With house prices escalating across the country, and safe and affordable housing out of reach for more Canadians than ever, it is clear financial institutions, private business and governments need to work together to improve affordability for everyone, says Romy Bowers, President and Chief Executive Officer of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“House price escalation has very real negative consequences for our economy and society. Lack of housing affordability hurts all Canadians,” Bowers said, speaking at the recent Scotiabank Affordable Housing Summit.

She noted that about 1.7 million Canadian households need housing, with some families having to choose between paying rent and buying groceries, and as many as 35,000 people in Canada experiencing homelessness. While many are racialized people, seniors, and women and children fleeing violence, now the people who keep the cities running — nurses, firefighters, shopkeepers — can no longer afford to live in them, she said.

Bowers made the comments at the virtual summit hosted by Scotiabank in November, which brought together developers, governments and financial partners to discuss ways to alleviate some of the housing need. In addition to her session, Working Together to Make a Difference in Affordable Housing, participants tuned in to panel discussions with leaders in government, housing development and Scotiabank covering topics such as accelerating supply-side initiatives, investment strategies, Indigenous housing, leveraging successful partnership models and more.

CMHC, known for its mortgage insurance and securitization programs, is leading the delivery of the National Housing Strategy — a more than $72-billion investment over 10 years to increase the supply of affordable rental housing across the country. While the Crown corporation, with the help of its partners, is tracking strong progress on NHS targets, Bowers said, it recognizes the need for even greater support from financial institutions and other private sector partners to achieve its aspiration for everyone in Canada to have a home that meets their needs and that they can afford by 2030.

Earlier this year, Scotiabank aligned itself with CMHC’s aspiration, committing to mobilize $10 billion over the next 10 years to develop innovative lending, investing and underwriting solutions for retail, commercial and corporate clients who support the achievement of this important housing objective in Canada.

Romy Bowers Headshot

Photo: Romy Bowers, President and Chief Executive Officer of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. 

As Bowers notes, there is plenty of scope for innovative ideas to come from private sector businesses. For inspiration, she points to a few NHS supported projects, including HelpSeeker, an app that matches people at risk of homelessness with community services and supports that was developed by a couple in Medicine Hat with the help of the city; and Veterans’ House: The Andy Carswell Building, a 40-unit housing project led by the Multifaith Housing Initiative that meets the unique needs of veterans.

On a larger scale, Bowers said, government, non-profits and developers need to continue to work together to change the balance between ownership and rental units: “When you look at the housing stock in Canada, 95% of it is privately owned, be it individual homes or apartment buildings or condos; social or community housing is only about 5%,” she said.

High construction and land costs have made rental buildings expensive to build, and pushed up rents, Bowers said, noting that there are huge opportunities for developers to work with government and non-profits to create affordability within existing buildings.

“The sector is doing what they do best, which is building buildings, and the people in the non-profit sector have an idea of who needs these buildings, and the government can provide financial support to drive deeper levels of affordability that are going to help people in need,” she said.

Bowers pointed to the Regent Park housing development in Toronto as a good example of how partners can work together. “The level of revitalization that has taken place in the past 10 years or so is amazing,” she said.

“Regent Park is what it is today because of very strong partnerships between Toronto Community Housing Corporation and private sector development firms. There now is an amazing mix of housing types in the neighborhood and it’s owing to the vision of leaders within Toronto, but also the partnerships with private sector players,” Bowers said.

As for rent control, Bowers sees it as a short-term solution. “We need to build more housing across the continuum to really drive supply and demand and then government needs to provide income support or other types of subsidies to drive deeper levels of affordability for people who are marginalized,” she said.