Steady erosion of affordable housing hurts us all

By Alan Thomarat, Regina Leader Post April 7, 2013 - Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget measures announced recently continue a prudent and thoughtful course and will certainly foster continued future building and strengthening of Canada's competitive advantage on the global stage. Measures were announced that increase federal support for national infrastructure, improve the supply of skilled tradespeople, strengthen the manufacturing sector and reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses. "This is a fiscally prudent, forward-looking budget," said CHBA national president Deep Shergill of Calgary. "We congratulate Minister Flaherty for setting the right priorities."

The most talked about issue in recent years certainly seems to have been the matter of predictable and sustainable long-term infrastructure financing for municipalities.

"It's an opportunity to restore fiscal integrity at the municipal level and fairness for younger generations. At present, many municipalities are financing community infrastructure by transferring the costs into the mortgages of new home buyers, amounting to more than $5 billion a year," said Shergill, and they certainly echo those of our past national president Ron Olson from Saskatoon. In fact, this has been our industry's position for decades now. Alternatives to financing infrastructure, including exploring P3 models, must be on the table if we are ever to achieve sustainable affordability in housing for Canadians from coast to coast.

The federal government and all governments need to recognize the steady erosion of housing affordability and choice. As our national position reiterates time and time again, the low cost of mortgage money has masked the fact that house prices continue to be pushed ever higher through taxes, fees, levies and charges. There are clear examples in this country and abroad that warn against municipalities becoming too dependent on fees collected from new homebuyers to fund general operations.

As markets turn and they often do, many municipalities have found themselves in ever more precarious financial circumstances. Certainly, one of the key reasons municipalities rightly seek more predictable funding streams and why it is important for all governments and industry partners to find alternatives to financing infrastructure.

This year's federal budget's emphasis on skills training and development, in our view, is a further commitment to the infrastructure we know as our educated, highly skilled workforce. All industries, and especially the residential construction industry, need skilled tradespeople and we will need long-term approaches to meet labour force demands in all regions of Canada.

As with our national president, we are clearly feeling disappointment that while the government has a strong focus on international tax cheating, there doesn't seem to be a similar commitment of resources to tackling the domestic underground cash economy.

"We have urged the government to work more effectively and aggressively on this front," he said. "A permanent renovation tax rebate would strengthen the government's weaponry in combating illegal contracting that creates problems for consumers, costs jobs and income, undermines our efforts to support a professional industry and costs governments billions of dollars annually in lost tax revenues." We must deliver the best to consumers, whether new homes, renovations or contracting in general. We will raise the bar, build and maintain a highly skilled and professional industry, but eliminating the underground cash economy must be a high priority for our industry and all governments.

There are definitely issues that we in the west keep on the front burner. Some of them don't resonate in Ontario or points east as much as here, but that is why I continue to object to one-size-fits-all policy making. Our provincial government has proven that we can indeed consider and implement policies that are sensitive to regional economies and their distinct needs. Canada is more than one housing market. We are in fact the aggregate of dozens and dozens of different housing markets.

We see some other opportunities and may differ somewhat on issues such as the rules around mortgage terms among others. The needs in the west, with abundant unfilled jobs and the lack of skilled trades to fill them, clearly speaks to a need for a Made in Saskatchewan immigration strategy. The unstoppable retirements ahead for the next 16 years or so definitely compound the matter. Funding for training is a key priority, but some provinces, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan, are persistently near full employment levels and running out of people to train. Encouraging labour market mobility can help Canadians in areas still experiencing higher unemployment levels find good careers and maintain a higher quality of life for themselves and their families.

All this being said, there's no denying that Saskatchewan has been a good place to be in these early years of this 21st century. All indications tell us to take nothing for granted, but this province of Saskatchewan is indeed the best place to be, to build a career, to raise a family and to build a future, now and for the long term. We are not going back, we are future building.

Alan Thomarat is the president and CEO of the Canadian Home Builders' Association - Saskatchewan and the Saskatoon & Region Home Builders Association. He also serves as a director on the national board of the Canadian Home Builders' Association in Ottawa.

Alan thomarat CEO and President Canadian Home Builders' Association - Saskatchewan

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