Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Sean Speer: The conservative case for federal intervention in housing

Commentary

Housing and homeownership have climbed to the top of the policy agenda in the Conservative party leadership race. This past week, two candidates, Pierre Poilievre and Scott Aitchison, proposed using the federal spending power to push municipal land-use reform in the name of building more homes. 

The basic idea is that Ottawa transfers billions of dollars for infrastructure and social housing to lower orders of government and it should attach conditions to these funds around liberalizing zoning rules and residential development policies. 

These policy pronouncements are an implicit recognition that (1) a lack of housing supply is the principal reason for Canada’s housing affordability challenges and (2) local policy choices are mainly responsible for the lack of adequate housing supply. 

The question, of course, is: what should the federal government do in response to such a supply-driven diagnosis?

The idea of using federal conditionality to drive municipal reform isn’t new. It’s something that Brian Lee Crowley and I first put forward in a 2016 policy paper for the Macdonald Laurier Institute.A Home for Canada’s Middle Class It’s good to see that it’s now getting traction in the Conservative leadership race. 

Yet it’s not a universally popular proposal among conservatives. There’s been some criticism from conservative-policy types on the grounds that the use of the federal spending power conflicts with the conservative preference for decentralization and subsidiarity. Long-time conservative policy thinker Ken Boessenkool in particular has argued that if aspiring federal leaders want to change municipal land-use policies they should run for mayor of a Canadian city. 

His main point is that municipal decisions ostensibly reflect democratic preferences in those places and local voters should be free from federal or provincial interference in local decision-making. They should, in other words, be able to adopt stupid policies if that’s what they want. The federal government shouldn’t have a say in the matter. 

There’s something to this line of argument. Subsidiarity is a fundamental part of the Canadian conservative worldview. I’ve argued elsewhere, for instance, in favour of the genius of Canada’s system of decentralized federalismOttawa needs a history lesson on the benefits of federalism in general and reforming the Canada Health Act to enable greater provincial autonomy in health care in particular.Ottawa should get out of the way on health care

As a general rule, Canadian Conservatives (and conservatives) ought to be champions of a conception of federalism that legal thinker Asher Honickman has described as “watertight compartments.”Reforming Canadian Fiscal Federalism: The Case for Intergovernmental Disentanglement But there’s a strong case that the housing file may be different. Ottawa’s constitutional roleThe Constitution Act, 1867, 30 & 31 Vict, c 3 over the national economic union actually justifies some intervention in housing policy. 

Let me explain: The key point here is that the effects of stringent land-use rules aren’t simply borne by the local community. The consequences—especially in the case of our large, most dynamic, job-creating cities—spill out into the national economy in the form of foregone economic activity and middle-class opportunity. 

One way to think about it is as follows: the labour market functions like a big megaphone that enables communication between employers and job seekers across the country. In cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, which have been disproportionately responsible for net new job creation in recent years, the labour market is screaming at the top of its lungs for workers and yet stringent land-use regulations and their effects on housing prices are impeding the ability of individual workers to answer. 

The consequences are far-reaching. People remain stuck in places where there are fewer jobs and less opportunity and the national economy suffers as a result. As Crowley and I wrote back in 2016: 

…housing affordability challenges throw up massive barriers for people to move to the cities with the highest growth and most opportunities. The national economy is undermined when the small number of cities responsible for net job growth are basically unaffordable for a share of the population. Housing costs are therefore obstacles to raising incomes, growth, and productivity for everyone.

This isn’t a conceptual point. Well-known research from the United States, for instance, estimates that stringent land-use regulations in its most dynamic cities such as New York and San Francisco lowered aggregate economic growth by 36 percent between 1964 and 2009.Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation 

NIMBYism isn’t merely a local or neighbourhood issue. Its implications for the functioning of the national labour market can be significant and therefore justifies the policy attention of the national government. 

The upshot: while Boessenkool is generally right that conservative policy ought to preference local decision-making and outcomes, the externalities from local land-use rules for the national economy actually justify using the federal spending power to liberalize municipal zoning policies. 

It’s also worth noting that the policy interventions proposed by Poilievre and Aitchison are still voluntary in the sense that municipal officials can keep their local land-use regimes if they feel strongly about them even if it results in fewer federal transfers. That seems like a reasonable balance between localism and the national interest. 

Yet Boessenkool’s opposition is still highly valuable as an ideological check on the temptation to extend the federal spending power to any number of other issues that may be important or politically charged. He’s right that we must place significant constraints around the role of the federal government to avoid a slippery slope of greater and greater intrusion into provincial and municipal affairs. We shouldn’t, as he puts it, throw a big federal government at bad municipal government. 

In this particular case, though, two seemingly conflicting ideas can be true at the same time. There’s a principled case for federal intervention in housing. And it should be an exception to the rule.   

Liam Faught: The Russia-Ukraine crisis may trigger a renewed era for international law

Commentary

Day after day, the horror of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine is being revealed to the world. As the Russian military retreats from the cities and towns they occupied for the past several weeks, early reports reveal evidence that war crimes have been, and may continue to be, committed.“Horrific photos of civilian corpses — some with their hands tied behind their backs — clearly show the brutality of the Russian occupation in the areas near Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv. Russia agreed to withdraw forces in the north of Ukraine during ongoing negotiations to end the fighting, while more than 2,000 incidents of violations of the laws and customs of war have been reported to Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova’s office thus far.” https://www.vox.com/2022/4/3/23009048/russian-troops-retreat-in-ukraine-civilian-deaths-discovered And so international law—the law that governs relations between countries and applies to the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity—is going to work.

In pursuing this depraved war of aggression, Russian President Vladimir Putin has aroused levels of cooperation and solidarity amongst the international community unlike anything seen in recent decades. On March 2nd, in an emergency special session, the UN General Assembly voted 141 to 5 (with 35 abstentions) to condemn the invasion and reaffirm Ukraine’s existing borders.UN resolution against Ukraine invasion: Full text Subsequent resolutions demanded that Russia allow civilians safe passage through Ukraine and suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.UN General Assembly votes to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council And Ukraine’s allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russian banks, businesses, political leaders, and oligarchs that appear to be seriously damaging the Russian economy and, by extension, its war effort.What sanctions are being imposed on Russia over Ukraine invasion?

For its part, Ukraine has sought redress through several channels. It is seeking a declaration by the International Court of Justice that one of Russia’s pretexts for invading—its claim that Ukraine is committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in the Ukrainian Donbas region—is bogus; at the International Criminal Court, the Chief Prosecutor announced that his office would begin investigations into alleged war crimes—one of the first instances of an international organization documenting and compiling evidence regarding war crimes in real-time; and, at Ukraine’s request, the UN established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate any human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed by Russia.

All that is nice, you might say, but what will actually be achieved by all this international law activity?

International law has historically been hindered by two inherent and related defects: first, the international community is made up of states that are presumed to be sovereign. Despite the ways in which globalization has remade and shrunk our world, many would argue that a “global society,” in the legal sense, does not exist. There is no “community” of nations; there are just sovereign states and, above them, a state of anarchy. This view has been supported by the reality that a state that does not wish to abide by UN resolutions, participate in International Criminal Court proceedings, or even meet its obligations under treaties it has signed and ratified simply does not have to do so.

Second, international law suffers from a lack of enforcement. Because there is no world police, the international community cannot directly enforce international treaties, UN Security Council resolutions, International Court of Justice decisions, and other international legal norms. And, unless an individual accused of war crimes surrenders themself or is otherwise captured, they generally evade prosecution. 

Instead, the international community engages in what international law scholars have termed “outcasting”—denying the offending state the benefits of global cooperation and integration.International Law Goes to War in Ukraine But such measures have historically done little to curb undesirable state behaviour and have, in many tragic instances, been too late to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But with regard to Ukraine, international law has not been impotent at all. Crucially, the UN resolutions condemning Russia have given democratic legitimacy to the sanctions imposed by Ukraine’s allies so that the sanctions are not being imposed merely because the United States, Canada, and European allies personally dislike what Russia is doing (though of course they do); rather, they reflect the will of the international community as a whole. (Contrast this with, for instance, the Iraq War, where the international community specifically rejected the need for a brute force invasion and which is considered by many to be an “illegal war”).

And Ukraine’s willingness to fight the legal battle as well as the military one—the proceedings at the ICJ, for instance—is achieving two things: first, it stops Russia from asserting any viable claim that its invasion was necessary or permitted under international law. Second, and perhaps more importantly for the future of international law, Ukraine is setting a strong example that, even in the midst of war, states should still seek to resolve international disputes through civilized, legal means.

To be clear, it is unlikely that fighting in Ukraine will stop anytime soon. Russia has made clear that it intends to continue fighting in certain parts of the country and will continue to support separatist militias in the Donbas. But that does not mean that international law has altogether failed Ukraine. 

If the international community’s response to this war of aggression is successful in outcasting Russia and halting its advance in Ukraine (as tentatively appears to be the case), minimizing innocent civilian casualties and managing the resultant refugee crisis, and documenting war crimes as they happen, then the international community—and international law itself—will have done something great.

Ultimately, the rule of law, whether international or domestic, is aimed at protecting peace and providing justice. If international law can help bring peace to Ukraine and hold accountable the Russian actors (politicians, oligarchs, captured soldiers, or otherwise) who orchestrated this illegal war, then it will have served its purpose and served the people of Ukraine.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new chapter for international law. The people of Syria and Yemen—to name just a couple of the communities who have been suffering at the hands of aggressive foreign powers far longer than Ukrainians—need international law on their side, too.