Can Any Campaign Promises Stop Canada’s Out-of-Control Housing Crisis?

Housing is a major issue on the campaign trail, but some Canadians are pessimistic about any of the political parties’ abilities to stave off obscene prices and the housing shortage.
September 7, 2021, 4:44pm
A house for sale in Toronto, Canada.
Canada's housing prices jumped nearly 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. Image via Getty. 

The closest Emilly Renaud believes she’ll ever get to owning a home of her own may be a patch of land to camp on whenever she feels like heading into the wilderness.  “I can’t even afford the house on it—just the land,” Renaud said.

By the standards of downtown Toronto, the 25-year-old’s financial situation isn’t bad. She makes $55,000 a year as the national coordinator of Canada Without Poverty and pays $1,300 a month to rent a two-bedroom condo with a roommate. Yet she’s nearly spending 30 percent of her income on housing, the recommended upper limit for what’s considered affordable housing. Home ownership is simply too expensive, even in her (more affordable) hometown of Ottawa. “You could give me $50,000 today, which is a huge sum of money—I still cannot afford a down payment,” Renaud tells VICE World News.

Advertisement

With average national home prices hitting $688,000 in May, the average home price is up an incredible 38 percent compared to 2020. Five years ago, that figure was just $471,000. Even smaller cities like Windsor, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia are seeing price increases, especially as office professionals decamp to more affordable areas to work remotely during the pandemic, while the real estate hotspots of Toronto and Vancouver are only becoming more inhospitable to buyers. 

Canada’s housing market is front-and-centre in the ongoing federal election like never before. Two-thirds of voters said the cost of living is the single most important election issue to them in this election, according to an August study from Abacus Data. Housing specifically was the top concern for a third—and the NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives are taking note. 

“This is the first election in my memory that all three parties have talked about housing, have talked about affordable housing, have talked about housing for workers like nurses and teachers,” said Mark Richardson, technical lead at HousingNowTO. “They’ve never done that before.”

The NDP promise to build 500,000 high-quality affordable units in the next decade while the Conservatives want a million homes in just three years, although they may not necessarily be affordable. The Liberals want to ban “blind-bidding”, double the first-time homebuyers tax credit, and offer $1 billion to develop rent-to-own projects alongside private and not-for-profit developers. All three major federal parties are talking about Canada’s housing crisis, but the renters and prospective homeowners VICE World News spoke to aren’t convinced any of the political parties' plans will actually end it—even if everything goes according to plan.

There’s a fundamental problem with housing in this country that goes beyond tax policy, housing rebates, or real estate regulation. Put simply by Brendan Dawe, a 30-year-old analyst at a Vancouver planning consultancy: “There’s just not enough places for people to live.”

The Real Estate Rollercoaster

Marcia Iglesias, a 33-year-old marketing professional in Toronto, said her family was looking at a house priced around $340,000 back in 2014, when she thought the market had hit its limits. “I remember thinking ‘oh god, this can’t go higher’,” she said. The house eventually sold for $450,000. These days, the average Toronto home goes for about $1 million. 

Today, Iglesias lives with her husband and child in a Toronto home owned by her father-in-law but is still on the lookout for a place of her own. Her impending maternity leave may delay the hunt, and she worries about the market getting even hotter. “My fear is that the prices will be way too high when I actually have time to apply for a house,” she said.  

Advertisement

Canada’s ridiculously high housing prices are not turning prospective homebuyers, especially those under 30, off the idea of homeownership. They’re just crushing any hope of getting the keys. Roughly 80 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 29 want to buy a house, according to an Abacus Data survey for the Ontario Real Estate Association back in June. But over half of homeowners said they’re very pessimistic about owning a home in the community of their choice—or, like Renaud, they’ve simply given up on the idea altogether.

A slim majority believe housing in their community will become less affordable over the next five years—a pessimistic streak that remained roughly uniform across all age categories, including Millennial and Gen Z buyers. Just a quarter to a third of all survey respondents thought home prices would hold steady. This isn’t a new story for anyone with a passing familiarity with Vancouver or Toronto real estate listings but promises by federal parties to go after foreign real estate speculators and ban blind bidding doesn't seem to be curbing the housing pessimism.

According to Statistics Canada data, foreign buyers owned a fairly minuscule slice of Toronto and Vancouver’s residential properties in 2017: 3 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively. 

Advertisement

“Does anyone really believe that housing prices would come down if they got rid of these speculators? I don’t,” said Joshua Hind, a 42-year-old live production professional in Toronto who’s looked at buying a home. Iglesias agrees. “That’s huge,” she said of campaign promises to crack down on foreign ownership, “but at the same time, it’s probably too late. Prices are way too high now.”

As long as housing demand remains high, Hind told VICE News, there’s simply no reason for housing prices to fall. Analysts periodically warn of a housing bubble collapse in Canada, but Hind said these predictions have existed for as long as he’s watched the market. (Even the 2008 Great Recession didn’t put too much of a dent in Canada’s housing market). “Maybe it will someday,” Hind said, “but it’s not something you can count on anymore.”

Build, Build, Build!

In order to fix the housing crisis, Hind believes, the Canadian government needs to pour money into building lots and lots of houses, fast, along with retrofitting buildings into affordable housing.  “I feel that’s a very 1960s, 1970s, socialist way of thinking,” Hind said. “But if it’s a crisis and this isn’t the time for direct government intervention, I don’t know what is.”

There’s a catch with that approach. Richardson said that even if the Canadian government decided to release a bunch of its land to build more affordable housing, an idea championed by the Conservatives, they’d still need to conform to local governments’ zoning rules—and those communities may not approve. “All three parties have essentially the same problem,” Richardson said. “They don’t have the ability to create that housing without the cooperation of the cities and the provinces.”

Just building a lot of units wouldn’t be enough, either. Renaud said cities like Toronto may have a lot of empty condos, but those units don’t necessarily work for Canadian families in desperate need of housing (and people are increasingly looking for more space amid the pandemic). Developers are throwing up one-bedroom studios for working professionals and investment buyers. “They’re not really building the three-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments that are needed for young families, for recent immigrants, for refugees who are living in Toronto and needing an affordable place to live,” she said. “I don’t think any party is really talking enough about the type of supply needed.”

And none of the parties actually talk a lot about renters themselves. One-third of Canadians have a landlord but the Liberals’ main tenant-oriented proposal is a rent-to-own initiative and the NDP mentions working with non-profits and co-ops to build affordable housing (some of which is presumably for renters). Meanwhile, the Conservatives don’t mention tenants anywhere in their platform. “Tenants kind of get left out in the cold when it comes to this stuff,” said Abdullah Naqvi, a member of ACORN, a community advocacy union with chapters across Canada. “The Liberals are focusing on how to allow people to buy their first homes—we’re not even close to that right now.”

A Lost Generation

Plenty of younger Canadians are resigned to the fact that home ownership will not be possible for their generation. “I think renting will be the way of our generation,” Renaud said. In some ways, she said, giving up on buying a house is freeing. Instead of fixating on real estate listings, she can think more about her career and where she’d like to live.

Ultimately, no one mentioned in this feature will benefit from the housing policy of Canada’s next federal government anytime soon. Building hundreds of thousands of duplexes, apartment units, condos, and suburban detached homes will take years. Even the outcome of seemingly easy policy decisions like foreign home ownership taxes or a ban on blind bidding won’t be decided overnight.

In the meantime, Renaud believes there’s work to do. “We need to talk about democratic and fair ways to really control the cost of housing so that a whole generation of people can actually afford it,” she said. 

Follow Brennan Doherty on Twitter.