A ‘war’ effort to build homes will need more than a mere catalogue

Houses for sale in Ottawa

Too much has changed over the past 80 years to suggest that the construction blueprints of the past can deliver today

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The deepening housing crisis has prompted Canada’s federal government to invoke wartime rhetoric, borrowing building strategies from a bygone era deployed to house returning Second World War veterans, but perhaps too much has changed over the past 80 years to suggest that the construction blueprints of the past can deliver today.

Housing Minister Sean Fraser recently announced the federal government will release a catalogue of pre-approved building designs and blueprints for builders to speed up the construction process. In doing so, he’s borrowing an 80-year-old leaf from post-war construction efforts that mass-produced housing for war-weary veterans returning from a war in Europe that left them financially and physically broke. Many of those post-war constructed homes are still standing, but are increasingly being converted to or replaced by newer and larger dwellings.

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The government believes that what worked seven decades ago will work today. But its optimism is somewhat misplaced given that ongoing massive societal and economic changes will make older recipes less relevant and potent today. Also, 1950s’ housing plans didn’t work as seamlessly as the government tends to believe.

At least in theory, the government’s plans are a step in the right direction. It intends to develop a catalogue of building designs of various types in consultation with industry and, most likely, municipal planning authorities. The result will be standardized housing designs that should take less time for approval by cutting red tape and take less time to build.

But what works in theory may only work sometimes in practice. Consider that the actual housing boom in Canada occurred in the 1970s when construction began on almost 2.5 million homes, the most in any decade since the early 1920s. That boom was not a result of pre-approved catalogues, but a whole host of initiatives to mobilize developers, investors and lenders backed by the government. Most purpose-built rental housing today dates to the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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The post-war housing construction volume was much smaller than the housing built in the ’70s. Whereas almost 2.5 million dwellings were constructed in the ’70s, only 500,000 were built in the ’40s and about 1.1 million in the ‘50s.

Housing starts in Canada

Another critical misunderstanding is the belief that construction started after the war ended, which is untrue. The government sponsored the construction of thousands of rental homes during the Second World War to house workers building munitions for the war effort. More than 20,000 units were built, primarily as rentals, to accommodate these workers. After the war, the workers were given the option to buy those homes.

The cultural, demographic, financial and spatial differences between now and the mid-1940s are considerable and may limit the usefulness of catalogued designs in spurring a construction boom. For example, municipal governments in the 1950s were less empowered than today. Municipalities were small in size, budget and scope. They were willing to accept federally approved designs since most municipalities were not sufficiently staffed to cope with complexities and volumes.

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Land was also readily available within and around the core municipalities. Many homes were built on unserviced lots with septic sewers and well water. NIMBYs were not yet born, and they had not established supply-constraining alliances with municipal representatives. Veterans and new European immigrants provided abundant construction labour. Financing challenges, though, persisted.

Equally important is that consumer tastes had yet to evolve in the ’40s and ’50s, with buyers driving from one open house to the next in search of the ideal home in a tony neighbourhood. The pre-approved designs of today will likely be for basic homes that can be built quickly and cheaply. The challenge for builders of catalogued homes will be to find buyers and renters whose elegant housing ideals can be confined to small-sized, no-frills housing.

The federal government intends to consult with relevant stakeholders next year and release the catalogued blueprints by year-end. This will mean building a consensus around designs and specs between builders, developers and municipal regulators. Provinces will also have to be on board. The catalogues will likely become available in 2025, and construction may start afterwards.

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The next federal election is scheduled for October 2025. The date might advance if the current government or its leadership no longer enjoys the confidence of Parliament. Housing will likely remain a hot issue, if not the primary one, when Canadians head to the polls in 2025.

Housing starts in November fell by 22 per cent month over month, suggesting that despite the government’s rhetoric, housing construction is still struggling to take off. The elevated cost of borrowing and excessively high development charges are just two of many hurdles that catalogued blueprints might not climb.

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“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones,” John Maynard Keynes once observed. Though steeped in historical successes, the government’s planned catalogues must be augmented by contemporary solutions to meet the unique demands of our time.

Murtaza Haider is director of Regionomics Inc., a consultancy specializing in predictive analytics and machine learning. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at the Haider-Moranis Bulletin website, www.hmbulletin.com.

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