Published July 26, 2023

New housing minister says closing door on newcomers is no solution to housing crunch

The Liberals have been taking a lot of heat from federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre  for the state of the housing market

By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa

Canada's new housing and infrastructure minister says closing the door to newcomers is not the solution to the country's housing woes, and has instead endorsed building more homes to accommodate higher immigration flows. 

Sean Fraser, who previously served as immigration minister, was sworn in Wednesday morning as part of a Liberal government cabinet shuffle aimed at showcasing a fresh team ahead of the next federal election. 

Strong population growth through immigration is adding pressure to housing demand at a time when the country is struggling with an affordability crisis. 

"The answer is, at least in part, to continue to build more stock," Fraser told reporters after being sworn in.  

"But I would urge caution to anyone who believes the answer to our housing challenges is to close the door on newcomers."

Prime Minister JustinTrudeau's decision to hand over the federal housing file to the Nova Scotia MP has been praised by experts who saythat the Liberals need a strong communicator in charge as Canadians deal with an affordability crunch. 

As part of the shakeup, the housing file has been merged with infrastructure and communities. Fraser said the goal is to look at housing and infrastructure projects together, rather than in isolation. 

"If we encourage cities and communities to build more housing where infrastructure already exists or where it's planned to be, we're going to be able to leverage more progress for every public dollar that's invested," he said. 

Ahmed Hussen, who became housing minister in 2021, has faced criticism for his handling of the file as the housing crisis worsened across the country. 

Hussen is staying in cabinet as minister of international development. 

"The selection of Sean, I think, is a recognition that the job requires fundamentally an energy and urgency and a passion in order to be able to effectively compete with the message that (Conservative Leader) Pierre Poilievre has put forward," said Tyler Meredith, a former head of economic strategy and planning for Trudeau’s government.

Meredith said the choice to shift Fraser from immigration to housing also signals the federal government knows the two files are linked. 

"If they lose the argument on housing, they will lose the argument on immigration, and they will then lose what is frankly, some of the some of the most effective pieces of their economic strategy," Meredith said.

The Liberals have been taking a lot of heat from Poilievre  for the state of the housing market. He'sblamed Trudeau's government for the crisis, as well as municipal "gatekeepers" for standing in  the way of new developments. 

The Conservative leader has also been particularly focused on speaking to young people struggling with affordability, commonly referring to the "35-year-olds still living in their parents' basements" in the House of Commons.

Fraser, 39, acknowledged during the news conference that housing affordability is a major challenge facing younger Canadians in particular. 

"It's a real challenge for people my age and younger who are trying to get into the market, but it's also a challenge for low-income families," Fraser said. 

"There's no simple solutions, but if we continue to advance measures that help build more stock, that help make sure it's easier for people to get into the market and make sure we're offering protections for low-income families, particularly in vulnerable renting situations, we're going to be able to make a meaningful difference."

The housing crisis that once was associated with Vancouver and Toronto is now affecting all corners of the country, and experts say a shortage of homes is at its root. 

The Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation has warned the country needs to build 3.5 million additional homes — on top of the current pace of building — to restore affordability by 2030.

Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy expert and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, said the decision to combine housing and infrastructure is a good move. 

"Housing is infrastructure. It's essential, as essential as water and sewers and hospitals and schools, for the functioning of a society," she said. 

Whitzman also called Fraser a "fairly effective communicator" and noted his experience as immigration minister may also help inform his role in the housing file. 

Banner image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is handing over the federal housing file to Sean Fraser, who was previously immigration minister. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2023.

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