While Québec has been spared the worst of Canada’s housing crisis, the province hasn’t been without significant issues. Major cities throughout the province are reporting record rent increases, with newly listed units now an estimated 50 percent more expensive than occupied ones, while the north shore of Montréal has seen a 20 percent increase in average rent over the last year alone. Properties are slowly climbing in value and are becoming out of reach for working class Québecers, belying the province’s historically known for its accessible low-income housing options. Unfortunately, next week’s election may not change any of this, as the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is projected to win an overwhelming majority of seats, with the other parties fighting over a three-way tie for a distant second.
But this doesn’t mean the election is entirely a wash. Québec Solidaire (and its co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois) has gained recent visibility for its strong progressive messaging, with incumbent Premier François Legault calling this a “two-way race” between the CAQ and QS. The party even has a chance to form the official opposition, an outcome which would present a strong dichotomy between the ruling conservative party of business, and a movement for radical change. Québec stands on the other end of a major division between their way of politics and the old way. Nowhere is this division more apparent than in the various parties’ housing platforms.
Looking at these housing platforms might summarize the state of the 2022 election more than you’d first think. The CAQ, for example, has only one paragraph dedicated to housing in its entire 60-page platform, which promises to build more housing units. The other competing parties rarely have anything different to say. When they do, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. The Liberal Party of Québec (PLQ) has a strong focus on first-time home buyers, promising to increase benefits and create incentives for new housing developments. Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois (PQ) supports a national rent registry and more social housing, whereas the Conservative Party of Québec (PCQ) outright argues that there is no housing crisis at all, and blames rent control and government overreach for impeding the market (they would also encourage renovations between leases, which might lead one to assume the entire platform was written by a landlord).
While the Conservative’s platform stands out with some predictably regressive views on housing, every other party’s platform is still overwhelmingly more of the same: simple promises about building more units, especially “affordable” ones (a term that is especially unhelpful considering how vague it is). What constitutes an “affordable” unit according to any of these parties? And is building 10,000 of them all that different from 15,000?
Ultimately, none of these parties seem interested in identifying the inherent problems with Canada’s housing market, apart from a need to build slightly more. And while it’s refreshing to see Québec’s parties in favour of at least some state intervention, all of their talk about incentives and taxing foreign owners mostly just serves to push the same narrative: that the real issue with housing is that we’re not allowing the market to fix it.
Herein lies the main problems with Québec’s current housing discourse. Much of the difficulty of discussing the issue of housing in Canada revolves around how it’s framed: housing is a non-political thing, a private good and thus a matter of the private market. When people’s rents are increasing and property values skyrocket, the question asked is not “why are we allowing this in the first place?” but instead “how does the market look, and how can we use incentives to stimulate supply?”
Of course, there is no problem with adding housing supply to the market. The parties are correct in saying we need more—the issue however is that we are framing something which is an essential human need as something which exists primarily as a target for private investment, subject to the whims of a market that is insufficient for the task at hand. We are depoliticizing a very political topic and treating it like nothing but an economic matter, one which coincidentally has not begun to fix itself. When it’s put in those terms, solutions tend to be one-sided. When housing is nothing but an issue for the market to solve, what tools do regular citizens even have at their disposal? Ultimately none—it’s economics, it’s out of the public realm and thus out of your control.
Reading through Québec Solidaire’s housing platform presents a breath of fresh air. While every other party calls to maintain our housing status quo, Québec Solidaire is set on pursuing “home ownership options that are not tied to the market.” It’s also the only platform to offer any unique or novel solutions to our housing crisis.
For starters, Québec Solidaire’s program includes the creation of a provincial rent registry, which would be used to create and maintain provincial rent controls; additional taxes on vacant units; environmental retrofitting programs; and a ban on “no pet apartments.” Yet while these are all welcome policies, what’s most refreshing is really their stance towards speculation and social housing.
What stands out the most here is the party’s plans for an “anti-speculation fund” of $1 billion, aimed at bringing properties back into the public sphere. This doesn’t just entail building new social housing, of which they promise to build 25,000 in their first term. The main goal of the fund would be to purchase approximately 10,000 homes, maintain ownership of the land and then sell the houses back to Québecers at a 25 percent discount. This is a major development: not only would that discount help many young people finally achieve home ownership, but all of that Québec-owned land would effectively be removed from the market and remain affordable in perpetuity, based on the models that community land trusts use. The plan would also prevent house flipping, as speculators would be unable to buy and sell the land itself for quick money. The aim is to finally treat a secure home as a right, bringing it back into a public realm where it’s accountable to people rather than profit. In other words: Québec Solidaire’s goal is to decommodify housing.
On top of its ambitious public land program, a central part of QS’s messaging revolves around its vision for social housing at large, one that strips away the stigmas of poverty, decay and crime, for one that understands the potential of a thriving public option that has “well lit, spacious interiors, with common areas inside and green spaces outside, buildings that are up to date with the latest standards of energy efficiency.” This would be a social housing program by and for everybody, worthy of cutting-edge green technology and gracious architecture. In other words, it’s a vision where social housing receives the funding it deserves, instead of being left to fall apart: less Regent Park, more Red Vienna. Québec Solidaire’s program is perhaps the only one in recent memory to take it seriously as a pivotal tool for social good, and as a way to use public power for progressive, transformative change. Compare this to the Conservative Party’s view toward public housing:
This type of housing does not solve the issues faced by the average tenant. It is, however, a solution for people who have specific problems that the market does not adequately address: motor disabilities, mental health and substance abuse issues, very large families, and work disabilities. For all the rest, it remains preferable to help them directly through existing housing allowance or rent supplement programs.”
This has, until now, been the prevailing attitude from recent governments across Canada: social housing is a waste of money which exists only to be left for the disadvantaged; a 20th century relic. When politicians attack social housing this way, what they’re saying is that they don’t believe housing to be an issue worthy of public intervention, nor one that they’re particularly interested in. If they cared, they would know that publicly funded housing, from Austria to Finland to Singapore, has proven to be the bedrock of the world’s most successful housing solutions—not unbridled investor capitalism.
In that respect, what Québecers need more than anything is a chance to finally break with a stale orthodoxy, one which says that housing is not only out of our control, but that its priority is to be an investment opportunity above all else. Québec Solidaire’s platform offers a chance to finally reject that status quo. Its platform offers a vision of housing as a public good, one which everybody deserves and which should be accountable to the people who actually live in it. It’s a first in a country where every other response amounts to little more than life support for an outdated and broken system. Other parties would be wise to take note.
Ultimately, if we want to fix the housing crisis, we’ll need to fix the way we talk about it. Housing is an essential human need, just like health care—it’s about time we had a platform that treats it that way.
Gavin Armitage-Ackerman is a socialist writer and graduate student at McGill’s School of Urban Planning.