That is the argument that Joshua Gordon, who is an assistant professor in the Simon Fraser University School of Public Policy, recently made in this opinion piece in the Globe and Mail. In his view, there’s no evidence to suggest that housing supply can actually help housing affordability. It’s just something that developers throw around to “stymie action on the demand-side” and to help with their rezoning efforts. Really, the housing problem is due to intense demand from foreign buyers, investors, and from “high rental demand.”
Now, as many of you know, I am a developer, and not a professor. So you can take this post however you would like. But I do have a few thoughts.
One, I think it’s an oversimplification to argue that there have been no regulatory changes over the last decade that have meaningfully and negatively impacted the supply of new housing. To give you one example, this fall, development levies in Toronto will complete a phase-in that has seen them double over the last couple of years. Almost a quarter of the price of a new residential condominium now goes to pay government fees and taxes. This has an impact on supply, even if the “regulatory environment” hasn’t necessarily changed.
Two, I don’t buy the argument that, “surrounding cities have also seen rapid price appreciation and it’s easier to build there, so housing supply mustn’t be the problem.” Building outside of cities like Toronto and Vancouver isn’t necessarily easier. In fact, in some cases it can be more difficult if they’re not accustomed to more progressive urban infill-type developments.
Three, it’s important to keep in mind that we have a financing structure in place that biases the types of homes (specifically residential condominiums) that get built. This approach is designed to mitigate financial risk, but it also means that investors serve an important function in the delivery of new housing. I’m not saying that the system is perfect; but I am saying that things are maybe not as simple as they may seem.
Four, just because there are cities with lots of single-detached homes and relatively affordable housing, I don’t think we can safely assume that single-family land use policies have no impact on supply and pricing in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. In fact, I would argue the opposite. This probably goes to show you the importance of an elastic housing supply. Indeed, some of the most affordable housing markets are dominated by low-rise houses precisely because it is a typology that is quicker and cheaper to build than most urban infill housing.
Finally, I’m not sure why anyone would consider high rental demand and a strong labor market to be symptomatic of a problem. Isn’t that what you usually want out of cities? You want there to be an abundance of good jobs that pay people money so that they can, you know, have a life and consume things like housing. But maybe that’s just the way that I look at things. I am a developer after all.