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Why the housing crisis is not an immigration problem

The trouble isn’t that there are too many people or too few houses, the trouble is who owns the houses and why

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisHousing

Condominium towers in Toronto. Photo by Skycandy/Urban Toronto/Flickr.

I work with a woman named Amarpreet. Amarpreet is a jovial, hardworking mother of one. Twice a week she brings boondi ladoo or kulfi to get us through another day of moving numbers around on spreadsheets. Last month she invited several of us to her gurdwara where we shared bowls of dahl and a morning of prayer. She is a smiling, laughing, beloved presence in our office where she makes much less than her qualifications and workload would suggest. She is also beloved by her landlord to whom she pays almost 40 percent of her salary.

Many of us know an Amarpreet. She is one of 2.2 million people who came to Canada in the last two years.

This post-pandemic influx of newcomers coincided with the spread of the housing crisis beyond the national metropoles. In the first half of the 2020s unaffordability metastasized throughout suburbs, regional municipalities, and even some rural areas. It is no surprise that Canadians are putting two and two together and saying that Amarpreet is exacerbating the housing crisis.

Canadians aren’t out of pocket here; researchers have consistently shown that the two drivers of high housing prices are population growth and inelastic housing markets—supply and demand. Connecting the arrival of newcomers to rising housing prices is an intuitive analysis echoed by voices within the federal government. Members of Parliament, the Bank of Canada, and a deputy governor have all suggested as much.

Far-right politicians and their newspaper-owning, billionaire backers have also been pushing this narrative. They frequently point to the disparity between population growth and housing construction to support their position; a report from the Fraser Institute shows that from 2018 to 2022 Canada’s population grew by 553,568 people each year on average, while Canada constructed an average of 205,762 new homes. This kind of data may lead one to the common sense analysis that people like Amarpreet are the cause of the housing crisis.

The trouble is, this common sense analysis is wrong.

Let’s look at that 2018-2022 variance: at first glance there appears to be an unsustainably wide gap between housing construction and population growth, but when the Canadian average household size of 2.4 people is applied, those new builds can accommodate 90 percent of the population growth in that period. When you factor out the disruptions COVID had on housing construction and factor in capacity-building repairs and renovations that occurred in that same period, the variance shrinks to almost nothing.

A similar analysis can be done for the post-pandemic population boom. There are now 40 million inhabitants in Canada (2.5 million of these are temporary residents, one million are here on study permits, and another million are hyper-exploited temporary foreign workers). As of the 2021 census there were 16,250,000 homes in this country; a conservative estimate puts that number up to 16,750,000 by 2024. Crunching the numbers, we can see that if the housing supply was occupied at the average national rate, our housing stock could easily accommodate Canada’s recent population bloom. The fact is, we have more than enough homes for citizens and non-citizens alike—all 40 million of us. The trouble isn’t that there are too many people or too few houses, the trouble is who owns the houses and why.

Almost eight percent of our nation’s housing stock, 1.3 million homes, is sitting empty, collecting value for re-sale. Nearly a quarter-million residences are listed on popular short-term rental platforms representing 4.9 percent of the country’s long-term rentals. Large financial firms own 20-30 percent of Canada’s purpose-built rental housing (this is especially bad in Edmonton where 48 percent of all rental housing is held by financialized entities—up from 1.6 percent 30 years ago). Small and large investors own up to 40 percent of the nation’s total housing stock (variable by province).

These facts amount to one thing: financialization. The investor class is holding our homes ransom. They are extorting vast sums from renters and pressing those who cannot pay into homelessness.

This process has occasionally been recognized as a problem by the government and even half-heartedly addressed. A few years ago, the right-wing bugaboo du jour was foreign investors purchasing Canadian housing stock. It became such a pain-point that the federal government passed laws to mitigate foreign homeownership. Although a half-measure, this policy approach indicated that the federal government was beginning to look at who owned our housing stock, and why, as a critical lever to addressing housing affordability. Unfortunately, this approach didn’t last. Laws restricting foreign speculators were almost immediately softened in the face of corporate backlash.

We cannot allow ourselves to be misled by property hoarders who want to blame this crisis on economically precarious temporary residents while they collect the rent. This is not a population crisis; this is a commodity bubble created by investor enthusiasm and avarice.

It’s important to note that ancillary issues around supply and demand are important: we do need to reform our immigration system to prevent the exploitation of migrants. We do need a well-funded, well-regulated, public university system that doesn’t rely on extortionate tuition costs paid by international students. We need more, better, and denser housing. Additionally, it’s worth thinking about long-term solutions that could guarantee affordability for decades to come: rent control, social housing, robust tenant protections, and a public pension that Canadians can actually live on, to name just a few examples. But none of these solutions will resolve the housing crisis. This is because the immediate, causal factor of skyrocketing housing costs is the increasing share of the housing market owned by individuals and corporations whose primary concern is their quarterly profits. The only solution is to take our housing supply back from speculators, large and small. It’s time to remind ourselves that our homes are for living our lives, not generating value for shareholders.

Last week I came to work and found Amarpreet had arrived before me. She was at her desk, uncharacteristically quiet. When I said hello it was obvious she was upset. When I asked her why, she explained she’d received a notice from her landlord. They’ve decided her rent is going up.

Just like mine.

Just like yours.

Laurence Braun-Woodbury is a writer and community advocate. He has over ten years experience serving adults experiencing poverty and houselessness with various NGOs across the country. His debut novel, Glamorous Failures, was published in 2023.

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