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Election 2015

Liberals to Get 'Back into the Game' on Housing, Says MP Adam Vaughan

Toronto ex-councillor talks about big reforms in the works, from CMHC to social housing.

David P Ball 23 Oct 2015Tyee Solutions Society

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

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"The urban agenda is back on the main stage!" Liberal housing critic Adam Vaughan proclaimed to cheering supporters at his re-election party in Toronto's Spadina-Fort York riding, launching into a speech in which he began by thanking residents of a local public housing project "where this campaign starts."

In the wake of his party's decisive majority victory, affordable housing issues are set to play a big role in Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau's pledged $20-billion, decade-long social infrastructure program, the former Toronto city councillor said in an interview the day after the election.

"I ran federally to get housing built in particular," he said, "and I'm looking forward to making sure that happens."

Vaughan, a 54-year-old retired TV journalist, dodged questions about whether he's been tapped for a post in cabinet (to be announced Nov. 4), or whether any discussions are afoot to re-create a position akin to the Minister of State for Urban Affairs that existed until 1979 under the previous Trudeau government.

In addition to pumping billions into affordable housing -- what the Liberal platform described as "social infrastructure, things like affordable housing, child care spaces, communities centres, and more" -- Vaughan said some of the Liberals' most dramatic reforms may be to our federal housing agency, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which has seen its focus dwindle from building public housing to insuring lenders' mortgages.

Last year, $2.4 billion, or nearly 40 per cent of CMHC's total revenues came from its mortgage loan insurance business.

"There's a significant contribution by CMHC to federal government revenues, but a significant deficit on the housing file," he said. "Some of that revenue needs to be part of rolling it back into our housing program... At the end of the day, we also need to ensure that we have a steady and smart supply of housing for the spectrum of needs."

What else should Canadians expect from the Liberals on housing? According to Vaughan, quite a bit -- and some of the work is "going to have to happen very quickly." This interview is edited for clarity and length.

Tyee Solutions Society: Now you've won a majority, what will your approach be to housing across Canada?

Adam Vaughan: "Having had a hand, particularly in the housing and urban infrastructure programs, the work lies in front of us. We're still exhausted from the election and sleep-deprived! But we'll start having conversations with some of the municipal leaders across the country to put the program together, and next steps.

"[Housing] forms a centrepiece at the heart of our campaign platform -- part of our planned $20-billion [social] infrastructure spending. It's a full-spectrum approach to get back into the game of managing the housing market in Canada. An integral part of that is better housing."

In our writing on housing, historically a lot goes back to having a Minister of Urban Affairs in the previous Trudeau government. Is there discussion of creating some role for that again, if not a minister then perhaps a parliamentary secretary or minister of state?

"No, most of us are just trying to remember what our kids' names are, quite frankly! [laughs]. The Leader's Office is a better place to put those questions. Whether or not I'm in the cabinet, I ran federally to get housing built in particular, and I'm looking forward to making sure that happens.

"Justin Trudeau spoke very forcefully and directly about the need for partnerships, not just between the Prime Minister's Office and the first ministers and between the federal government and provincial and territorial governments. It's also about a partnership with First Nations, Métis and Inuit -- both traditional band councils and urban Aboriginals. That includes making sure municipalities, towns and cities are also back to the table as part of a new way of pursuing federalism to make sure we respond to Canadians."

Are there discussions of some kind of coordinating role in all that?

"There are still many of us with municipal backgrounds in the Liberal caucus, and we're going to make sure that some of the challenges that face cities, in particular large cities, have a sustained and structured dialogue to make sure housing starts getting built again in this country."

The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association said its number one priority is around the expiring agreements for non-profit, co-op and social housing providers -- but they don't want the same old system we had before. How will that look under your regime?

"One critical area where we have to be proactive is renewing the agreements and sustaining the subsidies for the co-op and nonprofit housing sectors. But we also need to subsidize the construction and creation of public housing; there are huge waiting lists across the country.

"We need to make sure we don't lose public housing as we try to create more, or lose affordability while we're trying to protect it. So we'll get to work on renewing those agreements, but also upgrading and standardizing them that guarantees long-term stability of the sector. Whoever has the file with CMHC inside it, that work is going to have to happen very quickly."

About CMHC, some observers hope that it gets back to its previous role -- not just insuring mortgages. What's your plan for that?

"It's clear there need to be reforms to CMHC, and a strategy to create rental housing as well as pathways to homeownership for first-time buyers. There's a significant contribution by CMHC to federal government revenues, but a significant deficit on the housing file. So some of that revenue needs to be part of rolling it back into our housing program, so that housing finances itself across the board.

"It needs to continue protecting homeownership, protecting investors and protecting banks. But at the end of the day, we also need to ensure that we have a steady and smart supply of housing for the spectrum of needs -- a supply that responds to those needs on a regional basis.

"Liberal governments have worked very creatively with CMHC to deliver strong programs right across the country, with provinces and municipalities. It is the federal agency that often takes the lead on housing, but we think it needs to be recharged and re-mandated to include some of these ideas.

"It's time to move into the next century. The debates of the last century drove decisions 25 to 30 years ago. The country has evolved and its housing dynamics have changed. It's important now that we re-think, upgrade and update CMHC to meet the challenges that face us."

What do you say to critics who point out it was previous Liberal governments who abandoned the housing table?

"They say the federal responsibility for housing ended with [then-Liberal finance minister] Paul Martin's budget [in 1994]. That's nonsense. The subsidy agreements didn't disappear.

"Mr. Harper was trying to privatize CMHC and get it completely out of the housing market. The Conservatives used to say, 'You should read the Constitution -- housing isn't a federal responsibility.' Well, serving Canadians is our responsibility. And with 82 per cent of Canadians living in small, medium and large urban centres, if we don't talk about housing or use housing as a tool to solve some really critical conditions in our country, we will have failed as a society, let alone as a government.

"Housing is not a problem or crisis that needs to be solved. It's the solution to virtually every area of federal activity that touches Canadians' lives. If you want to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees; if you want to deal with the high cost of post-secondary school; if you want to deal with better health outcomes, tackle poverty or give children a better start in this country -- housing is the best tool the federal government has to change the conversation in so many areas."  [Tyee]

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