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Learning From the Past, Building For the Future

Nathan Stone, 2018 CHBA President
Canadian Home Builders’ Association 75th National Conference  - Victoria, British Columbia
March 22, 2018

Distinguished guests, friends and colleagues – I am very honoured to stand here today, as the President of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.

I want to begin by recognizing Eric Den Ouden for his great leadership as our President over the last year.  Eric, I know I speak for all the members of our Association when I say “thank you” for your incredible commitment and hard work.  I look forward to continuing our work together during my Presidential term.

I want to add that you will always have the distinction of being the first, and likely only, CHBA President to visit local Associations from BC to Nova Scotia by bicycle – this is one area where I’m unlikely to “follow in your foot-steps”.
Where I will try to match you is in terms of your passion for our industry.  This is something we both share, as does most everyone here today.

I’d also like to take this moment to thank Kevin, as CEO of our national association, and his staff, for their continuing hard work.  We have a great team in Ottawa, dedicated to working on behalf of all members.

In this effort, Kevin and his staff are joined by the professional staff and volunteer leaders at HBAs across the country, and I also want to thank them for their continuing contributions to making our Association so effective.  I look forward to visiting with many of you and our members over the coming year.

I started out in this industry at the bottom of the ladder, as a site labourer, back in high school.  Since then, I think I’ve worked just about every job there is in home building, from the bottom up.  Today, while our company is involved in developing master-planned communities, I still try to get on site and be part of managing the projects as much as possible, because that’s what I love.

I get a lot of satisfaction from building homes, both from the work itself and from the customer interaction and to getting to know my homeowners.  What we do is incredibly tangible – everyday there is something to show for our efforts.
It has been through my involvement with our Association that I’ve come to appreciate that we are all part of something much bigger than our own businesses, something very important to Canada and Canadians.  And that is what I’d like to focus on this morning.

As I take on the job of CHBA President, I am very aware of the significance of this year as our Association marks it’s 75th anniversary.

In many ways, we live in a very different Canada than the Association’s Founders who first met back in 1943.  But in other ways, as Mark Twain said, “history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

At the time CHBA was founded, Canada was at war.  Out of our population of 11.8 million people, over 750,000 were serving in the military.  The war effort meant that builders faced both a depleted labour force, and a serious shortage of building materials, as most lumber and metal production went to support the war effort.

In 1943, the total value of building permits issues in Toronto was just under $6 million.  The 35 largest municipalities in the country saw just over $51 million of residential construction for the entire year.  And, due to war-time controls, any project valued at over $5,000 required a federal government license to proceed.

This was the reality as the Founders met, for the first time, in Montreal.

So what were their concerns?  Why did this group of home builders and their local associations see the need for a national Association? And how did they see its role in improving and advancing the industry?

Their specific goals back in 1943 were to professionalize the industry, to improve the quality of new homes through innovation and new building practices, to address municipal impasses to development and seek consistency across municipalities, and to address affordability.

As Twain said, history often rhymes.

They formed our Association because they recognized that by working together, and being able to engage with all levels of government, they would be far more likely to achieve their goals.

They also feared, with some justification, that without a strong and effective national organization, the home building business would come to be directed by government edict, rather than by market forces.
Their timing couldn’t have been better.

When victory in Europe was secured, hundreds of thousands of young soldiers began returning to Canada, anxious to find a job, start a family, and get on with their lives.  The ‘Baby Boom”, and an unparalleled expansion of the Canadian middle-class was about to take place.

Up to that time, building a house had truly been a craft occupation.  Virtually every component, from windows to cabinetry, was constructed on-site.

There were no sheet materials.  Plaster was laid by hand.  And the average small home required about two and a half person-years of labour to build.  Building practices varied from place to place, as provincial building codes did not yet exist – and each municipality set its own standards.

On the financial side, Canada lacked a coherent housing finance system.  Chartered banks were not allowed to lend money on residential real estate.  Mortgages were mostly provided by life insurance companies, and 20 percent down-payments were the norm.

All of this began to change, quickly, as the baby boom gathered steam.

And our Association was always at the forefront, often pushing back against the federal government’s tendency to dictate how our industry should operate.

These arguments with government were intense and frequent, as many bureaucrats and politicians believed that home building was so important to Canada and its economy that it shouldn’t be entrusted to the private sector.

In response to those in government who favoured central planning, builders innovated and worked to improve both the quality of new homes, and the efficiency of the building process.

They quickly adopted the use of a wonderful new material called ‘plywood’ for sheathing wall and roof assemblies.  Roof trusses were introduced, as was pre-fabrication of windows.  And suburban development became the ‘next great idea’ and the preferred option as the Boomers settled down and started families.

Throughout this period, the Association was also instrumental in promoting regulatory innovations like building inspections, to ensure construction was done properly – a concept governments initially resisted.

On the financial side, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was founded in 1949 and introduced mortgage insurance, freeing banks to lend to home buyers.

By the early 1950s all the essential parts of our current ‘housing system’ were in place, not withstanding endless arm-wrestling between our Association and government about exactly how things should work.

The one thing our Association and government always did agree on was that home building was a critically important industry, and that homeownership was a good thing that should be encouraged.

What followed was the longest and greatest economic expansion in Canada’s history, one that saw the middle-class come to dominate Canadian society, and homeownership become the central symbol of becoming middle-class, as it continues to be today.

This is our history.  This is our legacy.  And it is certainly worth celebrating, as we mark our 75th anniversary.

But this history also provides us with important lessons – ones that have as much relevance today as they did back in 1943.

Foremost among these lessons is the value of working together, as one Association operating at the local, provincial and national levels, to promote the interests of our members, and of their customers.

Your Association has been doing this for seven-and-a-half decades.  And the success of our efforts can be seen every year when Canada is ranked at, or near, the top of the list in terms of great countries to live in.

Our communities – the one’s built by those who founded CHBA and those who followed them – are central to our nation’s enviable lifestyle.

We should feel a great sense of pride in this.  In so many important ways, our Association’s members built Canada.  And we will continue to build it for the next 75 years.

When we ‘fast-forward’ from the world of 1943, many of the issues our Founders confronted are not that different from those we focus on today.

Neither is the notion that working together, at the local provincial and national levels, through our Association, is essential to keeping our industry healthy and able to provide Canadians with the homes they want, at a price they can afford to pay.

The structure of our Association reflects the structure of our country.  Each level of government influences how we build, where we build, when we build, and the cost a young family must pay to realize their dream of having a home to call their own.

Reflecting this, we work with all three levels of government, all the while working with a common vision – that owning a home is a good thing, and that all hardworking Canadians should have a reasonable opportunity to become home owners.

Whether governments fully embrace this ideal today may be—surprisingly—open to question, but for our industry, it is fundamental.

Homeownership remains the hallmark of the middle-class, and those working hard to join it.  We know this with absolute certainty, because we see it everyday in our sales offices – in the eyes of a young couple when they realize that the new house we’re about to build will be their home.  It’s a great feeling.

So, with a sense of our history behind us, where are we headed next?

I think we start by rededicating ourselves to the central ideal that brought the Founders together in Montreal, back in 1943.  If we want to shape the future of our industry, we need to work together, across all three levels of our Association, to achieve common goals.

Our 75 years of history shows how critical this has been.  And recent events continue to reinforce this lesson.

Consider an issue like last year’s drywall tariffs:

  • We worked together to understand the negative impacts this would have on members and consumers.
  • We lobbied for rapid intervention and in an unprecedented move, the Minster of Finance interceded with an accelerated, dual-track tribunal process.
  • We then collaborated to get the hard data from members at the local level needed to mount an effective opposition to the tariffs.
  • We sent a strong team, armed with facts, into the tribunal process.
  • And we organized in Ottawa and at the local level to bring maximum pressure on MPs and the federal government to change things for the better.

And it worked.  We got dramatic changes to the duties, in accelerated fashion, and saved our members and Canadian home buyers some $300 million per year.

Or consider an issue like the federal government’s recent proposed changes to private corporation taxes:

  • We shared information across the Association on the scope of these proposed changes.
  • We got expert support in analyzing how members would be impacted, and we kept members informed,
  • We organized with local and provincial HBAs to get our concerns to MPs when they were in their Ridings.
  • We took CHBA concerns to Parliament Hill, at every chance we got.
  • And we were founding members in what became an 80 organization Coalition for Small Business Tax Fairness to amplify our voice and increase the pressure on the government.

And it worked.  It became a political nightmare for the government.  Some of the worst proposed changes were dropped.  And others were significantly changed to lessen their impact.

In the future, these types of issues won’t stop cropping up, and when they do, we need to be able to organize ourselves quickly, come to a common position, and then work together to make the right things happen.

History tells us that when we do this, we most often succeed – because the issues we care about also directly impact Canadians’ ability to own and maintain a home.

This important part of what our Association does, at all three levels, can be described as  ‘stopping bad things from happening’.  When governments head in the wrong direction in terms of housing, the Association, drawing on the knowledge and experience of all of our members, is best able to see the problems and propose more constructive alternatives.

But in addition to pushing back when governments get it wrong, we must continue to work to help them get it right, and to ‘make good things happen’.

It is in this area – one we broadly refer to as ‘promoting housing affordability’, where we most directly follow in the footsteps of those who founded the CHBA in 1943.

As I noted, the Founders were concerned about the ability of young working families to become homeowners.

They recognized how much owning a home defined what it meant to be middle-class.  And they saw the many benefits homeownership provided to young families.

Those are bedrock truths that still guide our Association.  But it is far less clear if governments still share this perspective today.

While virtually all governments will claim to support homeownership, their actions speak differently.

I suspect that if we could reassemble the Association’s Founders here today, they would be very disturbed learn about the federal government’s ongoing actions making it harder and harder for first-time homebuyers to qualify for a mortgage.

They would be equally unsettled by provincial and municipal policies that restrict the supply of homes suited to the needs and budgets of young families, and the mind-boggling array of regulations that make it virtually impossible for builders to respond in a timely way when market demand increases.

And I suspect they would be truly horrified by the level of development taxes heaped onto the price that every new home buyer must pay.

They might well ask us when governments decided that owning a home was a bad thing?

This would be a reasonable question to ask.  From the Association’s standpoint, it is increasingly clear that homeownership for the middle-class is under attack in Canada today, in a variety of ways.

And it is under attack by the very governments that profess their commitment to helping the middle-class succeed.

While we accept that governments may be driven by legitimate concerns over household debt levels, or the need to develop more ‘compact’ cities, we adamantly disagree that measures that prevent young families from achieving homeownership are the right way to resolve these issues.

We are already seeing the rate of homeownership fall among younger families.  And we know that this will impact their financial well-being for the rest of their lives, as they raise their children, and beyond that into retirement.  There will be a high cost for them, and for society as a whole.

And we are already seeing that fewer, not more, young Canadians consider that they have made it into the middle-class, and that is deeply disturbing.

In addition to marking entry into the middle-class, owning a home has always formed the foundation for Canadians’ financial security.

But it does far more than this.  It connects people to their community, with their neighbours and it gets them engaged in civic life.  Having fewer homeowners erodes these connections, to the detriment of all Canadians.

As your Association moves forward, it is clear that the push for affordability and the benefits of homeownership will remain our central challenge.

We need governments to stop talking about their support for the middle-class and those working to join it, and start delivering.  Promoting homeownership is the most direct and meaningful way they can do this.

In order for this to happen, municipal, provincial and federal governments need to work together.  No single level of government can solve these problems on its own.  Each one needs to recognize its role in creating barriers to homeownership, and work to remove these in a responsible way.

Our Association – working together at three levels – can be the catalyst for this change.

This was the purpose that led our Founders to create CHBA.  This remains our greatest strength.  Time and time again we’ve shown how important and powerful our united voice can be.  And we will succeed.

I believe today it’s important to stop and reflect on our 75 year history.

It is important to remember those that came before us, for they are the history-makers who built this country, and we are their legacy.

We stand today on the foundations that they laid, and we must never forget that they made this country great.

Home builders and everyone involved in our industry should always hold are heads high and be proud of the role we continue to play today in building this great country.

Together, through our Association, we must be bold in our goals.

In a time when many have come to see access to a decent home as a human right, we must champion the principle that access to  affordable home ownership should be a Canadian right.

I look forward to my next year as your president, working with you and all our members from this coast to the other coast to build our future together.

Thank you.