Former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps says Canada needs to convert empty offices into housing units if it plans to fix the ongoing affordability and supply crisis.
Copps, who served as Liberal deputy prime minister under Jean Chrétien between 1993 and 1997, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Thursday announcement concerning removing GST from rental builds is a good step – but she thinks the measure should be extended to cover other kinds of housing developments.
“I think it needs to go further, and not just no GST for new builds – for rentals – but also for conversions and including conversion renovations,” she told BNN Bloomberg in a television interview on Friday.
“If you’re looking at high-density opportunities in downtown cores, it can’t just be new builds on new lots, it should also be for restorations and renovations, and that piece was missing from yesterday’s announcement.”
The commercial real estate firm CBRE recently reported an 18.1 national office vacancy rate, the highest level since 1994. When it comes to downtown offices, the vacancy rate climbed to 18.9 per cent.
“All of the office space that is sitting vacant in malls and downtown cores across the country, why not have an office conversion attached to that, so you’re actually thinking outside the box (and) you’re fixing two problems for the price of one,” Copps said.
Office-to-housing conversions are not a new concept, but the idea has picked up steam in the pandemic as housing prices skyrocketed and more occupations embraced work from home.
In June, RE/MAX Canada suggested cities are taking a look at conversions though zoning rules and red tape make these projects difficult to get off the ground.
Meanwhile, the City of Calgary began subsidizing these conversions in 2021, with at least 10 such projects in the works. Calgary is one of two cities – along with Waterloo – without a declining office vacancy rate, according to the CBRE.
In Toronto, developers are keen to begin these conversions, but the city requires all removed office space to be replaced. The city is currently studying the market conditions to allow more office conversions.
With files from BNN Bloomberg’s Holly McKenzie-Sutter and The Canadian Press