needs to undertake a lengthy and expensive site plan control process before it can apply for and receive any building permits.

Without going into too much detail on the steps involved in the site plan control process, that threshold should be bumped up to eight units.

Second, it should amend the Ontario Building Code to allow for a single exit, with alternative fire measures implemented, on buildings up to four storeys tall.

Currently, all multi-unit development projects require two exits. This one requirement can often mean the difference between a feasible and infeasible project at the scale we’re talking about, as missing middle housing is often built on small urban infill sites.

The Ontario Building Code could allow for one exit with alternative fire measures implemented (for example, a sprinkler system) without affecting resident safety. The Ontario Association of Architects, among other professional groups, agrees that this is a good idea.

Third, it should amend the Condominium Act to allow for easier small-scale land stratification at the missing middle scale. 

This one’s pretty straightforward: it shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive to condominiumize a fourplex. The easy way to do this would be to just copy British Columbia’s framework.

Platform

The election platforms of all parties should be used to rhetorically emphasize their seriousness about addressing the housing affordability issue while not being too specific about the more controversial aspects of those supply-side reforms.

Remember, we call NIMBYs “NIMBYs” because they all insist that they’re very much pro-development, just not in or anywhere near their backyard.

All three parties should include language in their platforms around working with municipalities to allow for more missing middle housing in more neighbourhoods.

The key here is to stress the economic, environmental, and social benefits of gentle intensification in a way that would be hard for any opposition to form and attack in the abstract.

Post-election

Now for the fun stuff. The first 100 days following the election are when the big, controversial changes need to be made.

Remember: housing is expensive because there’s not enough of it, and there’s not enough of it because of a strong and pervasive status quo bias to preserve the so-called character of our urban neighbourhoods.

If you want to overcome a status quo bias, you need to establish a new status quo as quickly as possible ahead of the next election.

The first 100 days following the election are when the province needs to force meaningful land-use liberalization.

These are three ideas for what that should look like, which I’m borrowing (with some amendment) from a bill that was just introduced in the New York State Senate last week:

  • No minimum lot sizes above 1,200 square feet;
  • No minimum parking requirements; and
  • No maximum building heights below 12 meters; and
  • Every residential lot must allow a minimum of four units, or six units within a population centre of 500,000 or more people, or eight units within 800 meters of a major transit station.

Taken together, these changes would lead to an unprecedented boom in missing middle housing development over the next few decades.

They would also open our urban neighbourhoods back up to the young, the new, and the middle class while curbing urban sprawl and kickstarting a new wave of upward mobility.

Given the severity of the housing affordability crisis and the extraordinary appetite for bold action, the province has a generational opportunity to chart a new path for our future.

We should all hope that they choose one that includes many more homes for many more people.

Caylan Ford: Canada has a fertility crisis. Enfranchising babies could be the solution

Commentary

Canada has a fertility crisis. Last year, the average number of children born to Canadian women dropped to a new low of 1.4. That’s a steep decline from 1.47 children per woman just one year earlier, and far below the natural replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

Figures for 2021 are not yet available, but early indicators don’t give much cause for optimism: the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic has led about one in five Canadians of child-bearing age to adjust their parenting intentions, either by delaying children, having fewer than previously planned, or abandoning the idea altogether.

To reverse these trends, we will need to create social rewards for responsible parenthood, incentivize families that have more children, and encourage public policy that serves the interests of families and the next generation.

A good place to start would be to give children the vote.

I don’t mean something silly like lowering the voting age to 16 or 14 or some other arbitrary figure, as a new Senate private members bill proposes to do. I mean the enfranchisement of children, and even newborns, with their vote being exercised by their custodial parents until they reach the legal age of majority.

This is, admittedly, a novel approach. On the rare occasions that policymakers talk about our cratering fertility rate, the problem is framed almost exclusively in economic terms: without enough children, we won’t have the future workers and taxpayers needed to support our public healthcare system or pay for the vast unfunded liabilities of our public pension schemes.

Large-scale immigration is offered as the solution: a way to compensate for, or at least temporarily paper over, the problem of an aging population. But its impact has been oversold. Immigrants and their children quickly adapt to the country’s dominant fertility patterns, meaning they don’t have substantially more children than native-born Canadians. Many newly arrived Canadians are also accompanied by their own aging parents, and all of them will grow old themselves.

More importantly, international migration does not solve the underlying issue: that too many Canadians—including new Canadians—are either unwilling or unable to replace themselves. As a people and a nation, we don’t seem to have the will to carry on.

This is not primarily an economic problem. It is a spiritual problem, reflecting some combination of civilizational exhaustion, pessimism about the future, growing atomization, a myopic fixation on personal autonomy and material enrichment at the expense of abiding social commitments or inter-generational obligations, and a faltering belief that life is good and meaningful and worth passing on.

For those of us not destined for sainthood, infamy, or literary greatness, having children is our best shot at immortality. As the philosopher Leon Kass writes, children provide “an opening to the future beyond the grave,” and a means of overcoming the finitude of perishable human existence. “A hope-filled repayment forward of the debt we owe backward for our own life and rearing, our children represent also our share in the perpetual renewal of human possibility.”

A culture that does not want children is, in some sense, one that has ceased to hope. It has either forgotten or repudiated its past, and so has no sense of obligation to the future.

There are other factors at work besides existential malaise. A dearth of romantic partners who are interested in commitment and children may be another factor—whether caused by a breakdown in sexual norms, the loss of cultural scripts for effective family formation, a growing academic and professional achievement gap between men and women, or something else. Our culture’s relentlessly competitive, careerist orientation doesn’t help either; a society that esteems mobility and geographic rootlessness is unlikely to provide parents with the kind of social and familial support networks that young families rely on.

Whatever the causes, low fertility is a problem that compounds exponentially with each generation. It is also self-reinforcing: the fewer children Canadians have, the less child-friendly the country is liable to become, leading to even more depressed fertility.

Some governments have tried to induce people to have more children by offering paid parental leave, tax relief or income splitting, and cash benefits. In Hungary, for example, married couples who remain together and have children are given cash benefits, and women with four or more children are exempt for life from paying personal income tax.

Such transfers of wealth from childless to child-raising people are entirely justifiable. After all, the benefits that childless people expect to enjoy in their old age will be paid for by the children that other people sacrificed to raise. But while potentially good in themselves, financial benefits and tax arrangements for parents aren’t enough to substantially alter fertility patterns.

One could argue that this is because financial supports to parents are simply inadequate: tax credits and child benefits in Canada don’t come anywhere near covering the practical and opportunity costs of having children, and they should be raised. But as demographer Paul Demeny warned, applying more of the same medicine and “trying to buy children on the cheap” won’t work unless we also change the deep institutional structures, and the values embedded therein, that inhibit family formation. These problems cannot be altered by tinkering with household finances.

Moreover, some ostensibly pro-family policies can actually undermine children and families. Consider the Liberal government’s new childcare plan: over the next five years the federal government, in partnership with provinces, plans to fund universal daycare across the country at a projected annual cost to taxpayers of between $17 billion to $36.3 billion.

Although presented as a family policy, universal public daycare is fundamentally anti-natalist. It is not designed to maximize the well-being of small children, whose health and non-cognitive development suffers the more time they spend in institutional daycare settings. Nor does it strengthen families: the introduction of universal daycare in Quebec was correlated with declines in parental satisfaction and more strained and inconsistent parental relationships. The Liberal plan disincentivizes stay-at-home parenting, as well as community and kin-based childcare arrangements. Its purpose is to encourage parents—specifically mothers of young children—to re-enter the workforce as soon as possible. It reinforces the message that children are a burden and a distraction from parents’ true vocation, which is to be wage-earners. Calling it a childcare plan is disingenuous: it is an economic policy pretending to be a family policy.

Which brings us back to the vote.

It may strain the limits of our political imagination, but the idea of children voting by proxy is not new. Called “Demeny voting,” after Hungarian-born demographer Paul Demeny (mentioned above), the idea resurfaces every few years in advanced, industrialized countries, including Japan, France, Austria, Germany, Hungary.

In 1923, a proposal to assign votes to women and children was endorsed by the French National Assembly but never implemented (the extra votes would have been exercised by male heads of households). It was also discussed with some seriousness in Germany in the 1990s, and in 2011 a version of Demeny voting was proposed by Hungary’s ruling party (the idea met resistance, in part because it would increase the electoral representation of the Roma people). In 2013, the concept was promoted by the left-leaning Canadian economist Miles Corak, and described favourably in a New York Times column by Canada’s now-Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

For centre-left proponents, Demeny voting is appealing as a way to address intergenerational inequality. As societies age, they become susceptible to gerontocracy. Older generations use their electoral clout to shift policy and public resources in their favour—for example, by ratcheting up the national debt, or promoting unsustainable environmental practices, at the expense of younger generations. Assigning votes to children, via their parents, could restore some generational balance. (And, if we’re being cynical about it, it’s also a way of reducing the relative electoral clout of older voters, who typically lean conservative).

The cause of childhood enfranchisement-by-proxy has also been advanced as a civil rights concern. Earlier this month, a group of Canadian youths sued the federal government to remove the minimum voting age, arguing that the systematic exclusion of children from the right to vote violates aspects of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is premised on the idea that children have distinct interests, as well as essential rights to freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly. But, recognizing the limits to their maturity, competence, and responsibility, it stipulates that parents have a role in directing and guiding the exercise of those rights. If you squint hard enough, the convention could be read as an endorsement of Demeny voting.

For conservative advocates, such as U.S. Senate candidate and author J.D. Vance, Demeny voting is a way of recognizing that parents have a direct, biological stake in the future health and sustainability of their societies. They also make enormous personal sacrifices to raise the next generation, on whom all of us will one day rely. Not only does society fail to adequately reflect the interests of younger generations at the expense of older ones, it also increasingly reflects the priorities of the childless over the child-raising.

Vance noted that leading figures in the American Democratic party, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pete Buttigieg, were all childless. His caricature of the “childless left” is not reliable as a heuristic—Nancy Pelosi has five children, Joe Biden had four, and Buttigieg has since adopted—but it does contain a kernel of truth: self-identified progressives are significantly less likely than conservatives to be married (67 percent vs. 39 percent), and they have far fewer children than conservatives do. (Relatedly, progressives are also much less likely than conservatives to say they have meaning in their lives). But despite having “no physical commitment to the future” of their country, progressive activists exercise disproportionate influence, dominating virtually all major political, cultural, educational, and corporate institutions. The childless are increasingly determining the kind of world that other people’s children will inherit—and pay for.

But for Demeny voting’s progenitor, the concept is simple a pro-natalist policy: a way of stemming or reversing declining fertility rates by revalorizing parenthood, affirming the value of children, and ensuring that political systems are responsive to the needs of families.

Giving children a proxy vote is not a solution to the deeper spiritual crisis that childlessness both reveals and exacerbates, but it is the beginning of one. This is not only because parents are likely to vote for policies that support family formation for others but because it amplifies the voices of people who have a direct physical commitment to the future. Parents have faced all the disincentives our society throws in their way and decided that, for all its uncertainty and pain, life remains worth living and passing on.