Sylvain CharleboisThe two necessities in life are food and shelter. It looks like both are getting much more expensive.

For a few years, the cost of food has been the most important food affordability barrier. Not anymore. The cost of housing is now seen by Canadians as the most significant barrier.

A recent poll conducted by Grassroots Public Affairs, in partnership with Food Banks Canada, shows how things have changed in just 12 months.

A total of 46 per cent of Canadians surveyed consider the cost of housing to be the largest obstacle to food affordability. Only 12 months ago, it was 21 per cent. Twenty-nine per cent of Canadians see the cost of housing as a larger obstacle now compared to 12 months ago.

Rising unemployment was the largest obstacle for 71 per cent of those polled last year, for obvious reasons. That percentage dropped to 42 per cent this year, the same as the cost of food. Indeed, the cost of food is still seen as an important barrier but concerns related to food prices have now been surpassed by lodging costs.

Seeing house prices go up isn’t necessarily undesirable. After all, most Canadians rely on the value of their property to increase their wealth and support their retirement. Taxing capital gains on primary residences would aim at the wrong problem and make many Canadians poorer.

But the pace at which housing prices are going up is alarming. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently reported that over the last 20 years, Canadian house prices on average have risen by more than 1,680 per cent, the highest rate amongst all OECD countries. The second highest, the United Kingdom, is not even close, at 96 per cent. So this is a real issue in Canada.

Canadians are facing a perfect storm when looking at food affordability. The cost to put a roof over one’s head is going up while food prices are expected to rise by as much as five per cent this year.

Furthermore, the Canadian economy is slowly picking up but the number of jobs is still short 500,000 from pre-pandemic levels. Naturally, many Canadians are concerned.

As a result of these macroeconomic shifts in recent years, Canada is on the list of countries facing challenges trying to ensure food security for many of its citizens. There are no problems with food availability in Canada, except perhaps for the North.

The rising costs of essential elements, coupled with salaries that are barely moving, have impacted Canadians.

The federal government will need to get a better sense of the real estate market conditions beyond the COVID-19 pandemic as interest rates may remain at historic lows for some time. As real estate prices go up, rents will eventually follow, meaning many tenants can only dream of owning a house. We’re already seeing rental costs rising from three to five per cent in some Canadian markets.

Because of the pandemic, some markets are more affected than others. Interestingly, the work-from-home phenomenon is impacting smaller markets, not just urban ones. Many people don’t have to live within commuting distance from their jobs.

According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, the greatest year-over-year percentage changes from February 2020 to February 2021 in average housing prices came from the Northwest Territories (up 48.1 per cent), Nova Scotia (up 30.4), Ontario (up 24.5), Quebec (up 22.5), and New Brunswick (up 20.9 per cent).

Many economists believe a supply-deprived real estate market is driving prices higher. Increasing housing supplies in markets where demand is higher than ever, urban or not, should be a government priority.

The pandemic has also rejuvenated our collective discussion about a guaranteed minimum income. The pandemic has given us data on how Canadians behave when receiving financial aid from governments. We still know very little about how a guaranteed minimum income would help families cope with changing real estate conditions and higher housing costs.

The fabric of our workforce also changed due to the pandemic. Now more than ever, it may be time to have that conversation. Committing to nationally co-ordinated pilot projects to assess such a program is long overdue.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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