In his latest video pitch, Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre walks up to a Vancouver house with a discoloured roof and a rickety looking front staircase. “$4.8 million is the listing price for this baby,” he stumps, standing in the middle of the frame.
“The system is broken,” Poilievre says later in the video. “It protects the privileged.”
On those last two counts, he is dead right. But his reasoning for why that’s so—and what’s to be done about it—are way off base.
Poilievre, who himself is a landlord, blames central bank money-printing for inflating asset values, and takes aim at government gatekeepers for slowing the construction of new homes. He goes on to promise that if elected Prime Minister, the poor, the working class and “our immigrants” will, with a little hard work, regain “the freedom to own a home.”
It’s no secret that Canada is in the throes of a housing horror story. Single-family homes an hour’s commute from urban centers fetch million-dollar offers. Empty luxury condos line downtown streets. Tenants in Toronto spend more than half their income on rental housing.
But chalking up Canada’s housing woes to lax monetary policy and local red-tape is absurd. If Poilievre’s prescriptions were enacted, they wouldn’t make a dent in the housing crisis.
The origins of the crisis lie in weak pension coverage, the financialization of housing, and decades of austerity. Neither Poilievre—nor the rest of the political class, Liberal, Conservative, or NDP—has a plan to meaningfully address these root causes.
Serious money for big landlords
The last decade has generated historic gains for housing market insiders, and big returns for homeowners who bought before the market heated up. Recent data found that owners of multiple properties have control of between 29 and 41 per cent of total housing stock in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Driven by low interest rates and corporate landlords, investors have flooded the real estate industry and turned homes into ATMs.
Over the last two decades, falling profits and overproduction in industrial and productive sectors have resulted in fewer attractive areas for capitalists to park their money. As a result, they’ve invested heavily in, and greatly inflated, real estate—making housing one of the 21st century’s hottest commodities. The lack of regulation and social programs to buck this trend mean the fallout from the housing boom hits poor and working class people hardest.
It’s not just investment banks and pension funds cashing in on Canada’s overheated housing market. Amateur investors boast about their side-hustle on Tik-Tok; overleveraged homeowners fund renovations—or buy more properties—by borrowing against the value of their home; and politicians moonlight as landlords.
Those ostensibly elected with a mandate to manage this crisis have bet big on the idea that this market will deliver steady returns forever. Once in office, their promises to bring relief to renters tend to fade into some version of trickle-down economics and deference to mega-landlords.
As housing takes up a ever-greater share of GDP, Canada’s economy is now 50% more dependent on housing growth than the U.S. was at the height of the last bubble. A crash, even a slowdown, could therefore be disastrous for average people. Mortgage and interest rates are already beginning to rise, a process that may cool off—perhaps even precipitate—a price correction. Still, a return to affordability seems like a pipe dream.
Voters who expected last year’s federal election to offer big ideas on housing were left disappointed. Parties left and right trotted out weak-tea solutions: restrictions on foreign ownership, reforming house bidding, building small amounts of dubiously-defined “affordable” housing, or levying minor taxes.
Poilievre, on his quest to become Prime Minister, has leaned into the housing debate, but without adding anything of substance. His central pledge is that increasing housing supply will bring prices down. But it’ll take a lot more than just building more houses to create a fair and accessible housing market when investors end up capturing huge swaths of available stock.
With so many milquetoast solutions offered by our representatives, the question might be raised whether politicians want housing values to fall at all. When Hussen assured that the government didn’t want to “harm ‘mom and pop’ real estate investors” in February, the housing minister might’ve said the quiet part loud. But what makes dropping home values particularly difficult is not that it would aggrieve investors, but rather homeowners: a significant and politically powerful two-thirds of the population.
Retreat from public pensions and housing
In Canada, no investment—both symbolically and financially—is as important as the home. It’s the cornerstone of a mythical national dream and a key generator of wealth. But in lieu of comprehensive pensions—workplace pension coverage was only 37.1 percent in 2019—the family home also operates as the retirement plan for countless average Canadians. Wealthy homeowners need no pity, but countless others do rely on their housing wealth to retire. This creates tremendous additional pressure on politicians to keep home values steadily appreciating. It gives those same politicians a compelling excuse to keep inflating speculative bubbles on behalf of investment funds profiting from the crisis.
It’s hard to imagine a way out of this trap without stronger public pensions funded through redistributive taxes (not a single risky investment dependent on an investment bubble). Average homeowners would no longer have to bet against their friends and families by relying on home values soaring ever-upward, because their retirement would be secured outside the matrix of the market.
Perversely, pension funds themselves have become some of the country’s most voracious landlords, further inflating housing values. In a recent article about The Public Service Pension Investment Board’s foray into real estate, Neal Rockwell captured the madness: “the pensions of retired public workers are now being invested in making life for low-income renters even more precarious.”
While low interest rates, weak regulation, and shifts in capital accumulation induced investors’ entrance into real estate, profiteers have also benefited from another shift: the federal government’s retreat from public housing.
Postwar Canada built tens of thousands of non-market units every year until austerity took over in the 1990s, disposing of a program that helped depress market rents and keep life affordable. Assisted by policies like vacancy decontrol, abandoning public housing made real estate investing all the more lucrative.
Deeper solutions to today’s crisis could include the creation of tens of thousands of units of non-market housing, bringing in tenants from various income levels and giving them agency over their properties. We should achieve at least 31,000 units a year, the peak reached in 1972, but our aim should be to transform the entire rental market. A wide income mix in these units would allow benefits to be shared widely, increasing political clout among occupants (and therefore ability to succeed). Wealthier tenants would subsidize their neighbors.
Social housing of all kinds will work, but co-operatives are highly regarded in Canada and globally.
Non-market housing’s wide application in places like Vienna, Austria—considered the world capital of affordable housing—drives home how possible this reality is. Tenants enjoy affordable rents and security of tenure, emboldened by rents being reinvested into maintenance, not being siphoned off to profit. One crucial takeaway from the Viennese example is that the current crisis isn’t just about would-be homeowners forced to rent because of a lack of options. Renters—especially those for whom home ownership isn’t a possibility—deserve a better situation, too.
Poilievre pretends he can deliver affordable ownership to Canadians who can’t get a foothold in the current housing market. His impassioned appeals are designed to connect to legitimate grievances about being shut out of homeownership, a source of wealth and stability. But the solutions he offers won’t meaningfully challenge the root causes of unaffordability, nor bring the dream of ownership to workers.
Charting a real alternative
In order to make Canada’s housing market fairer and more sustainable, Ottawa must drastically expand the welfare state. Doing so would radically and universally improve the financial position of the working class.
Imagine, for example, redeploying non-market housing as a key response to the crisis. This would deliver truly affordable accommodations to renters and exert downward pressure on the private rental market. If the feds expanded public pensions in tandem, everyone would have access to a dignified retirement. These measures could help Canada’s economy better insulate itself from speculation and future housing crises, and delink prosperity from asset inflation.
But politicians’ fixation on encouraging homeownership—at least while they are on the campaign trail—moves the terms of the discussion to infertile terrain.
Unfortunately, talking about home ownership instead of expanding social spending doesn’t just beset Conservatives like Poilievre, who’d prefer we had almost no welfare state at all. It’s taken up by parties on the centre and centre-left, too. Imagining a policy program that foregrounds a collective response to the crisis based on public pensions and non-market housing is thus no small feat.
Tenants have long fought directly for affordable accommodation, even pushing for expropriation. We’d be wise to join them, organizing against landlords and speculators, while also demanding more from the political class. The struggle for affordable housing is necessarily a larger and multivariate struggle against capitalism—a struggle to control where investment goes, and for whose benefit.
Winning a radical housing program in Canada requires challenging the belief that housing is an investment, not a human right. Putting that into practice means foregrounding access, not ownership, and leveraging public power, not private markets.
In much of Canada, homeownership is naturalized as a middle-class good. This means politician-landlords like Poilievre can stir up righteous anger against the untenable status quo, even while being part of the problem.
The soaring size and complexity of Canada’s housing crisis demands bigger ideas than a shift in monetary policy or simply building more housing, as Poilievre claims. It demands an all-out transformation of how we view housing and the role of the state in running the economy.
Today, countless low-to-middle income people of all ages and backgrounds have been displaced by the market’s vagaries. That means there’s a significant constituency on board to give structural change a try. This requires the Left to intervene—in the streets, during election season, and once in power—in a way rarely seen in this country.
Until then, populist politicians like Poilievre will do their best to monopolize opposition to the centrist status-quo on the campaign trail. They’ll deflect anger away from the deepening contradictions at the heart of Canadian capitalism. And they’ll avoid placing the blame for the crisis at the feet of landlords, capital, and austerity-inclined governments.
Doing otherwise would go against their own self interest.