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Niagara Falls
Thursday, February 29, 2024
Arch-i-text: The resurrection of wartime housing
Wartime Housing Limited built affordable housing that has stood the test of time, says columnist Brian Marshall. SUPPLIED

This past Dec. 12, Sean Fraser, the federal minister of housing, announced his government intends to “take a lesson from our history books” by drawing on the incredibly successful example of Canada’s Wartime Housing Limited corporation and create a catalogue of preapproved, small to medium-sized housing project designs.

This catalogue, minister Fraser suggests, will include a range of designs that will encompass all manner of housing options including multiplex, midrise buildings, student housing, seniors’ residences and other small to medium-sized residential properties (including garden suites and laneway dwellings).

It is the federal government’s contention that such a catalogue will speed up the approvals of housing developments across the country.

Now, prior to considering the validity of that contention, it may be worthwhile to conduct a brief examination of Wartime Housing Limited — what it was and why it worked.

Upon entering the Second World War, Canada was facing a severe housing shortage estimated at 232,000 units.

As a result, in February of 1941, C.D. Howe — former prime minister Mackenzie King’s “minister of everything” — created Wartime Housing Limited as a crown corporation.

Howe reached out to one of the country’s most successful construction magnates, Joseph Pigott, to head the new corporation.

Pigott, in turn, drew a cast of corporate directors from every part of the building industry (design, supply, financial, unions, etc.) to fully leverage and expedite all facets of the development process.

In tandem with the federal government offices, Wartime Housing Limited reached out and negotiated firm commitments from all levels of government to expedite the process of land development while aligning both planning policy and existing by-laws to accommodate the rapid construction of the crown corporation’s projects.

And, where this commitment was not forthcoming, the federal corporation relied on the housing co-ordination committee — using the federal government’s wartime powers; to intervene with project approvals — effectively bypassing the provincial responsibility for housing. 

Simultaneously, they developed a fairly small catalogue of completely standardized designs for detached and semi-detached dwellings between 600 and 1,200 square feet, which were designed to be built on blocks or piers (no basement) using prefabricated panelized construction in accordance with a uniform published set of specifications.

With Privy Council approval, the corporation purchased lands from municipalities, expropriated properties from private land owners and developed housing projects on federal government lands.

And, it should be noted that Wartime Housing Limited not only constructed homes but also built schools, community centres, fire halls, pump houses and office buildings — delivering long-term benefits to the communities and municipalities associated with their developments.

So, we can see that this crown corporation was a highly focused, professionally managed organization given the full support of the federal government to not only create a standardized portfolio of housing designs but to actually become directly involved in fulfilling its mandate to construct dwellings “wherever there was a serious housing shortage.”

It did so with aplomb, such that by the end of the war the company had completed multiple residential blocks for single workers, 25,771 single-family detached houses and all the associated infrastructure.

Fast forward to 2023 and the current federal government’s assertion that a published catalogue of preapproved housing designs will expedite development approvals across the country.

As a general comment, I’d suggest this may be true, but only if it is one part of an overall strategy that, similar to Wartime Housing Limited, is enacted by a non-governmental organization managed by a team of proven executives drawn from across the development industry.

Further, this organization must be given a significant level of independence from direct and indirect federal political interference to negotiate agreements that will put wheels under this overture.

As one example, consider the word “preapproved.”

Housing is a provincial responsibility which is further complicated by the bylaws and zoning restrictions of each municipality.

This being the case, design “approval” by the federal government means nothing – “approval” would, at the very least, require agreement and endorsement by each provincial government.

Moreover, this provincial approval would have to be given on each and every individual design in a very extensive catalogue as proposed.

In more than five decades of observing the fractious nature of federal/provincial relationships — particularly when the province feels its constitutional responsibilities may be potentially infringed upon — I’ve seen that negotiations between the two levels of government are fraught with political posturing and micromanagement that results in extraordinarily long timelines and unnecessarily complicated agreements (if an agreement can even be reached).

Hence, vesting the responsibility for negotiating “approval” agreements with the provinces within an independent non-political agency will, I suspect, very possibly lower the level of provincial angst regarding federal interference in their areas of authority.

This, in turn, would result in a more efficient and time-sensitive negotiation process to address this “crisis” – especially if the provinces established their own independent agencies charged with expediting development projects of the pre-approved designs within the respective provincial jurisdictions.

And, this does not even encompass the fact that to be “pre-approved” each design will require engineered specifications which will either need to be customized to the building code of each province or nationally standardized under a separate building classification which each province would need to accept and enact.

So, let’s posit the unlikely scenario that governments at all levels agree to a set of “preapproved” designs in the next 12 months and want to get moving on the construction of the 3.5 million new dwellings the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation claims will be required in the next decade.

Starting in 2025, an additional 388,889 units would need to be completed in each of the following nine years.

Understanding that the number of new homes annually completed in Canada between 2018 and 2022 averaged 205,762 units, it begs the question: where is the supply, manufacturing and construction capacity for that massive increase in building volume going to come from?

Here again, there are very practical business sector expansion considerations which governments are completely unequipped — in mandate, structure, expertise and processes — to deal with.

And, while governments can create financial incentives like tax breaks, subsidies, interest-free loans and so on, it requires a focused business-based organization (like Wartime Housing Limited) to identify, address and establish a viable commercial framework that can deliver.

Moreover, where are the lands upon which these additional 388,889 new dwellings are going to be built?

But these, and more, are questions we shall explore in future columns.

For now, I’ll conclude that the portfolio is a great step in the right direction, however, if it is to be more than political facetime, there’s a lot more work to do. 

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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