Adding needed housing supply is easier said than done — just ask our friends in the U.K.

While housing prices have been rising rapidly in metropolitan areas across the developed world, new housing construction has not kept pace with demand. Building more housing, even when it is urgently needed, is easier said than done.

Canada is not alone in struggling to build enough housing to provide affordable shelter alternatives to its growing population. For example, a recent commentary in The Economist exposed the frustrations of successive British governments in failing to meet the stated objective of building 300,000 new homes each year. But that’s not all. The housing being built there is not where it is needed the most nor is it conducive to sheltering young families.

Britain has a long and celebrated history of land-use planning. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 and subsequent amendments and revisions give it at least 110 years of experience in regulating land use and development. One would think that Britain would have mastered the subject by now, but the dearth of affordable housing in and near London and the southeast suggests that much more work is needed to build consensus before building new housing.

Britain has loosened land-use control over the years by allowing construction on farmland near urban centres, converting industrial buildings to residential use and building taller buildings. Yet, these concessions have not delivered sufficient new housing in the right places as the “local authorities had indeed been acting as a break on development,” Anthony Breach of the Centre for Cities told The Economist.

The current government in Britain outlined its pro-development agenda in a White Paper last year that encouraged local authorities to create a ten-year development plan and recommended limiting residents to comment on development applications.

However, recent electoral outcomes in Britain have favoured those who opposed new housing developments and, in one instance, a high-speed rail line. The conflicting priorities of existing and future homeowners have led to development gridlock in Britain.

What can Canada learn from the British experience where initiatives to build more housing by higher tiers of governments have faced opposition from local authorities and established residents?

Like Britain, housing prices have also been rising fast in many populous urban centres across Canada. The pandemic contributed to the increase in the demand for larger-sized low-rising dwellings whose prices have increased swiftly over the past 16 months.

However, the pandemic is just a recent contributor to our housing woes. Prices have been growing in Canada since the early 1990s, with only brief and rare interludes. What has not kept pace with demand is construction.

Writing in this space earlier this month , we demonstrated how Canada built much more housing on a per person basis in the seventies than it has been building recently. In addition, what has been built in the past three decades might not be the proper structure or tenure type.

A quick look at construction trends in urban housing markets reveals the mismatch between demand and supply. For example, consider the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), Canada’s largest housing market, where the share of low-rise housing (detached and semi-detached) has declined over the years. In comparison, the share of mid- to-high-rise apartments (primarily condominiums) has increased such that 70 per cent of the housing starts in 2020 were apartments.

The inadequate supply of ground-oriented housing explains why prices for such accommodation in the Toronto CMA have increased rapidly. And whereas the construction of apartments helps with the provision of moderately priced housing, most apartments are owned condominiums, some of which are rented. In comparison, the share of purpose-built rental starts has remained below 10 per cent since the mid-nineties, only to edge slightly higher in 2019 and 2020.

The structure of new housing construction in Ottawa resembles that of Toronto, with rental starts comprising 11.5 per cent of the total in 2020. Similarly, apartment starts in Ottawa at 38.7 per cent eclipsed other structural types in 2020.

Housing construction in the Halifax CMA also resembles Toronto and Ottawa when it comes to structural type, with apartments in the lead. However, rental housing starts dominate the construction scene there, representing over 60 per cent of all starts.

Communities across Canada agree that housing prices have been rising faster than incomes, leaving many would-be first-time homebuyers feeling that they have been priced out of the ownership market. However, a consensus on how to tame the price rises is lacking. Measures to curb demand by increasing transaction or ownership costs get more airtime, yet such measures, even when implemented, have not delivered the desired outcome of affordable housing prices.

Constructing more housing will help. However, the need for consensus on more construction is urgently needed. The local and higher tiers of government must be on the same page to facilitate new housing construction.

Those who aspire to be future homeowners must organize as lobbying and voting blocks to counteract the pressures brought by the NIMBYs against new housing developments.

Murtaza Haider is a professor of Real Estate Management at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at the Haider-Moranis Bulletin website,