Speaking Notes for Evan Siddall, President and Chief Executive Officer, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
National Housing Innovation Event Series — Part Two
Fairmont Pacific Rim
Vancouver, British Columbia
Check Against Delivery
On the way in last night I was thinking that since joining CMHC in 2014 I have been here about 50 times. Of course, you come here: it is beautiful British Columbia, after all. As the Mayor said, it’s this wonderful place … it’s lakes and rivers and mountains and bridges and houses. And in a country that is drunk on housing, it’s our number one distillery – Vancouver.
So it’s also a crucible, therefore, for finding solutions to this housing crisis. On that I want to acknowledge Joy MacPhail, who heads the Expert Panel on Housing Supply and Affordability, and some other members of the Panel who may be here today. The Panel was co-created by the federal government and the provincial government here in B.C. to think about housing supply challenges in our big cities, and in particular in Vancouver and Victoria. Some fantastic work is going on there, and some solutions will be particular to British Columbia but also applicable throughout the country.
The other great thing about B.C. is we’re just more aware of the debt we owe to Indigenous people. Gabe [Gonda] acknowledged earlier that we are meeting today on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, which is not at all perfunctory, I think, in the case of housing.
You know Mother Earth tells us a lot if we just would listen to her. This was a pretty rough neighbourhood 60 million years ago. It was a volcanic mass, and out of that volcanic mass emerged the Stawamus Chief, which is just up the road. For me, it’s always been kind of inspiring. Since I started going up there when I was young, I have been in awe of this thing — I climbed it once. In the Squamish language it is called Siám' Smánit, which translates to Elder Mountain or Teacher Mountain.
And as I said, Mother Earth teaches us a lot — and Indigenous traditions teach us a lot – if we just listen. Housing sits at the nexus of our problems with climate change and it’s a great opportunity for us to address those issues too. You know the Mayor talked about HOT, and the “t” in HOT is transit. We are sending people out to the suburbs, where they can burn more carbon and buy more cars commuting, as opposed to densifying our cities — which are under-densified by global standards — and improving the lot for renters, which I called for last time when I talked about the cult of homeownership
We think about suburbs as wasteful in terms of single-family homes and the amount of carbon that is burned in a single-family home relative to people living in dense locations. The truth is we’ve made some significant improvements in how we live and how much we emit in our homes … but how much transportation that involves is massive and it’s gotten worse.
Since 2000, over the last 20 or so years, we’ve gone from emitting 81 million megatonnes of carbon dioxide from using passenger vehicles in Canada to emitting 94 million megatonnes. Passenger transport has gone from 16 per cent of the energy we burn to 19 per cent of the energy we burn. Housing is part of the problem and suburban sprawl is also part of the problem. It is also rectified by increased density.
It reminds me of the Cree prophesy that goes: “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”
So we are thinking about housing differently, inspired by that, at CMHC. At your tables you will see there is a Housing Supply Challenge we are about to kick off and I think my colleague Steffan Jones is going to talk about that later. We’re thinking about housing completely differently from the federal government’s point of view.
Of course this was launched, as Mayor Stewart said, with the restoration of the federal leadership role in housing through the National Housing Strategy, which is a $55-billion investment over 10 years in housing. It’s transformed how we think about housing and I think the dialogue here in Canada.
We also passed legislation called the National Housing Strategy Act that requires the federal government to have a National Housing Strategy, to report on it and also to have an administrative structure that enforces a right to housing to address systemic issues. It’s non-justiciable in the sense that you can’t sue on it but people can apply to a federal housing council to address issues of a systemic nature.
And that, of course, includes the plight of housing among our Indigenous peoples here in Canada. There are currently three distinctions-based Indigenous housing strategies being developed – those are for First Nations, Inuit and Metis. And CMHC will be leading a fourth initiative around urban, rural and northern housing for Indigenous people, who account for about half of Indigenous people in Canada. So we are excited to do that.
In addition to this innovation series with the Globe & Mail and our co-sponsors and the Keesmat Group, in Toronto on April 16th, our research division is hosting a symposium called Just Renting: Rethinking Rental in the 21st Century. This by the way echoes views we’ve had and that I repeated in December at our first Innovation Series event. It was also echoed by a special report on housing in The Economist of all places. This very neo-liberal, pro-free-market magazine recently called western countries’ promotion of homeownership our greatest policy blunder. We’ve been saying that for a while and we are looking at new solutions.
Please also sign up for our National Housing Conference in Ottawa on May 12th and 13th, which will feature Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book evicted. If you’ve not read this book, and I will finish my remarks today with a quote from him, it will transform how you think about housing.
I should brag about what we’ve done in the Vancouver area in terms of some investments we’ve made under the National Housing Strategy.
- Moveable modular housing on undeveloped land across Vancouver, which helps transition people from homelessness.
- VanCity’s Pre-construction Equity Loan Fund provides low-cost capital to affordable rental projects during risky or pre-construction phases.
- The Whistler Housing Authority’s pre-fab wall panel assembly system to create passive home affordable housing.
- We’ve invested in 2,000 new rental homes in a mixed-market housing-first approach in Vancouver that will not require ongoing subsidization.
- And finally we also supported a terrific initiative led by BC Housing called the Housing Investment Corporation, which provides long-term, low-cost financing to affordable housing providers.
We’ve changed our organization, as Gabe said, because we unified around a single vision, and that is that “By 2030, everyone in Canada will have a home that they can afford and that meets their needs.” We’ve restructured our company to do that. The reason we ‘ve done this and made CMHC a more aspirational entity is because, as Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and thinking you’re going to get different results. We need to think about housing differently, we need to go at housing differently, and CMHC is trying to lead that.
Compare that to an entity that, when you asked somebody why they were doing something, the stock answer would have been because we’ve always done it at way. That is the dumbest reason to do anything – it means you’re not turning your mind to what you should do. And too often, public institutions do that sort of thing — they fall into the trap of process instead of results. CMHC is trying to go down a different path.
I will leave you with the following hopefully inspirational thought from Matthew Desmond’s book, which please read and please come see us in May in Ottawa. He writes the following:
“The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home we can be ourselves, everywhere else we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.
The home,” he says, “is the wellspring of personhood” Think about that — the wellspring of personhood. “It’s where identity takes root and blossoms, where as children we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work. When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.”
Everyone in Canada deserves that — and CMHC is here to try to achieve it. We’re grateful to all of you for your for help in trying to get there and I’m looking forward to hearing from you today. Thank you very much.