Millennials and Gen Z voters can, for the first time ever, decide the federal election, according to Future Majority, a non-partisan youth organization. That’s if they vote as a bloc and if they actually get out and cast a ballot. And yet, major party leaders haven’t spent much time tackling the biggest expense that young voters face: rent.
The fact that no one talked about it during last week’s national leaders’ debate was “alarming” to Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing and the executive director of Canada Without Poverty. “That omission means it’s not on their political radar,” she said. “But it should be.”
There’s a lot to figure out when you consider that 40 percent of people in Canada are paying more than what is considered an “affordable” amount—meaning more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
According to real estate site Rentals.ca, Toronto is the most expensive city in Canada, where the average one-bedroom rental is $2,304 monthly. The west Ottawa suburb of Kanata is the most expensive for a two-bedroom rental in Canada, at about $3,000 a month. An average one-bedroom in Vancouver is $1,973 a month.
When the topic does come up in election promises by the four major parties, most major policies are geared towards people who want to buy, or have bought, homes. But what about renters?
In Farha’s view, “the most creative stuff is coming out of the Green Party and the NDP.” But she says, no party offers the kind of strategic, comprehensive national plan that Canada needs to combat its housing crisis. Instead, what’s being offered are what she describes as makeshift plans made up of “a bunch of programs pieced together.”
What the parties are offering
The NDP and the Green Party platforms have the widest range of promises geared to making renting more affordable. The Liberals have included it too, with a focus on increasing the supply of rental units—though Farha points out that the Liberal definition of “affordable” is up to 80 percent of market rent, which she says isn’t widely affordable in Canada’s hottest markets. All four parties have offerings to make home ownership more affordable.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has said she would make housing a “legally protected fundamental human right.” The party aims to build 25,000 new units as well as renovate 15,000 existing homes every year for the next decade. The Greens also propose boosting the National Housing Co-Investment Fund by $750 million for new homes, plus increasing the Canada Housing Benefit by $750 million for rent assistance to approximately 125,000 households.
The NDP plan involves the creation of 500,000 units of “quality affordable housing” over the next 10 years—half of which would be completed within the first five years. It is pledging $5 billion towards the construction of housing co-ops and social and non-profit housing. For renters, the NDP is offering to waive the federal portion of GST/HST on the construction of new, affordable rentals. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has also promised to impose a foreign buyer’s tax.
The Liberals presented a 10-year plan that involves nearly $20 billion for social infrastructure including affordable housing and facilities for seniors. Promises for renters expand on what is already underway under their national housing strategy, including plans to build 100,000 affordable living units and renovate more than 300,000—which would be done with the help of provincial dollars.
If re-elected, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has pledged to review housing prices in expensive markets including Vancouver and Toronto, to figure out “whether speculation is driving up the cost of housing,” and increase the residential rental property rebate on GST to 100 percent. This last proposal is supposed to speed up the development of new units, which is what the NDP is also offering. It also appeared in the Liberals 2015 platform but has not yet happened.
For first-time home buyers making less than $120,000 a year—and up to $150,000 in Vancouver and Toronto—the Liberals are offering to help with 10 percent of the price of the home. Trudeau’s party has also pledged an anti-speculation tax on foreign owners.
The Conservatives don’t talk specifically about renting; their housing strategy focuses on home ownership. They want to relax the existing mortgage stress test so first-time buyers aren’t “unnecessarily prevented” from getting into the market, as well as to extend amortization periods on insured mortgages to 30 years, from the current limit of 25, for first-time buyers. This lowers monthly payments, but also means more interest is paid overall. The NDP is also offering this approach.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has pledged to launch an inquiry into money laundering in real estate and “root out corrupt practices that inflate housing prices” as well as make more federal land available to boost the housing supply.
Housing should be its own federal department
Farha says the single most impactful thing she would like to see is the creation of a national housing minister, whose entire focus would be on the range of issues that homeowners and renters face. Currently, housing falls under the responsibilities of the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. According to Farha, the dedicated housing minister could work with provincial and municipal governments to tackle all kinds of renters’ issues including renovictions and zoning. The Green Party is the only major party promising a federal minister dedicated to housing.
Another thing that the next prime minister can do, according to Farha, is come up with policy that stops speculative money from pouring into the housing market and driving up prices.
“The financialization of housing, where it’s treated as an asset class—a commodity—that is very much in the hands of government,” she said. Farha wants to see developers incentivized to build “genuinely affordable rentals” for low-income people, students and young people at the beginning of their careers.
Farha says she’s mystified that affordable rentals aren’t “front and centre” in this election, given the size of the youth vote and the fact that it’s such an important issue for low-income Canadians.
“There’s absolutely a housing affordability crisis in this country. Toronto and Vancouver keep appearing on potential bubble lists,” said Farha. “We have an economy that is very much based on housing, real estate, construction of new housing. Twenty percent of our GDP is related to the housing sector so we’re reliant on an ailing housing sector. I would think that leaders would be pretty attentive to this issue.”
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