Repairing Canada’s crumbling foundation: a new book offers solutions to our housing crisis

Journalist, broadcaster, and author Gregor Craigie has been reporting on housing for more than 25 years. It’s not that he’s obsessed with the issue he says, it’s just that it has been the dominant topic of conversation in British Columbia for as long as he has lived here. What is new is the scale of the problem. Incomes haven’t kept up with housing costs, leaving homeownership out of reach to many Canadians, and, on top of that, there simply aren’t enough homes being built to keep up with demand.

So, what is to be done? Can we look to other places for solutions? Those are some of the questions Craigie poses in his latest book, Our Crumbling Foundation: How We Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis.

He says the issue really hit home for him in January 2022 when the latest BC Assessment for his Victoria home showed up in his mailbox.

“And the number just screamed out at me,” he said. “It was $1.3 million for this old house that I bought on a journalist’s salary (and my wife’s teacher’s salary) years ago. And it just occurred to me that my kids essentially had no hope of ever doing the same thing. And my young colleagues in the newsroom [also] had no hope of doing the same thing. And I thought, how did it all go so wrong?”

“For me, it was really a compulsion that I had to try to make sense of this by writing a book,” he said. “So, that’s kind of how it all started and has propelled me this far.”

Craigie makes his case using real-world examples. There’s the husband and wife from Vancouver who are priced out of the market and buy a townhome in Calgary instead. Then there is the nurse in Toronto who commutes more than an hour each way daily because she can’t afford to live where she works.

He also argues there isn’t any one solution to the housing crisis — but many. Some of them are from abroad – places like Berlin, Helsinki, and Tokyo – others are things we used to do, such as invest in co-op housing.

Craigie begins by introducing the reader to Martin and Nicole Chiu of Vancouver. They are professionals with good-paying jobs, living with family to save up for a down payment. They seem to be doing all the right things and yet they still can’t afford a home.

“They just had to give up on Metro Vancouver. They’d been Vancouvered out,” he said. “They zoomed out on the Multiple Listing Service website, and they finally found the only place they could afford was in Williams Lake and, of course, nothing bad about Williams Lake, but for various job reasons they wanted to be in a big city. So, they ended up in Calgary.”

John Ackermann sits down with Gregor Craigie, author of Our Crumbling Foundation How we Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis.

Then there is Nicola Montgomery, a young nurse in Toronto who commutes to work from suburban Mississauga. Craigie says she is among a generation of essential workers who can barely make ends meet and may have to leave the profession entirely.

“She said the entire cohort of late 20s and early 30s nurses are all considering either a side gig or leaving nursing completely to deliver Botox because they make more money in a plastic surgeon’s office — or irony of ironies — to get their real estate license and sell condos,” he said.

So, what is to be done? Craigie ends his book with some suggestions he calls A List of Repairs based on the examples from the preceding chapters. One of them addresses Montgomery’s plight directly. Craigie suggests building housing for essential workers, like nurses and firefighters, and developing rental and purchase discounts so they can live in the communities they serve.

Craigie says the crisis has been decades in the making and no one measure will solve it. However, we all can agree that inaction is not an option.

“I wanted to [show] the human cost of these high housing prices because that’s really what it is, it’s a human crisis in the end. It’s people sleeping in their vehicles or on sidewalks or giving up on their dreams of homeownership,” he said.

“And, as somebody else from Vancouver, Khelsilem, a council chair with the Squamish Nation, said it’s just unfair, and it’s robbing people of opportunity. It’s just not right, especially for younger generations.”

While housing affordability is a familiar topic for us in Metro Vancouver, Craigie hopes to convince readers in other parts of the country that it’s not just an issue in big cities and urban centers.

“It’s still astounding to me how many people across the country are not really convinced,” he said.

“[They say], ‘Come on, interest rates were high in my day back in the early 80s. You guys just need to be careful about your spending.’ So, A, I hope to convince the skeptics that this really is a problem with human consequences. But then, B, convince people that we can do this. We need to make dozens of changes and that will have a positive effect in the long term over decades.”

Craigie must be on to something. Our Crumbling Foundation is already a best-seller.

“You know, any author would like to think it’s because of their literary style or what have you. But of course, it’s just to do with the topic,” he said.

At any rate, the book is a timely and provocative look at a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Our Crumbling Foundation: How We Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis is published by Random House Canada.