In the past couple of years, we have heard the housing crisis framed as something new – as if for generations the housing market has always worked well but now suddenly has ceased to function. In response, the federal government and proponents of private developer-based solutions have been advocating for a massive increase in housing supply.
But this framing of the issue misses the underlying struggle that renters, particularly low-income renters, have faced for decades: policies and programs do not adequately address a housing market that is heavily biased toward capital accumulation for wealthy individuals and corporations.
Last year BMO reported that we were building housing at rates that meet the number of households formed every year from 2002-2016, when we saw a surge in immigration. But the units built aren’t affordable to those who need them the most, and increasingly they are being used as investments to increase wealth among homeowners, corporate and financialized landlords through real estate investment trusts and other investment funds.
Look more closely at landlords in Canada, says Ricardo Tranjan, senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In his new book The Tenant Class, he says 22 per cent of rental units are owned by wealthy families. Corporations own 20 per cent of them, and financial landlords own eight per cent of them. For these property owners, maximizing profit is the ultimate goal.
“Wages are too low. Rents are too high,” Tranjan writes. “And the notion that something is out of order with the rental market and that some genius technical solution can fix the problem is, at best, deceptive. Markets are doing what markets do: transfer money from workers to the capital-owning class. As far as the landlord class is concerned, the rental market is working just fine.”
This maximization of profit comes at the expense of tenants. The 2019 National Housing Strategy Act recognizes housing as a human right, and the National Housing Strategy is required to “focus on improving housing outcomes for persons in greatest need.”
Yet, nearly halfway through the 10-year strategy, most of the housing it has generated is not affordable to those in core housing need, according to a 2022 report by the National Housing Council Working Group on Improving the National Housing Strategy. Living in core housing need means living in unaffordable units, units that need major repairs, or units that are not the right size for their household.
For decades, census data has shown that renters have much lower incomes than owners and are much more likely to be in core housing need. We have been able to delve much deeper into these numbers for the 2016 and 2021 census years through a new research project called HART – Housing Assessment Resource Tools – at the University of British Columbia.
In 2016, single mothers, refugee claimants, and new migrants led the household types with the highest core housing needs. Their incomes were consistently lower than heads of other household types. In 2021, the same groups dominated and were joined by households headed by people over age 85 – though the percentage in core housing need had declined, likely because that year many of these households may have received CERB or other pandemic-related benefits. HART helps us see the deficit of affordable housing in 2016 and 2021 (figures 1 and 2).
We can see that the low-income group, which could afford monthly rents of only $881 in 2016 and $1,050 in 2021 at 30 per cent of their incomes, is by far the largest group in core housing need. The need is also greatest among single-person households in the low-income and very low-income groups.
Yet these groups barely benefit from any new supply because it is priced for the group that needs it the least: households above the median income.
In 2016, that median income was $70,332, and in 2021 it was $78,200. That would translate into paying $1,758/month in 2016 and $1,955/month in 2021 if households were paying 30 per cent of their pre-tax incomes. These are values for Canada; HART also allows for city-specific data to be easily visualized.
Only a fraction of units that are affordable to people in core housing need have been produced through the housing strategy’s major funding programs, the Rental Construction Financing Incentive, the National Co-Investment Fund, and the Rapid Housing Initiative.
Only four per cent of units built through the Rental Construction Financing Incentive would lift a lone-parent household out of core housing need; with the National Co-Investment Fund, it’s 49 per cent of units. The Rapid Housing Initiative has fared better because the units it funds must not have rents higher than 30 per cent of the occupant’s income. This latter initiative was duly expanded in the 2022 federal budget.
Why are we using such a large percentage of public funding to build housing that isn’t affordable to those who need it most? Why are we requiring these units stay affordable for only 10 years? Because this solution appeals to private market developers and to CMHC, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
The National Housing Strategy’s Housing Accelerator Program was introduced in March to help municipalities increase housing supply.
London, Ont., and Halifax recently received this funding with a list of requirements to amend their land use by-laws, official plans, and development approvals processes (e.g. increasing density along main streets and in residential zones, shorter application approval times for new housing projects).
Again, these changes seem to imply that the problem is merely supply, that if we just build more units, and more quickly, we won’t have an affordability problem.
So we still aren’t concentrating on that low-income group.
Of the 2,000 new housing units London will build, 600 will be supportive housing (e.g. for people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities). In Halifax, 8,866 new units will be built, and the Affordable Housing Grants program will be expanded – but there is no mention of how many new units will be affordable. For other cities that receive this funding, will new units added to single-family lots be affordable? It’s unlikely unless the municipalities require it.
Clearly, the federal government is not incentivizing the production of units for the types of households that need them most.
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Provincial and municipal governments also provide little protection for the affordable units we already have. Tenant organizations are fighting these losses and particularly the mass evictions being initiated by landlords aiming to raise the rents of entire buildings, Tranjan says. Last year, a report by policy research consultant Steve Pomeroy showed that we have lost a considerable number of units to demolition and conversion.
From 2011-2021, we lost a staggering 553,126 units with monthly rents below $750, which is affordable for people with incomes of $30,000 per year.
From 2016-2021, Quebec led with losses of 115,785 units below this price. But with such a high number of rental units in the province, this was a loss of only nine per cent of its total rental housing stock. Prince Edward Island lost 14 per cent and New Brunswick lost 13 per cent, among the highest percentage of any province’s total stock, though the numbers are comparatively small: 2,115 units in P.E.I. and 8,625 in N.B.
Cities with a larger supply of affordable housing to begin with (e.g. Montreal) have had more to lose, Pomeroy notes; the city lost 89,625 units priced at $750 or below from 2016-2021 while Vancouver lost just 12,825 and Toronto lost 20,876. But the tables were turned for units with rents of $750-$999/month: Montreal gained 33,425 units while Vancouver lost 34,230 and Toronto 52,215.
In both London and Halifax, the intention of the zoning changes mandated by the receipt of funds from the federal Housing Accelerator Program is to force these cities to allow more units to be built in areas formerly zoned for single-family units and in areas served by public transit.
But what happens to the units in these transit-served areas that are already affordable? They’ll be lost to demolition, and replaced by higher-rent options because neither city (or its respective province) has a plan in place to protect them.
The private market seems incapable of producing new housing that is affordable to the lowest-income groups. High interest rates, labour-market shortages, planning/development requirements, and high material costs are among the reasons often cited.
One solution is the acquisition of affordable units.
B.C.’s Rental Protection Fund was launched in January 2023 with $500 million to enable non-profits and co-operatives to buy and manage existing buildings to keep them affordable in perpetuity.
Joseph Daniels at HART points out that many other countries, including the U.S., France, Sweden, Finland, and Korea, rely on annual acquisition of existing properties for 12 per cent to 36 per cent of their affordable housing units.
We’ve done it before.
Between 1973 and 1994, 16,000 non-profit or co-operative units were built or acquired every year. The 2022 federal budget included $1.5 billion to expand the co-operative housing sector, led by the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, but this initiative has yet to be rolled out.
Other provinces, such as Nova Scotia, have committed small funds to help expand the non-profit and co-operative sector with the assistance of the CMHC-funded Community Housing Transformation Centre – but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we did in the past.
Ricardo Tranjan hesitates to call this a housing crisis.
He says that word is reserved for things that are “infrequent, surprising, and wildly undesirable,” the kind of things governments respond to quickly, deploying the necessary resources and personnel. By contrast, the situation we are in, he says, is “a permanent state of affairs that harms people in, or in need of, rental housing; roughly one-third of the country’s households.”
If this truly were a crisis, we would need to take immediate action and devote the appropriate time and resources to applying the solutions that we already know (through research and previous experience) will work. If it isn’t, we’ll continue to maintain the illusion that a housing market based on private-sector development and wealth accumulation will result in affordable rental housing if we just build more and build faster.
This article is part of a series called How does Canada fix the housing crisis?