Housing starts may look promising, but there’s much more to be done, experts say

housing starts

While the annual pace of housing starts in September rose to its highest level since November 2021, as reported by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. on Tuesday, there’s more to the numbers when it comes to the situation in Ottawa-Gatineau, local experts say.

Nationally, CMHC reported that the seasonally adjusted annual rate of housing starts for September was 299,589 units, up 11 per cent from 270,397 the previous month.

In Ottawa-Gatineau, seasonally adjusted starts were up 49 per cent from August to September. Year over year, the increase was 44 per cent.

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However, over the first half of 2022, housing starts in Ottawa slowed, CMHC reported, declining by 16 per cent due to rising costs and interest rate increases, for a total of 4,147 units beginning construction. 

“In Ottawa, housing starts declined for almost all dwelling types,” said CMHC in its Housing Supply Report. “The decrease was particularly significant in the single-detached and condominium apartment segments, where the level of construction was very high between January and June of 2021. Rental apartments, however, recorded an increase, with low vacancy rates stimulating construction.”

While the numbers tell a mixed story, local experts say, overall, Ottawa needs a “much higher level of housing.” 

“In my estimation, it’s almost useless to compare national numbers to Ottawa,” said Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association. “The national numbers are so influenced by Toronto and Vancouver numbers that it’s really not relatable to what’s happening in Ottawa … It’s no reflection on the housing activity locally. The numbers for Ottawa are very concerning.”

Burggraaf said Ottawa needs all types of housing, from high-rise apartments to new community developments. With a booming population, Burggraaf said that, “Ottawa really needs to be increasing the amount of housing supplies it has in order to accommodate its population growth. We need to see the trend continue.”

One part of the challenge is finding the workers to build housing. Mary Wiens is the general manager at the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Ottawa. She said the industry is trying to keep up with the “construction boom across all sectors.”

“Just look around,” she said. “These are the most cranes we’ve ever seen in this city and you can’t go anywhere without seeing construction.” 

MCA Ottawa works with UA Local 71,the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry, on various initiatives, including campaigns in high schools and advertising strategies, to recruit skilled tradespeople. Wiens said the goal is to “to find the people that we are looking for now and for the future.”

“Some of it is labour planning; we’re facing retirements and some big projects over the next decade,” said Wiens, referencing upcoming large projects like the new Civic hospital campus. “But right now, too, we need people. The industry in Ottawa is booming so there is a need to recruit.”

The hours of work completed by contractors with the MCA Ottawa have “grown by leaps and bounds,” said Wiens, with recruiting at “unprecedented levels.” Contractors report work completed by hours worked, she explained, and there has been a 26 per cent increase between 2019 and 2021.

Wiens said a huge part of the recruiting process has been establishing trades as a valuable and stable career choice rather than a plan B. 

“We are very optimistic as far as recruiting goes because working in the trades is very lucrative. They make a good living with a full pension plan and full benefits,” she said. “From a career perspective, it’s wonderful. I don’t know that everyone is aware that it is a good paying job and it’s very satisfying.”

With the Ottawa municipal election next week, Burggraaf said he hopes to see concrete plans for housing in the capital. 

“The Official Plan from the City of Ottawa wants to build 195,000 new homes over the next 25 years and even that is probably too low,” he said. “We need to build up and out. It’s an opportunity we need to rise to as an industry.”

Luckily, he says, the three perceived frontrunners in the mayoral race have cited housing as a priority.

“We need, as a city, to set a housing target, so the City can facilitate the building of the homes. What are we doing, what processes, fees, regulations and policies are in place that are impeding the construction of those homes?” he said. “I hope that whoever becomes mayor really pushes through on that goal when they’re in power.”

– with files from the Canadian Press

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