Waiting for baby boomers to die is not effective housing policy

OPINION: A new report says that a once-reliable way of bringing homes to the resale market isn’t working like it used to. It’s another indication that our housing policies aren’t keeping up with our housing crisis
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 09, 2019
an Ontario subdivision
Fixing Ontario’s housing crisis will require aggressive policymaking from all levels of government. (iStock.com/IMNATURE)

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A few years ago, my neighbour died. For most of the preceding decade, we’d done the usual Toronto thing: acknowledged each other politely, usually through an exchange of nods, and courteously asked for or provided help when needed. His death wasn’t unexpected — he was elderly, and his health had obviously been failing for some time — but it was sad. Sadder still was the fact that, while his friends and family had obviously tried to care for him, he had never moved out of the home that shares a wall with ours. I try not to assume too much about other people’s stories, but what I did know suggested that his last years would have been more comfortable if he’d been living in a home better suited to his needs.

I thought of him again this week, after the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation released a report stating that GTA residents aged 65 and older are staying in their homes longer — and that that’s a problem. As the CMHC notes, it’s a complicated problem because it’s the result of a bunch of otherwise promising trends: seniors are generally healthier, wealthier, and getting more supports to help them age in place. Those may all be good things, but, according to the CMHC, they come with a catch: the plan was that the “demographic shift” of baby boomers aging into their autumn years would free up the homes they’re currently occupying. But that hasn’t happened.

“The conventional view is that this demographic shift will likely help to increase the supply of housing to younger homeowners, since seniors typically downsize or leave homeownership,” the CMHC report reads. As the flow of resale homes is slowing, though, “ seniors might not be freeing up the expected number of dwellings for younger households thus limiting supply.”

Now, in one sense, this is a temporary hitch: absent someone finding the Holy Grail, we will all meet the Reaper’s blade someday. But when John Maynard Keynes memorably said, “In the long run, we are all dead,” he explicitly meant that policymakers need to do more than just wait for the economy to return to balance on its own.

This idea that a great downsizing would happen in the near future held some real sway in official circles — staff in Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government told me that it was one reason they were exercising caution on the housing-policy front. The fact that it’s not happening the way it was supposed to is just the latest example of the housing system changing in unpredictable ways.

In his series on housing, TVO.org’s David Rockne Corrigan has shown that the housing system can change faster than policy. Nowhere is that more evident than in Prince Edward County, where, over the past decade, the share of homes priced under $300,000 has fallen from 78 per cent to 18 per cent. This is partly the result of well-heeled retirees decamping from Toronto for a part of the province where a bucolic setting is (or was) still relatively affordable. But some of it is also due to people turning homes into virtual hotels: the Airbnb effect. The effects of short-term rentals on the housing market are complex, but, for our purposes, it’s enough to say that a company that barely existed a decade ago is now very much a contributing factor in our housing chaos.

But it’s not just expats from the GTA, and it’s not just Airbnb. Kenora is very nearly as far as you can get from Toronto and still be in Ontario, and there, too, Corrigan found a community that’s been taken by surprise by a dire need for affordable housing.

As I’ve noted before, in relation to Toronto, our timid attempts to make change through policy have done little to address the housing problem. The only thing governments of all stripes and at all levels are doing comprehensively is not enough. In light of this week’s CMHC report, I would add that part of the reason nobody is doing enough is that we’ve been slow to recognize that certain features of the system — like mortality itself — aren’t doing the same work they used to.

Our housing system is broken in ways it’s taken us too long to understand, and it won’t fix itself. We’re going to need aggressive policies from all three levels of government — policies substantially more aggressive than anything we’ve seen to date. And we’ll need approaches more creative than “wait for the baby boomers to die.”

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