The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a range of problems with housing in Canada, and in particular the relative failure of the market to deliver safe, accessible, and affordable housing to Canadians. As Canada’s housing market heads into a likely decline, Team Advantage assembles to discuss why housing should not be a commodity to be bought and sold, Kate’s important opinions about landlords, and what could be done to bring housing into common or public ownership.
Tyler: Antifa moved into my neighbourhood and now I’m underwater on my mortgage. What the hell?
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining Team Advantage today is Joel —
Joel: Hello, hello.
Kate: Tyler —
Tyler: Howdy doodle?
Kate: I wish you wouldn’t say that. And Patrick —
Patrick: Thanks for having me.
Kate: So, this episode, we’re going to be talking about housing. It’s a necessity of life, particularly when we have to shelter in place due to a, say, global pandemic, but thanks to the rather less-than-ideal society that we live in, it turns out that housing is a particularly complex thing, mostly because it’s a system designed to ensure that people with money continue to make money. So, to start, I think we should start with some of the housing market’s more prominent dysfunctions. So there have been a number of headlines over the past few months warning that the housing market is in trouble. Headlines like Bloomberg: “What’s safer than gold? Canadian real estate braces for reckoning.” In the Financial Post: “Housing Prices could fall 14% in Canada’s biggest city by 2022. And that’s the moderate scenario.” In the CBC: “Canadian home sales had their worst April in 36 years,” and “Canadian housing market will stay down for years due to lower immigration” in the Huffington Post.
Joel: So, remember how the US housing market tanked in 2008 due to the subprime mortgage crisis which ended up causing a broader financial crisis?
Tyler: I do remember.
Joel: Yeah, good times. Up until that point, housing prices in both US and Canada were expanding until the US bubble popped. The funny thing is, though, that the housing prices in Canada just kept going up after 2008, and — unlike the US where the bubble burst — a number of analysts have been saying for years that the increasing value of housing in Canada is unsustainable. Some mortgage interest rate hikes happen, along with changes on how to qualify for a mortgage that were brought in in order to try to slow things down a bit and prevent a bubble bursting. The COVID-19 downturn, along with the oil price shock, might be what finally ends Canada’s escalating housing prices.
Kate: And we tend to use the word “housing prices” in a kind of abstract way, but I think it’s really important to kind of complicate what we actually mean when we say “housing is expensive,” because that means — when housing is expensive — that those who own it see the value of their asset increase. So if you own a house, its value on paper and on the market — assuming that it can successfully be sold — is worth more. And the value of housing, in this sense, has basically doubled since the year 2000. There are a lot of different indications and ways of measuring this and geographic variety across the country, but on average it holds true that, if you bought a home 20 years ago, it is worth twice as much now, even if you didn’t renovate or improve it in any way.
Joel: So what’s happening now is pretty similar to what happens whenever any economic bubble bursts. Things seem sustainable as long as the value of assets keep growing, and everyone assumes that they’re going to be able to cash out once they have their assets paid off; but once the bubble bursts, obviously, we’re thrown into a crisis. So mass job losses that have attended the COVID crisis — 8.41 million unique applications have been made to the CERB as of today, and there have been 15.44 million total applications received (the difference between unique applications and total applications is not explicitly explained on the government site) — along with the closing of international borders has exposed what Bloomberg News describes as the two shaky pillars of the Canadian housing market: a strong labour market and a large-scale immigration.
Kate: So, in April, Vancouver declared that it was actually facing potential bankruptcy as 45% of Vancouver mortgage holders reported that they could not pay their mortgage and property tax bills. As well, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corps is tightening restrictions on who can get mortgage insurance, so this is an effort to squeeze the riskier buyers out of the market because they are predicting a 9 to 18% decline in home prices over the next year. So the head of their organization says this is to curtail excessive demand and unsustainable house price growth.
Patrick: I’m sure glad they didn’t think of this during the boom years as people were priced out of even rentals because of all the speculation, you know? That’s super awesome.
Kate: Yeah, I — because a superheated market, you know, attracted a lot of people into mortgages and really unsustainable levels of debt which are, frankly, extremely bad for our society and probably have numerous, numerous knock-on effects that make our society worse to be in. Anyways — overall, Canadians owe about $1.76 for every dollar that they have in disposable income. In Vancouver, that goes as high as $2.30. So that means that, overall, Canadians are in extremely unsustainable levels of debt, and one of the main ways that people do acquire debt is through going into mortgages and attempting to access housing. So all of those facts are interesting, but what this really means is that the recession facing Canada is really likely to be longer and deeper than it could have otherwise been, even in a similar market economy, because the money available for consumer spending is going to dry up, and the inability of homeowners to pay mortgages could see a massive flood of houses onto the market, and this can lead to a basic supply shock that will further tank the value of homes. And this matters because so many Canadians have all of their money tied up in the value of their homes. Like, you know, people send their kids to college on the value of their homes, they retire based on the value of their homes. And it’s this really neat system where homeownership has basically replaced pensions, a historic and hard-fought demand of the labour movement, as the path to a secure retirement, and now it is basically collapsing around us. So it is extremely concerning, and it is going to put people who would, by all other indications, be middle-class — you know, they’re homeowners, they have disposable income, they’re making the median income for wherever they live — into extreme financial precarity because of the way people are encouraged to invest in housing to basically supplement retirement, post-secondary education, all these types of things. Extremely bad system.
Patrick: Yeah, and so — as I think what Kate really draws out there — is that however much it might seem like things were working before COVID-19, and now things are not working, that really depends on your point of view and what your relationship with housing is like, meaning — do you own real estate or not? What about the folks who enjoy living in housing — there’s a lot of scare quotes in those comments — who also happen to work for a living? So, you know, if we look at something like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it published a study in the summer of 2019 which asked some pretty basic questions: where in Canada can a person making minimum wage afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment that only costs them about 30% of their income, which is sort of the benchmark for comfortably being able to afford rent? So there’s actually only 24 of 795 neighbourhoods, or 3% of the neighbourhoods in Canada, where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford to rent an average two-bedroom apartment. And there’s only 70 neighbourhoods, or 9% of Canadian neighbourhoods, where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment. So what would the minimum wage need to be for a full-time, full-year worker to be able to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment with 30% of their income? Well, that actually works out to about $22.40 an hour for an average-price two-bedroom, and $20.20 an hour for a one-bedroom. And so the results vary by city by city, but in Calgary, to spend only 30% of your income on a two-bedroom apartment, you’d need to make $26 an hour. In Edmonton, it’s $25 an hour, and in Vancouver, it’s $35 an hour.
Kate: And let’s remember that minimum wage across the country ranges from around $11.32 in Saskatchewan, which I believe has the lowest minimum wage in the country, to Alberta, which — oddly enough, through historical happenstance and the one good thing the Alberta NDP did — actually has the highest minimum wage in the country, at $15 an hour. But even in Calgary, in none of Calgary’s 44 neighbourhoods can a full-time minimum wage worker afford an average one- or two-bedroom apartment. The two largest rental neighbourhoods in Calgary are both downtown-ish — so it’s downtown Eau Claire and Mission, Beltline — but these are also the most expensive for two-bedroom rental wages. And to rent in those neighbourhoods, you would need a rental wage of $31 to $32 an hour, which is almost double what minimum wage is in Alberta. The cheapest two-bedroom rents are found in, basically, a broad swatch of largely rural areas on the outskirts of the city, where it would still require a full-time wage of $18 an hour to comfortably pay your rent, which is $3 above the minimum wage. But there are almost no apartments for rent in those communities, and, as I said, that rental wage is still $3 an hour higher than Alberta’s $15 an hour minimum wage. So even in Alberta, which has not the inflated housing prices of somewhere like Vancouver or Toronto and has the highest minimum wage of anywhere in the country, housing is basically unaffordable for minimum-wage workers, housing is basically unaffordable for wage workers and for low-income and poor people. Which seems to me like an extremely weird coincidence given everything we outlined earlier this episode, where we learned that housing prices have doubled over the past 20 years, but wages have basically done nothing, you know? They have stagnated over that amount of time.
Joel: Yeah, and I just want to give some props to this study because it took some very basic measures, like: what is the average price of housing (or, in this case, a one- or two-bedroom apartment), what is the minimum wage, how do those line up, who, basically, can afford these very basic goods in our society, and then what would that wage have to be in order to afford it. It’s incredibly straightforward as far as the approach they took, and it basically paints a very quick picture that housing is wildly unaffordable for tons of people in our country.
Kate: One of the most interesting numbers to me that comes across in this study is that housing prices have doubled over the past 20 years, but the minimum wage in Alberta, adjusted for inflation with what it was 20 years ago and what it is now, is only 16% higher. So at a time when housing prices doubled, wages went up, at the minimum, 16%. So that’s a really obvious way of seeing a big discrepancy between the amount of money our society expects people to bring in and what people are supposed to be spending on housing. Obviously, a lot of people do make more money than minimum wage, but it is — those two things are just clearly not growing at the same rate, so housing is just becoming more and more expensive.
Tyler: It wasn’t always this way, surprisingly. It used to be that governments had housing programs, and built and paid for housing. Can you even imagine? So if we think about this historically — or recent history, at least — the peak period of purpose-built rental construction was actually in the 60s and 70s, which was just another thing that was decimated by the wave of neoliberalism that started kicking off in this era (or shortly after it, depending on the country you’re in). Mulroney started cutting social housing funding in 1990, and the Liberals actually ended new social housing funding in 1993. So new purpose-built rental housing starts are now back to 1990 levels, but since then the population has grown by 10,000,000, so that means there is not enough building for the market. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has shown that the building of purpose-built rentals is largely driven by public policy and public subsidy rather than market forces. It’s worth noting that the market is generally not actually interested in building low-cost housing. One of the arguments you hear a lot, I think, by conservatives or free-market folks is, you know, if we just loosen things up, we’ll just build more supply. And if we have more supply — what do we all know from Econ 101? — well, prices are going to go down. But what happens in the housing market —
Joel: Tyler, are you saying that, if only there’s enough supply of luxury condos, everyone will just live in a luxury condo?
Tyler: [laughs] Right. Strangely enough, the people who are building luxury condos are not actually interested in selling them to people who are making minimum wage, if you can imagine that. So they’re not going to post their houses for $700,000 or $1,000,000 and then say, “Oh, guess what? There’s all this supply in the market. I guess we’ll sell them for $300,000.”
Patrick: Yeah, you’ve really just shaken my faith in the developers in Vancouver.
Tyler: Yeah, it’s one of the weird annoyances that I think a lot of people who are interested in this issue have, is: generally, when the housing market is talked about, it’s talked about as if every single home that is built is part of the same market when this is obviously not the case. And a good way to think about this is: people who actually need homes have quite short time horizons. If you need housing, you need it today, right? Being homeless is, just, a horrible thing to go through in this society. But on the other side of that, big property investment firms have very long-time horizons. They have tons of money, and they are not going to actually sell houses at very, very low prices just because there’s a recession; they will wait. So what tends to happen is, actually, sales volume drops much faster than the prices in a housing market. And that’s especially true for higher-priced homes. And because of the way our market is structured in the housing market — you can see if you just look around at all the cranes downtown in any big city — what’s being built are luxury condos and not affordable homes. So, just to finish this section off: in 2016, the federal Liberals introduced new plans to fund the building of affordable housing. But, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives soberly puts it, the number of new units is modest by historical standards and insufficient for current and future needs. So, like most Liberal things, it looks like doing something and will make for some great photo ops, but won’t actually do shit to address the real problem. The limits on supply created by the lack of social housing funding, and the shift to condo development over rental development, is compounded by the policies that make renting precarious.
Joel: One of my favourite facts to bring up whenever we talk about housing is that homelessness and unhoused populations are one big consequence of the lack of social and public housing. And homelessness itself was basically invented in the 1980s; it didn’t exist on the same scale that we currently experience it before then, and that’s because housing was affordable enough, and housing programs actually existed, up until that point. Again, homelessness was invented in the 1980s; you didn’t have thousands of people unhoused in every major city. Just quoting David Hulchanski in a piece he wrote for the Toronto Star called “The Invention of Homelessness”: “About 20,000 social housing units were created every year following the 1973 amendments to the National Housing Act. In introducing the 1973 housing legislation, the minister of urban affairs — a federal ministry we no longer have today but which existed during most of the 1970s — asserted that our society has an obligation to see that all people are adequately housed. The minister, Ron Basford, said, “When we talk . . . about the subject of housing, we are talking about an elemental human need — the need for shelter, for physical and emotional comfort in that shelter. When we talk about people’s basic needs — the requirements for survival — society and the government obviously have an obligation to assure that these basic needs of shelter are met.” In 1993, all federal spending on the construction of new social housing was terminated, and in 1996, the federal government further removed itself from low-income housing supply by transferring responsibility for most existing federal social housing to the provinces, so it downloaded the responsibility. So the housing market is dysfunctional even when it’s nominally working because “working” — again, lots of scare quotes here, “working” — here means making money for the right people and indebting homeworners for multiple decades at a time, and having thousands of unhoused people in our major cities. Why is it that we have such a system? Why is this how we’ve decided to build and provide one of life’s major necessities? The current method of building housing is basically this: people are encouraged to save up a down payment and sign up for, like, a thirty-five year mortgage. Because you’re, quote, “entering the market,” often you’re priced out of central areas or areas with amenities like transit stations or walkable shopping or parks, schools, etc. So people end up in neighbourhoods that they may not necessarily desire to live in, but they are there mostly because it’s their entry point into the housing market, and they hope that their home or investment — or both — increases in value at the same time that they’re paying it off, and, after hopefully doubled their investment, they can sell it and move somewhere more to their liking. This is a bit from David Harvey that I think is really important to restate at any time we have the opportunity. Home ownership was explicitly part of the Thatcher and Reagan neoliberal revolution for a few reasons. First of all, you’re less likely to go on strike or engage in labour action if you have a mortgage to pay off. You’re also not nearly as mobile of a labour force if you’re anchored to one point and one mortgage, right? You can’t just move to a city where the wages are better because you’re stuck working your lower-wage job because you have to pay off that mortgage for the house that you bought in the city that you’re in. By owning a home and being concerned with increasing its value, you also become kind of invested in how the stock market is doing and attracting investment to your city or your neighbourhood. It also has a bit of a conservative political effect; it literally makes you kind of a petit bourgeois. And, finally, paying a mortgage basically means that you hand your paycheck over to a bank for several decades for the pleasure of being housed. Harvey makes the point that, while Marx and Engels indirectly note in the Manifesto, that no sooner does the worker receive his wages in cash then he is set upon by other portions of the bourgeoisie: the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc. Marxist theorists sort of generally overlook these predatory urban practices in their macro level of examinations of capitalist processes, so, for Harvey — Harvey, you know, being interested in those spatial developments of the economy, really wants to draw our attention back to the way that these housing markets fundamentally shape our experience of the economy more generally.
Tyler: Oh, so you’re telling me that you prefer to rent? That’s quite interesting. Then you must enjoy having very little purpose-built housing stock, laws that have you at risk of being displaced within a few months’ notice, no rent controls, rarely-enforced safety standards, and an ideology of home ownerships that depicts renters as insufficiently invested in their neighbourhoods, potentially lowering property values, causing quote-unquote “parking trouble” in single-family detached-home neighbourhoods, etc, etc. And, oh yeah, don’t forget the joy of dealing with shitty landlords, or landlords generally. So, more generally, there’s little market incentive for actually building purpose-built rental housing when you could instead build luxury condos like we talked about earlier. The profit margins on luxury condos are much more substantial, and it’s likely that an investor will purchase the condo so that they can cash in on the appreciating value even if they don’t actually live in it, which is one of the reasons why, in most major cities — you have probably heard several stories about these — there are hundreds, if not thousands, of empty units sitting there, and isn’t it weird that we also have this huge population of unhoused people? It’s a shame that the market couldn’t solve this problem for us. So one glimmer of good news to come out of all this, though — especially when talking about COVID-19 and the rental housing market — is that the outbreak actually saw Airbnb’s short-term rental market collapse, and many of those properties actually went back on the long-term rental market, which we love to see. I saw a tweet a little while ago that was very shocking to me, that there was a 64% rise in rental properties across Dublin, in Ireland, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and that was according to the website Daft Media, as landlords started withdrawing their rentals from short-term listings like Airbnb and offering them onto the market instead, and that was a tweet by @RobCross247.
Kate: Not to be dramatic, but Airbnb should be banned and the people who profited off of it should probably be prosecuted because it literally exists exclusively to take rental housing out of the market for residents of the city, generally reduce the housing stock and increase rents for everyone, not to mention that they are basically dodgy, unregulated hotels that threaten to drive down wages for hotel and motel workers. Big fuck to Airbnb, and big fuck to Nathan Rotman, Rachel Notley’s former chief of staff who now works for Airbnb on public policy. Go fuck yourself.
Joel: Seconded. [laughs]
Joel: Moreover, the kind of housing that gets built also has a great deal to do with government policy. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation encouraged suburban development for multiple decades after World War II, which ended up encoursing sprawl, automobile dependence, and big box commercial developments. Usually, urban development shitheads like to argue that people just want suburbs and so that’s why they buy them, but really the market is so tightly managed and people basically buy the housing that they can afford, and so if the only thing that’s being produced at an affordable rate is a suburban home, people are going to buy suburban homes.
Kate: And this is where Marx and David Harvey provide us with a really useful lens for thinking about housing, and they’re making this key distinction, as Marx likes to do, and it’s a distinction that was very influential in the formation of my thought as a Marxist, between two categories called use value and exchange value. So use value means the value that you derive from making use of housing. So this is the normal stuff, it is things like having a roof over your head, shelter from the elements, having space to make food and care for your family and store your possessions and engage in whatever hobbies you do in the privacy of your own home. It is a nice little anchor point in spacetime that helps you navigate your life, particularly if you happen to, say, live in a capitalist society and everything constantly seems like it is in crisis, shifting, changing, melting into air, whatever metaphor you want to use. And in a really concrete sense, you know, I have use value in my home because I live in it and I require it to do all of the things listed above. My landlords, on the other hand, have a vested interest in the exchange value of my home. And what exchange value means is the value that you derive from selling and investment in a marketplace, and the investment here being housing. So this is stuff like selling your house and making a profit because the value of housing kept increasing even if you weren’t making actual investments to your home, or investors, say, purchasing housing as a kind of speculative asset because they’ll be able to double their money in a few years thanks to things like cheap credit, interest rates, and, as we’ve said, the rising value of housing or making restricted neighbourhood covenants about how your house should look, policing your neighbourhood for people who don’t mow their front lawn, because all of this might affect the property value. And, you know, when other people live in your home, and they’re deriving use value from the property, you’re deriving exchange value by collecting rent from them. And these two values, exchange value and use value, are basically held in tension with each other and, in our society, the exchange value often trmps the use value. This is particularly true for renters, where, you know, there’s very little incentive to maintain or improve the property you live in if, at any moment, you could get turfed with a few months’ notice or your landlord could raise your rent to a price at which you would be unable to actually pay for it. And there’s so much that goes on here, but, in my opinion, use value and exchange value are fundamentally incompatible with each other. You cannot have housing that is a good financial investment for people — and by a good financial investment, I mean outperforms investments with similar risk profiles — and, at the same time, do what we say we want housing to do, which is provide housing for everyone, make healthy communities for people to live in and raise their families in. You know, these two things are fundamentally incompatible with each other.
Patrick: Yeah, and relationships within neighbourhoods suffer from this, you know. We’ve sort of already alluded to this with the tensions between renters and landowners in neighbourhoods, but if everyone was concerned with living in a place that is good and supportive, there might be certain kinds of community that develop from these interests; but often these have to be balanced with making sure our property values increase, which means a whole different kind of community building. So this assumes, of course, people that are living in the houses they’ve purchased (which, of course, a great many, certainly and clearly, must not be doing), and living in an investment ghost town isn’t very pleasant, nor is it particularly useful to society to have tons of housing purchased but not being used.
Joel: What is to be done? Particularly in a setting like ours, you’ve got tons of people who have sunk decades of their income into home ownership. They might be relying on the value of their housing asset to safely retire. I mean, history has some examples of how to address the landlord question, but what might be solutions that would work in our context? And, more generally, how could we decommodify housing so that it’s treated like the necessity of life that it truly is instead of a good to be bought and sold in a market? One useful resource that I’ve found is a report from UK Labour — one of the authors was George Monbiot — called “Land For The Many: Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned, and governed.” There’s lots in this document, and we’ll link to it in the shownotes, but some of the most interesting parts of it are basically proposing that the state just buy people’s homes [laughs], that you give people the option of selling your home at whatever its current value is to the state, and therefore it frees you up from having to sit on this asset and manage it for its exchange value. And then there are further proposals to basically pool all of these housing assets into community land trusts; this would basically allow a separation between the structure that is on land — the actual house — and separate the value of that from the value of the actual plot of land that the house sits on. Under a community land trust model, the plot of land is owned by trust — in perpetuity, basically — and the only thing that you can actually buy or sell is the actual structure on top of it. So this basically cuts away all of the speculative value that housing, historically, accrues, and makes it so that, whenever you’re talking about cost or value, you’re really just talking about the structure that you’ve put on that plot.
Kate: Community land trusts are also a really important way of diminishing gentrification in the way it occurs in cities because of the specific relationship that gentrification has to land values in particular, and I think there’s also ways that community land trusts can be used in a type of reparations or in restorative justice — so, basically, supporting the development and the existence of community land trusts for, you know, Indigenous people, Black people, and historically-displaced communities in our countries is, I think, a really interesting use of a really good mechanism for, basically, decommodifying housing — or, at least, decommodifying an aspect of housing.
Tyler: Yeah, and one other point about the community land trust that I really like is: the value of housing, especially in the inner city or major urban centres which tend to be the most desirable places to live — that’s where there’s density of people, you know, things are happening, it’s exciting, suburbs are boring, etc — that tends to be super expensive. So what this model actually does is means that all the value of that house that is actually wrapped up in the land is removed from the cost of buying the house. So if there’s a house that you really like in the downtown of a city, or a condo, if you were to buy that today, in most places in the world, you’re paying for not only the value of the house but actually the value of that land, which is, in some places, 80% — or sometimes even more — of the value of the price that you’re paying. So by the government stepping in (or this community land trust, whoever’s running it), eating that cost, and owning that, they’re basically saying, “Yeah, you can buy the house; we’ll give you a hundred-year lease (or whatever the terms are) that’s renewable,” and you’re only paying for whatever the cost of the house is, like Joel said. So it has a huge, huge, immediate effect in big cities of bringing down the cost of housing.
Joel: Yeah, and it also has the impact of kind of reducing things like the sprawl that you see in cities like Calgary because land speculation and building these new suburban developments loses a lot of its impulse for developers.
Kate: And when it comes to landlords, landlords just shouldn’t exist. And I mean this in a really literal sense in that no one should be able to have control over another person’s housing, and particularly no one should be able to have control over another person’s housing for the sole purpose of making profit. Landlords don’t contribute anything to society; they are a parasite on the way that our society is organised. They do not provide housing; it is builders and the people who actually build houses who provide housing. They do not maintain housing; it is the people who do the work of maintenance that maintain housing. So they don’t actually do anything but line their own pockets. My true and honest opinion is that it is immoral to have control over another person’s housing because housing is a basic necessity for life, and that is what landlords do, and that is how landlords derive their income. They do not provide any meaningful contribution to society other than living off other people’s paychecks to paychecks.
Patrick: And it’s really important to understand, because when this stuff comes up — you know, around the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, there was conversion about rent strikes and mortgage relief, and you could see this thing happening of very modestly-incomed, or relatively modestly-incomed, homeowners who, say, were making up their mortgages by renting out, say, things like basements, going, “Well, if I don’t have this, I’m going to be out of a house.” But that is not indicative of the experience of the landlord. Landlords tend to own multiple, even into the dozens of, properties that they’re renting out. And so usually, when we’re talking about landlords, the overwhelming character of these people we’re talking about are not little mom and pop organizations, but sort of major landholders that extract huge amounts of incomes out of communities. And this is actually going back to what Kate was saying about distributive justice and paying back to marginalized communities, you know, in places that are more racialized and underserved communities. These are often communities that are also a higher degree of renting as opposed to owning, and where does all that money from the rents go? It goes out of those communities and off into wealthier communities that then use that money, through the value of their taxes and through the money that’s in the pockets of the landowners, to pay for better amenities and to pay for better communities that are then denied by their tenants in other parts of their cities.
Kate: I also think, too, there are landlords who are relying on, say, renting out a basement suite in order to pay their mortgages. That that is a system that exists, and that these people are so indebted that they are relying on this in order to continue having access to their own housing, is an indictment of the way we organize housing as a commodity as a whole. You know, the solution to that is not, “Oh, we should continue to, by and large, oppress tenants,” the solution to that is, “Oh, we should systematically decommodify housing.”
Tyler: Yeah, and one example I really like about how we can think about housing, especially relating to homelessness — you know, everyone seems to agree that homelessness is an issue, and there are a variety of responses on how to deal with it, but they tend tend to look like: what supports can we give to homeless people now that exclude giving them housing, which seems to be the most obvious place to start. So one country that’s actually taken this advice in the right direction is Finland. So Finland is actually the only country in Europe where homelessness is falling (and I’m drawing a lot of this from a Guardian article on this that came out last year that’s really good, if you Google “Finland homelessness” you’ll find it). So Finland basically engaged in something in 2008 that was known as the “housing-first principle,” and what they decided to do is really, simply, make housing unconditional. And what they said is that you don’t actually need to solve your problems before you get a home. They’re very aware that a lot of the reasons that people are homeless tend to do with, you know, mental health, home issues, a vast variety of reasons; so instead of having people forced to deal with those when they have no resources or nowhere to actually live, they said, “Yeah, we’ll give you a home. That’ll be your secure foundation, and it’s going to make solving the rest of your problems much, much easier.” So actually, since the launch of this program in 2008, the number of long-term homeless people in Finland has fallen by more than 35%, and rough sleeping has all but been eradicated in Helsinki, where only one 50-bed night shelter remains. And just to give one example of what one of these places look like, the article has lots of great pictures (I mean, it’s Finland, so the housing is very nice and airy and beautiful), but we’ve got seven staff supporting 21 tenants — which, if you just think about an elementary school classroom or a daycare, that seems like an insanely great ratio of support staff — and these support staff are a variety of disciplines, but social workers are common, and the work that they do ranges from practical health, navigating the bureaucracy, getting education, training, and work placements, or, you know, setting up activities for the complex like games, visits, or learning or re-learning basic life skills such as cleaning and cooking. So it’s just, you know — it seems like such a simple, straightforward solution, and obviously the results speak for themselves. So lots of countries have kind of been interested in this example, but it’s such an easy one you could pluck off the shelf and implement in any country right now that would have huge impacts on homelessness.
Kate: We have to have more public housing — I am, like, the public housing crank — but the fact of the matter is is that we have to decommodify housing, and the way we do that is through massive buildouts of public housings. And an important part of that, too, is that public housing needs to be accessible to everyone, so you should not be barred access to public housing based on your income, your race, your gender, your sexuality, whether you’re disabled or not, your immigration status, whether you’ve been incarcerated in the past, any of these things. And this is really important for two reasons. One is that, oftentimes, the public and social housing was not necessarily accessible to groups like people with disabilities, etc, but also, two, public housing shouldn’t just be for the most marginalized people in our communities or the most vulnerable people in our communities; public housing should be for everyone. And this might sound really counterintuitive, because you’re thinking, “Okay, some people live in better housing than other people — the people who are in the worst situations, those people should be taken care of by any kind of public housing program.” And while I absolutely think it’s true that, you know, we should make it a priority to house people who are currently unhoused as part of a massive buildout of public housing, part of protecting any kind of public program like this is making it universal and making sure as many people as possible have access to it in order to increase the number of people who have a stake in defending the longevity of this program, and also normalizing living in public housing. You know, there are cities in the world where large proportions of people still live in public housing, and that goes a really long way to making public housing desirable housing with good, strong communities that people want to live in, and also that states continue to invest in.
Joel: Another useful example when thinking about buildouts of public housing is Sweden. They’re most famous for, in the 1970s, building a million public housing units, and, I mean, their population was eight million, so it’s, like, 12, 13% [laughs] of their population got, basically, new public housing units. It is absolutely possible to do, and it can have long-term, knock-on, beneficial effects for the whole economy. If your housing is affordable, people can spend their money on other stuff, on other goods that are increasingly rare or increasingly valuable. It would be great to see. I would love to see it. And, you know, building new housing takes some time, but amazingly, in all sorts of major cities across North America and Europe, you have large homeless populations with loads and loads of empty properties. So maybe while we wait to build the new public housing, if you are a multiple land or property owner and you have an empty property while people are sleeping outside, you have forfeited that property and it is now used to house people.
Kate: Another really important thing when we think about housing is that the lack of alternative housing options, and the lack of any kind of accessible, robust public housing option or housing stock, means that, for people whose primary housing is unsafe, they often don’t really have any other options. So I’m thinking here of people who are experiencing gendered violence or domestic violence in the household or people who are experiencing abuse, especially queer and trans youth, don’t have access to other housing, and this leads to people staying in housing situations that are really, really, extremely unsafe for them. We know one of the reasons that women in particular do not leave situations in which they are experiencing domestic violence is because they are unable to find housing for either themselves or themselves and their children. So it is a really, really important part of ensuring we have a society in which everyone can afford to be safe, and, you know, we’ve even just recently had an example of this phenomenon, is COVID-19, where people were sheltering in place — as we’re doing right now — saw a big increase in demand for women’s shelters because, for many people, sheltering in place in theri primary housing is just flat-out not safe.
Patrick: So, Kate, what do you think about second homes?
Kate: [laughs] Second homes — illegal. Cabins — illegal. Having a second home, you just shouldn’t be allowed to do that. There’s two types of ways people have second homes: one is as an income-generating property — absolutely that should be illegal, that should be expropriated, reappropriated, whatever word you want to use, and that should be used to house people, particularly unhoused people and then, as we expand out a housing program, gradually, everyone. But I also think that second homes that are used for leisure things, like cabins, stuff like that, those should also be illegal. Those should all be in some kind of giant trust that we have and, you know, if you want to go on vacation, you can go to the nice Canada Parks office and you can go see a clerk there and say, “I am this type of worker, I have vacation from X date to Y date, I would like to go on holiday in this general area,” and they give you four to five brochures, and you get to look through them, and they’re designed in a really nice way, and you get to choose where you would like to go for vacation. And this might sound really weird and kind of extreme to a lot of people, but I really think it’s a very basic idea, which is either a small group of people can have private luxury that is accessible to them all of the time, or everyone can have communal luxury that we share and that is accessible to you on an equitable basis with everybody else. And I personally would prefer to live in a society where everyone has access to such amenities as, you know, a small vacation that they are able to go on every single year. I think that is something that is really reasonable and eminently possible if these resources weren’t being hoarded by specific groups of people.
Joel: This kind of policy would also be really useful when it comes to addressing the issue of sprawl and the problem of encroaching on green fields. Often increasing housing stock is used as a kind of excuse to expand cities and their geographic footprint — this is particularly the case in Calgary because we’re in the middle of a giant prairie. You wouldn’t need to do this if you could build better and denser housing within the existing footprint in the first place, and if you had a robust social or public housing program, you would have more of a mandate to do that.
Tyler: And in addition to that, right — taking control out of developers who are seeking to make the most money on every single house that they build as possible, you could very easily be building public housing, new condo buildings, whatever you want, and say, “Hey, this is going to be 100% energy-efficient home,” and there’s no wheeling and dealing around, “Well, it’d be nice to do that, but that’s going to increase costs by this much, and we know we can only sell homes for this much in this neighbourhood, so we can’t put solar panels on every roof that connect into a wider green electricity grid, or we can’t do all the simple energy-saving tricks that we know are there because that’s just a bit too expensive for the developers.” If this stuff is all done and centrally planned, you know, all this stuff is much, much cheaper to do at scale, and then people are given no choice in the matter — you’re going to live in a nice, green, energy-efficient home, and you’re going to live closer to the centre of the city so you can take public transit much easier; all of these things, from a climate perspective, are easy wins, as well.
Joel: Yeah, it opens up a lot of options. And, more generally, planning departments in cities basically — currently — work hand in hand with developers to increase property values. That’s kind of the overriding concern that any planning department has, is, like, got to increase property values so you can increase your tax base so you can generate more revenue, etc, etc. But if planning departments didn’t have to constantly concentrate on increasing property values, they might be able to redirect their efforts to do much more socially beneficial things when they plan our cities, and we might end up living in much better places as a result. Another thing I’ve been thinking of a little bit with all this talk of community land trusts and decommodifying housing and basically creating a new kind of commons with it is, when you look at the right wing and their plans for, basically, First Nations and reserves in Canada — like, if you read Tom Flanagan, for example, he wrote a terrible book called “Beyond The Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights,” he basically makes this argument that we should parcel out and integrate the reserve system into the property market and, basically, they shouldn’t exist anymore and just be fully integrated, is his whole big plan. And so it strikes me that what’s being proposed as actual solutions, at least from us so far in this episode, is the complete opposite of that, it’s like actually restoring a sense of commons in the property market and exiting the property market. And so I’m just curious to think what you think of that and how it might interact with broader decolonization and justice-oriented goals.
Kate: Well, one of the things I think about is that, in creating a new commons, like we’ve been talking, you’re really cutting to the heart of these issues of capitalism and of what I think is really the primary contradiction of capitalism in Canada, which is settler colonialism and which is who owns what, and, particularly, who owns land. And as part of community land trusts, creating new commons, you know, you’re undoing the particularity of how settler colonialism occurred on the Prairies, because the way settler colonialism occurred on the Prairies was through parcelling off land into private property, particularly in these little squares for white homesteaders and white settlers, enforced through the violence and the genocide of the RCMP. So parcelling off land into private property was the very particular form that settler colonialism took on the Prairies, so I think undoing that particularity is interesting, and I also think part of this process would look like divesting stewardship and control of land to Indigenous nations, you know, as part of a broader land-back strategy. And where we are in the Prairies, we live in treaty territory, and the treaties, as they were originally intended and originally signed by the people whose traditional territories we live on, were meant as an honest way of thinking through how different peoples and different nations could live on this land together and participate in both different societies and also in a joint society. So I really think part of creating a new commons, land-back, decolonization, all of these things, is living up to the well-intentioned vision of the treaties that were signed for this territory.
Patrick: And I think, you know — when we start talking about property in that sense, some of what Flanagan is getting at some really disgusting stuff, because part of the reason that was used to justify displacing Indigenous people off their land in the Americas was principally because the way that Indienous communities used land didn’t measure up to the way Europeans understood the use of land so as to constitute property. So they came to the Americas and they looked at the way Indigenous peoples used land, and it didn’t look like what John Locke had prescribed, and so it was this idea of the “empty land” or the “unused land” that could then be taken and made into private property by colonialists doing it, or working the land in ways that was recognizably “property” according to the European way of looking at the world. So presuming to turn around and invent a bunch of Indigenous John Lockes looking to get their property back is really kind of perverse, and so confronting that and thinking about a new commons is to actually not only confront colonialism, but also the perverse nature of European settler society from its very origins.
Kate: And if you read Treaty 7, like — so we’re in Calgary, which is Treaty 7 — like, if you read that document, a good portion of it is about the ways in which, at that time, primarily white settlers would allowed to live on this territory, the types of activities they would be allowed to engage in, the way farming would be conducted, these types of things. So there’s an explicit acknowledgement in these original treaties that, you know, people who are not originally from this land are going to be living on it, and how can they — and we, as settlers now — be in good relations on that land? And I think, obviously, if you look at Canadian history, the promise of those treaties was never lived up to, and the Canadian state and the original white settlers never had any real intention of living up to those treaties, but I think that going back to those documents is a really worthy exercise for us in envisioning any kind of future in this particular place because it is basically the original document between the people who are the original, rightful inhibitors of this land and the people who now live here, and there was some honest attempt to sit down and talk through: what is a society going to look like here? And I think that really does have to be the basis of any future, better society on the Prairies.
Joel: Hear, hear.
Kate: And I think too that, you know, when you start prying into housing, you start prying into capitalism and settler colonialism in its most key distillation, and thinking through housing — as I hope we’ve really demonstrated in this episode — is a key way of thinking about our built society; you know, housing is a key element of the built environment and the conditions of how we relate to one another and how we treat one another, and by addressing the issues we’ve outlined with housing, we set up, basically, the building blocks for the type of society that we really want to live in in the future.
Joel: Yeah, and because of the COVID-19 crisis, people’s frames of what’s politically possible are rapidly shifting. Reconstruction after this health crisis, economic recession, oil price downturn, and rebellion against police departments everywhere means the world could look very different if we wanted it to; it’s definitely a time and a point in history in which we try our best to push and imagine and propagate this idea of what could be possible in the future.
Kate: Yeah, so, I mean, not only would these things be nice in some kind of theoretical, imagined society in the socialist imaginary of the future, but these are also absolutely things that may become extremely rapidly politically possible because of the massive shocks that are going through our economy, our country, our society in general because of all the factors that Joel laid out. On behalf of everyone here at The Alberta Advantage, I hope you have enjoyed today’s episode on housing and all of the associated components of it. Take care out there, and have a good one.
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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media. Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.
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