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Fixing the housing crisis will mean treating shelter as a right—not a commodity

Moscrop: The market is quite obviously not an effective provider of housing because it has failed to serve those in need

Economic CrisisHousingHuman Rights

The housing affordability crisis is not just a crisis of home ownership, affordable rent, and access to permanent shelter; it’s also a crisis of community and well-being, writes David Moscrop. Photo by Zia Syed/Unsplash.

When police in Toronto launched an incursion into Trinity Bellwoods Park to remove an encampment of unhoused folks, they exposed what columnist Shawn Micallef called “Toronto’s ugliest side.” Indeed it was a show of hideous force, a mix of private and public security, overstaffed, overstuffed, para-military cosplay present as much to keep community allies in line as it was to remove a handful of individuals who, lacking an acceptable alternative, formed a community in the park.

Homelessness is a policy choice, a state-sanctioned “ugliest side” writ large. The contemporary challenge of distributing resources isn’t a struggle over scarcity, it’s a matter of allocating abundance. Our states have chosen to allot our surpluses in ways that privilege the few a great deal, placate the middle just enough, and harm many others considerably. We do not have, nor do we pursue, the equitable distribution of plenty, and it shows, just as it raises the question What is a society for? If it’s not to ensure the dignity and security of each person and their communities, then it must be something else. Far too often the point seems to be to protect capital and the drive to wealth accumulation.

The housing crisis is most acute where we find people who cannot secure a safe, permanent place to call home. It intersects with other crises, including our failed and outdated drug policies and inadequate health system. But it is also part of a broader housing affordability crisis that reaches across the country, where once more we find a privileged subset of the population who have won the lottery with homes, and another, more privileged, group that have made a fortune investing in real estate—still the greatest guarantor of generational wealth.

In March, the Wall Street Journal reported “Canadian housing as a share of gross domestic product was 9.3% as of the fourth quarter of 2020, up from 7.5% a year earlier and from 6.6% a decade ago.” In 2018, over 75 percent of the country’s national wealth was tied to real estate. During the pandemic, housing prices continued to soar, up 31 percent in March of this year compared to 2020. At the same time, 36 percent of young Canadians abandoned the idea of home ownership. Low interest rates have been central to the latest boom, but they aren’t the only factor; when rates rise as we recover from the pandemic, activity ought to slow, but many expect the long-term growth trend to continue—indeed, some are betting a fortune on it.

While the myth of the humble, boot-strapper landlord often dominates and underwrites defenses of the market, the rise of financial landlords, real estate investment trusts, and massive developers—including one that plans to purchase $1 billion in homes for rental stock across Ontario—are driving up prices and cornering the market under the guise of supply ‘investment,’ pushing out individuals who cannot afford to compete and straining those who can.

The affordability crisis touches many of us, but some are more likely to be affected than others, especially when it comes to rental stock. As Martine August wrote in Policy Options in mid-June about financial landlords:

By systematically driving up rent prices, the business strategies of financial firms affect affordability. In Canada, 40 per cent of all renters pay more than they can afford. People earning minimum wage in 2019 could afford the average rent in only three per cent of Canadian neighbourhoods. The effects are felt by renters, who are more likely to be single parents, racially marginalized, new immigrants, people with disabilities and those living with fixed or low incomes.

Our market system enables housing capitalists to exploit and bully those who can least afford to bear that burden. Of course, the system shouldn’t permit anyone to exploit or bully anyone. That it permits the wealthy to oppress the most marginalized among us to extract profit from a core human need is beyond abhorrent.

The housing affordability crisis in Canada is not just a crisis of home ownership, affordable rent, and access to permanent shelter; it’s also a crisis of community and well-being. As the calamity spreads, people are pushed out of their cities, out of their downtowns, away from their families, friends, community centres, parks and shops of choice, and so forth. Sometimes those communities are remade, sometimes they aren’t. But the anxiety and stress associated with finding a home and building a community are considerable, both during and outside of a pandemic. At the same time, when encampments are cleared or neighborhoods are gentrified, unhoused individuals also see their communities dispersed and their lives upended.

Fixing Canada’s housing affordability crisis requires a strategy to address its several causes that include zoning by-laws, the tax system, stock, mortgage rules, ownership eligibility, rent control, and more. Writing in The Tyee in 2019, Michal Rozworksi offered an “alternative policy toolbox” for housing policy that included “the direct provision of non-market housing,” “stronger tenant protections and rent controls,” “an end to exclusive zoning in cities,” “reform of the tax system,” and “more generous public pensions” (to reduce “pressure on housing as a retirement asset”). In the same year, Generation Squeeze outlined a similar plan with two tracks, one to “scale up social and non-profit housing” and another to “fix the regular market.”

These are welcome plans with good ideas. But the long-term goal ought to be to fully de-commodify the housing market. Access to a home ought to be a positive right and the state ought to be beholden to everyone to ensure that they have somewhere safe and permanent to live. The dignity and security of the individual requires it. What is the point of a state–or a society—if not to meet such basic requirements? Moreover, not only do we individually need homes, communities require that each of us has access to housing that help serve as a foundation upon which we can build relationships with one another and with the cities in which we live. We also need safe, permanent housing to ensure democratic rights and capacities, from the vote to community participation in self-determination. It is therefore also in the public interest that housing is de-commodified.

There is no acceptable reason that housing ought to be an investment and source of profit beyond a market orthodoxy that dictates that it should be so because it can yield a return. There are other ways for individuals to prepare for retirement (as Rozworksi notes) and, besides, if one’s retirement plan means another goes without shelter, then that retirement plan is fundamentally unjust.

To hell with it. The market is quite obviously not an effective provider of housing because it has failed to serve those in need. Those who argue that the failure is a state failure neglect the fact the use of market stock as an investment tool is central to the problem of affordability. If housing is treated as a commodity, with the central goal of extracting a return, the market will price out and displace people. To end the housing crisis, we must end the commodity crisis. It’s well past time we ended both.

David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones. He is a political commentator for television, radio, and print media. He is also the host of Open To Debate, a current affairs podcast. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia.


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