The other competence problem

Time flies, as they say.

In August 2023, Justin Trudeau defended himself for not doing enough on housing. It is not primarily “a federal responsibility,” he said.

This week, on the contrary, he promised to do more. Watch us go! We are going to do our “best”, as the poet would say.

His conversion must be put into perspective. The federal government was already involved in several programs. Why then is the Prime Minister putting the spotlight on him?

First, because his rival Pierre Poilievre made it a priority. Even if his proposals do not convince the experts, he hurts the liberals by associating them with the crisis.

Then, because voters who are struggling to find or pay for housing are demanding help.

The pressure is therefore both political and popular. In this context, no wonder Justin Trudeau uses his favorite phrase: he will be “there for Canadians”. This will be one of the priorities of the budget which will be tabled on April 16.

This week, Mr. Trudeau brought forward three announcements to avoid them going unnoticed in the voluminous budget. Here are the three measures he mentioned.

  • Modify the Canadian mortgage charter to improve the credit history of a tenant who pays their rent on time.
  • Create a Tenant Protection Fund (15 million) to finance legal aid for tenants.
  • Create a Tenant Bill of Rights that would specify the rent paid by the previous occupant, provide a standard lease and better protect tenants against renovictions and other abuses.

For the first measure, the federal government is in its sandbox. Financial institutions report to him.

For the second, it is aid to the provinces, and not an intrusion into their jurisdiction. Nothing scandalous.

The third measure is a harder sell. Mr. Trudeau promises to act “in collaboration with the provinces”. Free translation: we act without having consulted them, and for the rest, we will see…

In the National Assembly, unsurprisingly, things are going badly. Let Mr. Trudeau mind his own business, replies the CAQ government. The PQ and those in solidarity agree, and that is understandable. Quebec already manages relations between owners and tenants. If we need to better protect tenants, this must be done within our Civil Code.

The debate on competence takes place on two levels.

The first concerns constitutional powers. The second concerns competence in the sense of expertise. What do elected officials and federal civil servants know about tenant rights? Not much.

But the Trudeau government feels that time is running out. Faced with an adversary who denounces the cost of living, he seeks concrete measures that capture the imagination. And the concrete issues mainly lie with the provinces.

On Thursday, the Liberal leader announced loans to finance the construction of daycares. Quebec will not be offended – it has already obtained a right of withdrawal with compensation for the national daycare program. But the promised dental insurance and drug insurance are poorly received, because of the dual problem of competence.

And now, a fourth front is opening with housing.

Mr. Trudeau’s initiative must be situated historically.

From 1971 to 1991, thanks among other things to the federal government, the share of social housing in Quebec increased from 0.5% to 9.5%. But in 1992, the Mulroney government withdrew from the program.

Subsequently, the federal government began to finance, somewhat, so-called “affordable” housing.

The Liberal government has created overlapping programs with varying criteria. Among them: the Rental Housing Construction Financing Initiative, the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, the Federal Lands Initiative and the Fund to Accelerate Housing Construction.

Private developers can benefit from this. Their building may have a minority of “affordable” housing. And the definition of affordability varies between programs – it depends on the price of rent or the tenant’s income. It’s not targeted. For example, an apartment costing almost $2,000 in Montreal may be eligible…

This explains the skepticism about new federal initiatives.

To be fair, the federal government has tried to stimulate supply by other means, such as the GST holiday for the construction of new housing. He also launched other better-received but temporary programs, such as the Rapid Housing Initiative, which directly targets vulnerable people.

The fact remains that the federal government itself is fueling the imbalance it wants to resolve. While everyone is racking their brains to increase supply, demand is surging because of immigration. The increase in new arrivals did not create this crisis. But it undoubtedly makes it worse. On this, the federal government is more discreet, even if it concerns its powers.

The fact remains that Mr. Trudeau’s offensive is convenient for the CAQ government. This allows him to don the popular costume of defender of the nation. And to make people forget that he does not use his competence fully to defend the right to housing.


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