Can Canada solve its housing crisis without making climate change worse?

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Climate change focus moves to the suburbs as cities continue to sprawl

Two ongoing crises have been consistent points of focus on the campaign trail ahead of Canada’s federal election on Sept. 20: a dire shortage of affordable housing and climate change.

All of the major federal parties have made lofty commitments with respect to both issues. You can read breakdowns of housing promises here and here, and climate change promises here and here.

While perhaps not obvious, the two issues are deeply interconnected. How the federal government and its provincial and municipal counterparts chooses to tackle a national housing shortage could have profound implications for the effort to limit future greenhouse gas emissions.

At the core of the housing crisis in Canada is a relatively straightforward problem. There are more people who need and want homes (of all types, whether single-family, condominiums, rental and social housing) then there are dwellings available to them.

According to a May report from Scotiabank, Canada has the lowest number of housing units per 1,000 residents than any G7 country, and “the number of housing units per 1,000 Canadians has been falling since 2016 owing to the sharp rise in population growth.”

Put simply, a key solution to easing the housing crisis is to build more homes. That, though, presents climate change-related challenges, like preventing unchecked urban sprawl from eating into existing greenspace and necessitating the construction of more highways, which in turn perpetuates the need for more cars, trucks and SUVs. 

According to Dianne Saxe, Ontario’s former environmental commissioner (and the last, as the office was shut down by Premier Doug Ford’s government), petroleum fuels like gasoline and diesel burned for transportation are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the province.

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It is possible, however, to meet housing needs while minimizing future emissions, said Hannah Teicher, a researcher at the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.

“The first priority needs to be maximizing and reusing the existing building stock,” she said in an interview this week. 

Retrofitting, redeveloping existing buildings

A main component of Teicher’s research has to do with what is called “embodied carbon.” That is the carbon footprint from the materials used in a home or building from their extraction, processing, manufacturing and transportation. 

She points to the abundance of apartment buildings purpose-built for renters across Canada after the Second World War, many of which have fallen into states of disrepair.

“If we retrofit those buildings then we preserve all the embodied carbon that was already sunk into them,” Teicher said, adding that a national retrofit initiative would also generate employment opportunities given the scale of the needed work.

There are other options, as well. Though the scope of the change is not yet clear, there is a potential shift coming in overall demand for commercial real estate for offices and other workspaces driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

This type of redevelopment is already underway in Calgary, for example, where an aging office tower is being converted into affordable housing units.  

“If we retrofit or redevelop those buildings then we preserve all the embodied carbon that was already sunk into them,” Teicher explained.

“Of course that is just one piece of it because we can’t meet all of the current housing needs with existing buildings.”

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Restrictive zoning bylaws

Keith Brooks, programs director for the non-profit group Environmental Defence, said it is imperative that new housing be built to increase the density of communities to a point where the public costs of electrified public transportation make sense, offering residents convenient and reliable alternatives to owning vehicles. 

“We need to be thinking about building more like they build in Europe, quite frankly, where people are less dependent on having their own personal vehicles and where they can access the things that they need within a short distance, whether that’s walking or biking or taking public transit,” he said.

In many municipalities, densification efforts are often hamstrung by restrictive zoning by-laws that often privilege single-family housing over alternative types of dwellings. Some North American cities have started to address this obstacle already.

In Portland, for example, city council voted in 2020 to allow for duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in most areas previously zoned as single-family. There can be up to six units on a single lot, though half of those units need to qualify as affordable housing. 

Eyes to the suburbs

Of course not everyone wants to live in dense urban centres. A Statistics Canada report published in mid-January found that in cities such as Toronto and Montreal, people were moving to the suburbs in unprecedented numbers.

“Urban sprawl continues, with Toronto and Montreal both experiencing record-high population losses to surrounding areas,” the report said.

Urban sprawl will undoubtedly continue for the seeable future as Canadians seek out affordable homes. Given that reality, more attention should be given to methods to limit greenhouse gas emissions connected to suburban home construction, says Hannah Teicher, a researcher at the Pacific Instititue for Climate Solutions. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Suburbs should not be an afterthought in the effort to combat climate change, according to Teicher, as the trend toward urban sprawl will be difficult to stop in the coming years.

“Density can take a lot of different forms … and there is a lot of possibilities for densification in the suburbs,” she said.

“One way to start is with gentler infill, adding one or two additional units to a suburban lot. Or building smaller buildings: row houses, townhouses and smaller apartment buildings.”

Another issue is the size of homes being built in many suburban settings. Square footage is directly related to carbon output per capita, Teicher said. Bigger homes require more materials and more energy to cool and heat, and the larger spaces often lead to residents filling them with more “stuff,” which also have carbon footprints.

“If we reduce average square footage even a little bit, there is a lot more space for a lot more people, with a lower carbon footprint,” she said.

The good news, Teicher added, is that many of the solutions to both the housing and climate crises are already available. 

“Most of this is really not rocket science. We really do know how to do it. So rather than imagining some new program or some new approach, lets look at what we’ve already been doing,” she said.

“Because we haven’t done enough and we’re running out of time.”



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