Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen has a massive to-do list, and he couldn’t be happier

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Not every minister has lived their portfolios in the way newly-named Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen has.

After arriving as a Somali refugee, Hussen lived with his brother in a subsidized apartment in Regent Park, the neighbourhood that gave him a zeal for the task Justin Trudeau has assigned to him: make housing more affordable, and make more affordable housing available.

The prime minister says it’s a political priority for his government.

Hussen says it’s personal.

“When I lived in Regent Park, it was the oldest and largest social housing neighbourhood in Canada, built in 1948. It was falling apart. There was no service, very little services, very little maintenance. But despite the fact that it was the oldest neighbourhood and very rundown, having that roof over my head allowed me to go to undergraduate studies, to even dream of going to university,” he said in an interview.

“I could never have been able to afford paying for a market rental unit and going to university at the same time as a new refugee to Canada, so I know the importance of that. Was it an adequate home? Was it a home that met all my needs? No, but it was a roof over my head and I can tell you it made a difference in my life.”

Hussen, a lawyer and former head of the Canadian Somali Congress, was first elected as an MP in 2015. Now in his third ministerial role, he is setting out to make a difference in Canada’s housing crisis.

This week, in making Hussen his housing minister, Trudeau also reorganized the government’s efforts on both homelessness and housing “affordability.”

Now both files are together under one minister and one roof. Hussen will be responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and for what used to be Employment and Social Development Canada’s homelessness secretariat, both embedded as a department within the infrastructure department. He’ll work closely with Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who is also intergovernmental affairs minister, to leverage relationships with provinces.

It’s not the first time he brings personal perspective to the job. That was the case when he became minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship in 2017.

A father of four (his youngest, a girl, born this week just after Trudeau’s latest cabinet unveiling), Hussen was most recently minister of families, children and social development, where he struck child-care agreements with seven provinces and one territory, and rolled out a $1 billion “rapid housing” strategy to combat homelessness during COVID-19 that converted hotels and motels into housing units.

Hussen talks a mile a minute about his plans, which cover the gamut of the Liberals’ election promises on housing — an area Opposition parties also campaigned hard on and where the Liberals may find some common ground in the minority Parliament ahead.

Hussen said he has the same definition of affordable housing that many Canadians have: “using no more than 30 per cent of your household income on housing costs, whether it is renting or whatever.”

But he said Canadians understand it depends on where you are in the country, “and in large urban centres, that is no longer what the market looks like.”

However, he said the federal government is committed to that target in its affordable rental housing agreements. “In those projects, there is an understanding and a commitment and signed agreements to maintain those units at 30 per cent of household income or less.”

The Liberal government says it will establish a $2.7 billion fund for non-profit housing providers to acquire land and buildings so that they can build more affordable housing — which Hussen said will help break down the “biggest barrier” and put non-profit developers “on a level playing field with the private sector, where when a piece of land or a property becomes available, they can grab it and secure it.”

Hussen also wants to make sure that “teachers, construction workers, paramedics, firefighters, those who can pay some amount of rent but who are getting priced out of the rental market, especially in the larger urban centres” get access to more of what he said are “affordable” rental units.

He wants to expand the subsidized, non-profit or co-op housing supply for vulnerable people who need it. He wants to end chronic homelessness. And he wants to help younger and first-time home buyers get into the ownership market.

But his first order of business is to bring in the promised homebuyers’ bill of rights, he said. It will ban so-called blind bidding where bidders can know the asking price of a home but not what other prospective buyers are offering, establish a legal right to home inspection, require “total transparency on the history of recent house sales and on title searches,” and the government will move to restrict foreign non-resident home ownership, he added.

Still, it is the promised $4 billion housing accelerator fund that Hussen believes will do the most to expand the housing supply in the country’s largest cities.

It will be an application-based program that will support those municipalities that “innovate” to speed up zoning approvals (such as through online, permitting technology) and that require more densification, public transit-oriented and mixed-housing developments. “They have to show more ambition, they have to show more innovation, and they have to show more openness, quite frankly, to going beyond the NIMBYism that we see in many parts of our country,” he said.

Mike Moffatt, senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute, said the housing accelerator fund is the “potentially most transformative” initiative because it is Ottawa using its “deep pockets to basically accelerate reforms at the municipal level,” although nobody seems to really know yet how it will work.

The other housing measures may be useful but “there’s nothing in there that’s really going to make home prices that much cheaper or homes that much more available,” Moffatt said, adding limits on non-resident foreign investors have been tried in B.C. and “had a minimal effect outside of a little bit of downward pressure on prices on one-bedroom condos.”

Hussen is the first housing minister Canada has had in nearly three decades, said Cathy Crowe, a visiting practitioner at Ryerson University’s department of politics and a longtime street nurse, and that move caught her attention. But she is skeptical of the Liberals’ intentions.

Crowe said the year that Hussen immigrated to Canada, former prime minister Jean Chrétien “cancelled our national housing program and downloaded housing to the provinces. So Regent Park disappeared, and communities like St. Lawrence Neighbourhood were never built again because they lost that program.”

Since then, gentrification of Regent Park has led to a net loss of affordable housing units, she said. She’s not so encouraged by all the talk of increasing home ownership, saying the bigger problem is affordable rental housing. That’s where she’d like to see Ottawa’s efforts focused.

Crowe says what’s needed is an “ideological” shift and a “fully-funded national housing stream that would include new builds that could be done by co-operatives, municipalities, by not-for-profits, that would be ideally matched by provinces, the way daycare’s being proposed.”

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