Ahmed Hussen’s first home in Canada was public housing on Hess Street in Hamilton which he shared with his cousin. He was then only 16 years old, a refugee who had fled Somalia during the civil war. In 2002, the same year he earned an undergraduate degree at York University, Hussen co-founded the Regent Park Community Council to advocate for more subsidized housing, services and amenities for young people. residents as part of a massive $500 million revitalization of the Toronto neighborhood.
Hussen, who was elected to Parliament in 2015 and appointed Minister for Housing, Diversity and Inclusion last October, has a deep understanding of the complexities of unaffordable housing. In today’s real estate market, Canadians are frantically jostling to buy property or driving the price down altogether. The issue was central to the April federal budget, which included boosting construction, doubling tax credits for first-time home buyers, banning blind auctions and freezing purchases. foreigners of residential properties for the next two years. Some pundits have questioned whether the measures would solve the problem, but Hussen remains confident in the Liberals’ vision.
Aaron Hutchins sat down with Hussen to discuss Canada’s housing crisis and more:
You lived in social housing during your first years in Canada. To what extent do you take this experience into account when proposing solutions to a housing crisis rooted in affordability?
Everyone in the public service brings their personal and professional experience to the table. One of the reasons I want to make sure we increase our investments in affordable housing is because I know how much of a difference having a roof over your head can make for someone. I wouldn’t have been able to pursue post-secondary education, finish university, and develop my skills to get a decent job if there hadn’t been public housing. There is simply no way.
I want to make sure we live in a country where those struggling to find affordable housing can get help from the government. People who are at risk of homelessness must be prevented from ending up on the streets. And we need to make sure we find permanent housing solutions for those who are currently there. It diminishes Canadian society when the last housing option for some people is to live on the streets. It is a failure for all of us.
The cost of rent is unsustainable in many parts of the country. The average one-bedroom unit in Vancouver and Toronto now costs over $2,000 a month.
There are many people who are increasingly excluded from the rental market. They move away from the cities where they work. I am talking about construction workers, paramedics, firefighters and teachers. Many developers are simply not producing enough rental units, so our government has made it a priority to build them across the country. Then you have the home ownership component, which is just as important. We need to make sure the dream of home ownership stays alive.
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The government plans to double the number of new houses built each year, from 200,000 to 400,000. How are you going to get there?
It is important to view this budget as a comprehensive strategy to address affordability issues, particularly in housing. Budget 2022 includes investments that will go towards training more Canadians in the skilled trades and provide funding to create more apprenticeships, which will help build more homes. If you look at the ambitious targets of our immigration system this year—we expect to welcome 401,000 new permanent residents—the majority of them are skilled immigrants. They fill our labor shortages and literally help us build our economy.
What impact can the federal government have alone?
It is important that we do not do this alone. We need municipal governments to speed up their processes for affordable housing projects and middle-class housing. To do this, we are not only asking them to intervene. We’re stepping up, with a $4 billion housing accelerator fund. It is important to have partners at the municipal level who facilitate rapid approvals and help open doors earlier for people living on the streets and in parks. People just want a more affordable place closer to work or school.
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You spent some time on the west coast this spring talking about your government’s housing strategy. In April, Pierre Poilievre drew attention to a $4.8 million home in Vancouver as a stark example of unaffordability. Another Conservative leadership candidate, Scott Aitchison, has spoken of ending exclusionary zoning in major cities. How do their positions on housing differ from yours?
Mr. Poilievre has no position—these are just gimmicks. If he was serious about helping Canadians get home ownership, why did he vote against the first-time home buyer’s incentive? The Conservatives voted against the 2022 budget, which proposes the expansion of the Rapid Housing Initiative and top-ups to the co-investment fund. Some dislike the Rental Construction Finance Initiative, which will build more than 71,000 homes across the country. Even in caucus, one day they’ll talk about how we should invest more in housing, and the next day they’ll say the federal government shouldn’t be in this space, and we should just give it our all money to the provinces and on foot. It’s hard to know where they are. What is becoming increasingly clear is that on this side of the House they really do not have an in-depth understanding of the housing industry. They just don’t understand. If they did, they would come up with some really well thought out ideas.
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The gap between house prices and income has widened considerably, especially for new immigrants. How do you deal with the fact that for many new Canadians who rent, buying a home is next to impossible?
There is no doubt that it is increasingly difficult to access property. That is why we are moving forward aggressively to address this issue. It’s not just about helping first-time home buyers, although that’s part of the mix. It’s not just about banning foreign ownership for two years or ending blind auctions. It’s all of the above. As the fastest growing country in the G7, we don’t have enough housing supply for the skilled immigrants who come to help us grow our economy. It’s not just a housing issue, it’s also an economic development issue. If we are able to lead a truly national effort to build more transit-oriented housing, to have more inclusive zoning, and to remove barriers to building more supply — and getting it faster — I think we can make it to the other end.
Supply seems to be the key word here.
Sourcing is a big part of that. We are now on track to build the first new co-op building stock in 30 years – 6,000 of them. We renewed the Rapid Housing Initiative for the third time, which will add an additional 6,000 units. The money we invest in the core investment funds will produce nearly 23,000 new homes, and the Housing Acceleration Fund alone will produce 100,000 new homes by 2024. We’re dealing with speculation and we are putting measures in place to help first…time homebuyers. But we are certainly aware of the need to significantly increase the supply.
When you were a community organizer 18 years ago, you told the Toronto Star you couldn’t handle the life of a politician and you didn’t want to be in the forefront. And yet you are there.
I still don’t see myself as a politician. I think this work is an extension of the grassroots community work I was doing in Regent Park 20 years ago. It’s just on a different stage.
This interview appears in the June issue of Maclean’s and has been edited for length and clarity.
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