Want to Fight Climate Change? Fix Housing

Treating the two calamities as separate issues misses a huge opportunity to address both

A man in an orange vest uses a tape measure while building a wooden frame house surrounded by trees.

Two of the most acute crises facing Canadians are housing and climate change. These are usually treated as separate issues, to be raised in different conversations. That’s a mistake. Climate and housing are vitally connected, and acknowledging this turns a pair of calamities into one huge opportunity.

That’s the message from the national Task Force for Housing and Climate, a cross-partisan group of former politicians and policy experts that launched in September and released their final report on March 5. The non-governmental task force convened fifteen heavy hitters from across the country, including former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and Edmonton’s progressive former mayor Don Iveson as co-chairs, as well as economist and former governor of the Bank of Canada Mark Carney and former Toronto chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat. The group has created a road map for 5.8 million “affordable, low-carbon and resilient” homes to be built by 2030.

Canada’s buildings (almost 97 percent of which are residential) are a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions. We use fossil fuels to heat our homes and our water and to produce the electricity that runs our gadgets and appliances (nearly a quarter of all the energy consumed in this country is used to run households). If you factor in building materials and construction, emissions from the building sector amount to nearly 30 percent of Canada’s total—about the same as for oil and gas production.

The relationship is mutual. Just as housing aggravates our emissions problem, climate change exacerbates the housing crisis: extreme weather has cost over $3 billion in insured housing damages for the past two years in a row. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, 1.5 million Canadians are now potentially unable to access flood insurance altogether, as wildfires and floods make the country a riskier place to insure. “We’re losing housing to climate-related perils at an accelerating rate,” Iveson says, “at precisely the moment when we need to be growing housing inventory and not losing it.”

Like all the members of the task force, Iveson is keenly aware that the scale of these twin crises makes a plausible solution sound like an oxymoron. Almost 6 million new homes by the end of this decade? That’s 3.5 million more than market forces are projected to add on their own, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Pulling this off would require an unprecedented national collaboration not just across party lines but also through municipal, provincial, and national jurisdictions.

Which is precisely what the task force is urging, with recommendations specifically tailored to all three levels of government. “We’re talking about needing to deliver 700,000-plus units a year over the next seven years,” Iveson says, acknowledging that’s well over twice the rate of home building achieved during the peak of Canada’s biggest housing boom, in the 1970s. “So the way we look at it is you can’t possibly do it the way we’ve been doing it.”

The way we’ve been doing it is self-evident: cities and towns sprawling ever outward, mostly with cheaply constructed homes that eat into flood plains, forests, and agricultural lands, ramping up the need for cars and highways. Ontario premier Doug Ford pushed for sprawl until his Greenbelt plan, to take over once protected land and open it up for development, resulted in scandal and corruption, while local politicians around the country have blocked the obvious alternative to sprawl: density.

Building up instead of out is not a new idea. Housing and climate advocates have been pushing it for years. What is new, however, is that federal Conservatives and Liberals are both finally on board, to varying degrees. Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has promised to punish cities “for egregious cases of NIMBYism” by withholding federal funding from municipalities that fail to meet construction thresholds. The Liberal Party now has a similar approach, albeit one that emphasizes carrots over sticks: instead of withholding money from cities that get in the way of new, denser construction projects, it will give money to cities that embrace it. Their $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund lists an end to “exclusionary zoning”—which includes forbidding building anything but single-family homes—as one of the main conditions for municipalities applying to the fund. When federal housing minister Sean Fraser used the phrase “legalize housing” to advocate for density-friendly neighbourhoods, he explicitly called out the exclusionary zoning laws found in countless regions across the country. Soon after British Columbia’s NDP government introduced legislation last November that included legalizing fourplexes throughout the province, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $2 billion low-cost loan to the province to accelerate construction of rental housing on government land.

But density-friendly neighbourhoods remain the exception in most of the country. Homeowners averse to change have proven adept at organizing to prevent it; city councils often have valid concerns about the increased services denser populations need—everything from sewage and electricity to schools. So it’s notable that Iveson’s signature mayoral legacy in Edmonton was the city plan that he and council passed in 2020, his final full year in office. That plan established a blueprint for zoning reform, setting in motion a series of council votes that eventually led, last October, to the end of exclusionary zoning throughout the city. Two and a half years after Iveson left office, it finally became legal to build three-storey apartments, townhouses, or eight-unit homes on any lot in Edmonton.

The challenge now is to spread that kind of zoning reform across the country—then accelerate the construction of new high-density housing at two or three times the fastest rate in Canada’s history while also ensuring it’s affordable. And make it climate friendly too.

The Task Force on Housing and Climate insists this isn’t a total fantasy. Iveson argues that untapped levers are waiting to be pulled that could dramatically accelerate the process after zoning reforms are achieved. Chief among them is a two-punch combination of regulation and finance: first, for housing to become more climate friendly, a major overhaul of housing codes is required. This would create what Iveson calls a “high-standard environment,” whereby municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions enforce a minimum standard of green construction on everything from insulation to energy infrastructure. (Montreal and Nanaimo have already led the way on this by banning gas heating in most new buildings.) The bulk of new homes Canada builds this decade, however many that is, “will default to whatever the minimum regulatory requirement is,” Iveson says. That’s why “some of the lower-efficiency options just need to come off the table, so that you’re choosing between good and great, not okay, good, and great.”

The challenge with making building codes more climate friendly is that, even though energy-efficient homes are cheaper to live in and save money in the long run, they cost more to build in the first place. That’s where the second punch comes in: a radical overhaul of home financing. “There’s a massive financing gap” for green building at the moment, Iveson says. “The fact that home financing in this country still gives you credit for granite countertops but doesn’t give you credit for higher-efficiency buildings is a huge problem. Going to your regular lender and saying, ‘I want to borrow extra, even though I know the house is going to perform better over time and have lower utility bills’—that is not made easy. And it needs to be made easy.”

The principle that a better home should get better financing isn’t controversial in banking circles. Iveson cites the Liberals’ housing accelerator as a good start but says it needs to go further. The grant programs “are not designed to subsidize everybody doing the right thing,” Iveson says—nor should they be. The point is to spark a market transformation: for government subsidies to demonstrate the profitability of a new financing model and then let the market take it from there.

If all this sounds wildly optimistic, somewhere between wartime effort and fever dream on the scale of probabilities, well, so is the fight against climate change. One could take heart from the fact that, last fall, housing minister Fraser told the CBC “this is a wartime effort we need to adopt.” There’s also the fact that the debate over housing policy hasn’t suffered the same partisan warping that afflicts climate policy. Nobody in Canada is arguing the housing crisis is a hoax or wildly overblown; instead, every party is now competing to prove it has the best, most aggressive solution.

Pipelines, oil sands, and carbon taxes aren’t part of this conversation and never need to be. However slim the likelihood of any government adopting a wartime footing on housing, Conservatives and Liberals are actually agreed on the magnitude of the challenge. That in itself is a small miracle. In this kind of political climate, the recommendations of a non-partisan task force might just fare better than your average pipe dream.

With thanks to the Trottier Foundation for helping The Walrus publish writing on climate change and the environment.

Arno Kopecky
Arno Kopecky is a contributing writer at The Walrus.