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Dueling plans for juicing housing supply show the contrast between Poilievre and Trudeau

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With the next federal election no more than two years away, housing has emerged as one of the top issues for Canadian voters and the Liberals and Conservatives are now competing to persuade voters that they are best placed to solve the unaffordability crisis. 

They agree on the problem: local zoning policies have strangled Canada’s housing supply. They also agree on the basic solution: the federal government should use its spending power to prod municipalities into action.

But the details of the two plans reflect the political and ideological contrast of two leaders who couldn’t be more different.

The Conservative Party’s plan, which is set out in Pierre Poilievre’s private member’s bill, Bill C-356 (Building Homes Not Bureaucracy Act), would mandate the country’s largest cities to increase their housing supply by 15 percent annually in order to receive their full federal allocation of infrastructure funding. The “formula” would apply consistently across identified municipalities. The details on how they meet the annual target would be left to them.

The Liberal Party’s approach uses the government’s Housing Accelerator Fund, which was announced in the 2022 budget, to work with municipalities to boost their housing supply on a case-by-case basis according to the program’s application process. The government has recently approved a series of applications that come with specific plans to boost housing supply in municipalities such as Calgary, Hamilton, and Kelowna.

The two housing plans rely on what Leo Spalteholz, a housing analyst based in Saanich, BC, describes as “the power of the purse” or what Alex Beheshti, a consultant with the Altus Group, describes as “indirect fiscal federalism measures.”

That is because the federal government has, by and large, no role in local zoning policy. Ottawa is therefore left using the “federal spending power” as a “carrot” or “stick” to encourage local land-use reform in the name of boosting the housing supply.

Yet notwithstanding this basic similarity, the Liberal and Conservative approaches involve trade-offs that are based on their own philosophical perspectives. The Conservative plan for a single, national formula-based target grants greater autonomy to municipalities on how they increase housing supply but fails to account for unique particularities across cities. The Trudeau government’s application-based approach is more tailored to individual cities but involves greater federal intrusion into the specifics of local policymaking which is consistent with Ottawa’s use of the federal spending power in other areas such as childcare.

Beheshti says that this distinction ultimately comes down to the relative role of carrots and sticks.

“The Liberals are proposing to provide net new funding to municipalities that achieve a higher growth rate than they otherwise would have without the funding,” he says. “When it comes to their approaches to municipalities, both programs are in essence a ‘carrot-stick’, but the Liberal program is more carrot than stick, and the Conservative plan is a lot more stick than carrot.”

Hub contributor and policy analyst Steve Lafleur says the Liberals have followed the Conservatives in playing hardball with municipalities on housing, but their methods have differed. 

“The interesting thing is that in many respects, the Liberals have now gone further than the Conservatives have promised to go,” says Lafleur. “They’re not just saying ‘Hey, here’s the target,’ they’re saying ‘here are things you can do to meet these targets that will permanently alter your zoning’.” 

Spalteholz says punishing municipalities for not meeting the 15 percent threshold, as proposed by the Conservatives, can be difficult in cities like Calgary where construction is a boom-and-bust industry. 

“Do we really believe that the federal government is going to punish Calgary because they had a bit of a bust and their housing starts went down?” asks Spalteholz. “That’s not realistic, it has to be a bit more complex than that. On the other hand, I think a lot of municipalities use that as an excuse.” 

Lafleur says there is value in a more hands-off approach where municipalities are presented with a 15 percent target, allowing for local governments to figure out how to get there without being too prescriptive. He says the more prescriptive approach by the Liberals may help municipalities to actually make tough choices on housing.

“The thing about being more prescriptive is that it gives the municipalities cover,” says Lafleur. “I’m just not sure, if we have just a numeric target, that municipalities are really going to go through and make all the hard decisions.”

The Liberals slumped badly in the polls over the summer, which many credit to being perceived as weak on housing during the affordability crisis. Since running to become Conservative leader in 2022, Poilievre has called for stronger measures to increase the housing supply. 

“The YIMBY-type messaging is something that the Conservatives really led on, and I think that the Liberals were caught fairly flat-footed on that,” says Spalteholz. 

Liberal Minister of Housing Sean Fraser has dismissed the Conservative plans for housing as resembling something “pulled off Google,” but Beheshti believes the Liberals have learned from Poilievre’s messaging on affordability and building new homes. 

“I think the credit that Poilievre gets in this regard is effectively holding the government’s feet to the fire in terms of their own feet dragging in getting these policies off their platform’s pages and into legislative enactment,” says Beheshti. 

Five Tweets on the campus politics of the Israel-Hamas conflict

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TORONTO – Since Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel on October 7th, both the attacks and Israel’s military response have been the subject of protests, rallies, and solidarity statements on Canadian university campuses.

Student groups have been particularly vocal, with many issuing statements that express solidarity with Palestine. Some have even appeared to support the Hamas attacks. Universities and Jewish organizations have released their own statements. The University of Toronto and York University are generally representative of the campus dynamics in response to the renewed conflict in the Middle East.

On October 10th, Joseph Wong, University of Toronto’s vice president for international issues, issued a statement that condemned terrorist violence and the kidnapping of civilians and expressed condolences to both Israelis and Palestinians. Its student unions had their say as well, and that same day the University of Toronto Mississauga Student Union issued a statement via Instagram that expressed solidarity with the Palestinians, including for what it described as Israel’s “ethnic cleansing and mass genocide”, and characterized Hamas’ terrorist attacks as “the right to resist an apartheid regime.” About a week later, the University of Toronto Scarborough Student Union issued a similar statement, including a demand for the protection of those calling for a “free Palestine.”

Three York University student groups—the York Federation of Students, York University Graduate Students’ Association, and the Glendon College Student Union—issued their own statement of solidarity with Palestine on October 12th. The statement referred to Hamas’ attacks as “a strong act of resistance” to what it characterized as “settler-colonialism, apartheid, and genocide.” Nowhere did it acknowledge or recognize the Israelis who were killed, hurt, or kidnapped by Hamas.

Following the statement, York University received calls to decertify the student union. In response, on October 13th, the university issued a tweet from its official account that “unequivocally condemned” the student unions’ statement (though it did not mention them by name).

York University gave the three student unions until October 25th to retract their statement. The groups refused to do so and instead issued another statement accusing the university of attacking union autonomy. As a result, the York Federation of Students organized a rally on November 2nd on campus and encouraged students to join them in protest. 

That same day, the Canadian Federation of Students issued its own statement of solidarity with Palestine and the student unions who have come out in its favour. In particular, the statement condemned the “attacks on students’ unions” by university administrators which it characterized as efforts “to undermine student union autonomy and student safety.” 

Hillel York, a Jewish-led student organization at York University, has been vocal about the ongoing hostage crisis. In response to the various statements from the university’s major student groups, it issued its own that criticized the others for treating “civilians in Israel as legitimate targets” and reflecting “an extreme and deliberate disregard for not only Jewish but all students affected by the horrible tragedies that have been and continue to occur.”

As the situation on university campuses continues to heat up, it is highly likely that this debate will continue in civil proceedings. York University and the York Federation of Students are currently being sued in a $15 million class-action lawsuit by current students, recent alumni, and former attendees from 1988 to 2021 on the grounds of negligence, specifically failing to address incidents of antisemitism, violating its non-discrimination policies. Depending on the outcome of this case, a precedent might be set for Canadian student unions and their universities to limit the language and focus of solidarity statements in the future.

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