Canada election: Deepening housing crisis looms large for voters

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the gravity of what experts say is a serious housing crisis – and voters want action.

A 'For Sale' sign is displayed outside a home in Toronto, Ontario, Canada June 15, 2021 [Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Toronto, Canada – Tenants trickle into a food bank on the second floor of Parkdale’s 103 West Lodge Avenue concrete apartment tower in pairs. Isaac Capella Guerrero, a construction worker who makes $100,000 a year, is among them.

The 41-year-old father of three says he is leaving this west-end Toronto neighbourhood; his two-bedroom apartment is too small for his family and he says he is tired of waiting weeks for repairs to get done.

The area he is moving to is less walkable than Parkdale, and his children will have to switch schools. But a recent trip to the bank in search of a mortgage left him feeling frustrated at the dismal options.

“This country is going to become, at some point, a country where you cannot have a family,” Capella Guerrero tells Al Jazeera. “You are going to have to live with your buddies, where you can each put $1,000 so you can rent an apartment. That’s what it’s going to be. Because at the moment, with one income, like in my case, how the f*** [can] you get a house?”

Isaac Capella Guerrero, a 41-year-old father of three, says he is leaving Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood [Natalie Alcoba/Al Jazeera]

Election issue

That anger has spilled onto the streets of cities across Canada in recent months, as the coronavirus pandemic exposed the gravity of what experts say is a deepening housing crisis.

On one end, runaway prices show no signs of abating, placing the prospect of homeownership further out of reach for the middle class, or burdening it with debt. On the other, a level of poverty and marginalisation has been laid bare, as tent cities sprouted up in urban parks, and municipalities sent the police in to remove people, in some cases violently. Untenable conditions have also renewed a sense of collective resistance around housing in Canada, as people are organising to try to thwart evictions and defend encampments.

Housing affordability across the country saw the worst deterioration in 27 years during the second quarter of 2021, according to an analysis (PDF) from the National Bank of Canada. Mortgage payments now represent 45 percent of an average household’s income, the report found, and in places like Toronto and Vancouver, that percentage is even higher.

Against that backdrop, a recent Nanos poll put housing at the top of the list of priorities for voters in the Greater Toronto Area, the most populous metropolitan area in Canada with six million people. As the federal election campaign enters its final stretch, the issue of housing is front and centre for political parties for the first time in years.

Those parties have promised a series of measures and incentives before the September 20 vote, from rent-to-own programmes, to tax incentives and restrictions on foreign buyers.

A lack of housing supply is a major factor in the current crisis – one that experts have said requires urgent government action. In response, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party has pledged to “build, preserve or repair” 1.4 million homes during the next four years; the left-leaning New Democrats say they will build at least 500,000 affordable housing units in 10 years, while the Conservatives say they will build one million homes in three years.

Trudeau’s Liberal Party promises to ‘build, preserve or repair’ 1.4 million homes during the next four years [File: Nick Iwanyshyn/Reuters]

Changed housing system

But Leilani Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, said there is an over-emphasis on home ownership, while more attention needs to be paid to the lower-income strata of Canadian society, which is growing and being pushed more to the margins.

“COVID really brought it home because COVID exposed how important home is – and how difficult it is to maintain a home. Within one month of the pandemic – one month – 25 percent of renter households were expressing concern they weren’t going to pay their rent on a go-forward basis – or in a few months,” said Farha.

“And that’s in Canada, the 10th-largest economy in the world.”

Canada used to have a variety of accessible housing options. Rent was cheap enough to save for a nest egg that allowed Canadians to buy a house, build equity, and borrow against it to keep spending money. That homeownership-driven housing system is about growing the economy, not necessarily putting a roof over people’s head, said Farha, now global director of The Shift, an organisation that advocates for housing as a human right, not a commodity.

But the system does not work the same way any longer, and a confluence of factors has dramatically changed the dynamic, said Farha. She pointed to pension funds or private equity firms gobbling up affordable housing buildings, doing cosmetic repairs, and then jacking up the rent, a trend that pushes people out. That is why promises to build more housing must come with clear regulations that ensure that housing is and remains affordable, she said.

“I don’t think any one party has nailed it. I think they don’t fully grasp the size of the problem, the severity of the problem, or the urgency of the problem. And that concerns me,” Farha told Al Jazeera. “I would think because housing is a human right there would have been an all-out attack to address homelessness first and foremost as quickly as possible.”

Police officers detain a person during an operation to evict a homeless encampment, at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, Ontario on June 22 [File: Kyaw Soe Oo/Reuters]

Local organising

Back at West Lodge, units sit vacant in the pair of apartment towers as construction continues on a revitalisation project, headed up by Hazelview Properties, which purchased the buildings in late 2018.

But amid the revamp, tenants report waiting weeks for repairs to get done on their apartments, while vacant units that are renovated are being rented out at a higher price.

“Empty units mean people are leaving, they’re getting pushed out, they’re getting scared away,” says Paterson Hodgson, an illustrator who lives at West Lodge and a member of Parkdale Organize, which helps working-class people organise to fight for social issues.

Colleen Krempulec, vice president of brand marketing and corporate social responsibility at Hazelview, said the company has spent almost $20m bringing the West Lodge buildings that were “neglected for years, if not decades” into good repair.

Hazelview has put in new boilers, done electrical and plumbing work, among other refurbishments, and added a mail room and renovated laundry, she said, and it has also completed over 3,000 unit maintenance and repair orders at West Lodge. “These are massive revitalisation projects that we believe residents of West Lodge will benefit from; it’s by no means an effort to push people out,” said Krempulec.

The tenant-run foodbank at 103 West Lodge in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood typically draws about 50 people [Natalie Alcoba/Al Jazeera]

She acknowledged that there are “a lot” of vacant units in the buildings, even though the company has been actively renting them out for about a year. It does so at market rent, which is likely to be more than what an existing tenant on rent control pays. “There has been no application for an above guideline rent increase for this work,” she stressed.

But Hodgson said tenants still feel pressured to leave. The organising that started over repairs and rent arrears also uncovered how many people were struggling with food. That’s what led to the tenant-run food bank that operates out of a unit in the building every other Sunday, and draws about 50 people on a regular basis.

“It was really dire. There were people who were choosing to pay rent rather than buy food. And not just because of COVID. This was happening before,” said Hodgson.

Ashleigh Doherty, a Parkdale resident and local teacher, said the collective organising that has been generated during the pandemic is about pushing for better conditions and demanding change, not waiting for top-down solutions from politicians.

“From our perspective, we know that the only power that we have is through this type of organising,” Doherty tells Al Jazeera outside West Lodge. “And that’s going to involve us directly confronting the landlords, and not sitting around and expecting politicians to do something for us – we know that’s not going to happen.”

Source: Al Jazeera