Buyers and sellers throughout Canada have long struggled to afford owning or renting a home, not just in the country’s major municipal centers, but just about everywhere. It’s become so wretched that every month invites a macabre look at just how high prices can go, and just how absurd and exploitative the housing struggle can get.
Things have reached a point where Canada’s housing market has transcended the realm of satire. Renters now face a situation so dire that it defies comedic exaggeration. Exhibit A is a recent listing for half a bed in Toronto — for $900 a month.
The listing is so wild that it strains credulity. Indeed, it was removed from Facebook Marketplace after stories documenting the shared-bed offer hit the newsfeeds. One realtor told CTV News she’d never seen such a thing. It’s unlikely many people have. But the absurdity of the listing itself, an anomaly even in Canada’s broken housing market, speaks to the broader issue of just how pushed housing-seekers throughout the country are. It serves as a stark reminder of just how dire the situation has become — particularly for low earners or those who are otherwise vulnerable.
It’s Just Not Funny Anymore
In recent weeks, some news chatter has suggested that housing prices could come down in Canada. According to TD Bank, prices could fall 10 percent in the coming months as supply picks up in Ontario and British Columbia, coupled with the looming threat of a potential recession. Maybe prices will indeed fall — some already have. But we’ve heard that story before, like in 2020. These stories are always followed by the caveat that a decline in prices won’t mean that housing will become affordable. This time, while 10 percent is significant drop in and of itself, it pales in comparison to the double-digit increases experienced repeatedly over the last several years.
Even if costs do drop, major markets in Canada will continue to be wildly unaffordable for the foreseeable future, particularly for renters who, as a rule, get a raw deal. In Toronto, in the fall, a one-bedroom rental was up over 10 percent year-over-year to a whopping $2,620 a month. In November of this year, it was sitting just over $2,600. In Vancouver, in the same month, rates were nearly $2,900 a month — still up 6.7 percent year-over-year despite a one-month drop of 3.5 percent. So, news about falling rates should be taken with a big old brick of salt.
As Mitchell Thompson wrote in these pages earlier this year, workers in Canada are stuck between poor pay and expensive rents. He was writing about a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) that documented “the gap between the minimum wage and what it costs to rent an apartment in Canada.” The CCPA looked at large urban centers throughout the country and found that a mere three (all in Quebec) out of thirty-seven urban areas were affordable for those earning a minimum wage — which, according to the report’s authors David Macdonald and Ricardo Tranjan is nearly 830,000 people.
Moreover, there was no province in which, on average, a worker earning the minimum wage could afford a one-bedroom rental. Not even in Quebec, although Newfoundland and Labrador came closest, with a gap of $2.24 an hour between the minimum wage and the one-bedroom rental wage.
A Clash of Classes
The looming drop in housing prices in Canada is setting up an explicit clash between the owner-class for whom property is first and foremost investment and the shelter-class for whom property is above all a necessity. The latter has a long-term interest in appreciating home value, even though those who own just one home are bound by prices themselves since they must live somewhere.
To be fair, structural pressures are largely responsible for pushing large swaths of the middle class into homeownership. This is due to the decline in pensions and a legal regime that incentivizes treating housing as an investment and a protection during retirement, driving those who can afford it to toward asset-based welfare — which, of course, only exacerbates the housing crisis. Either way, a price drop is more clearly in the interest of renters compared to owners.
In recent years, the gap between renters and owners has narrowed, with census data from 2021 indicating that renters were growing at twice the rate of owners. While owners are still a two-to-one majority in Canada, there are more than five million renters in the country, though the concentration of renters is higher in large cities.
The division between homeowners and renters is a class division, particularly when it comes to housing as a commodity and an investment. Homes are treated as an asset with special tax rates and privileges such as low property taxes and a capital-gains exemption on the profit from selling your principal residence. It’s a nice deal if you can manage to get it. But for the millions who are left out of the bargain, struggling to afford rent, it’s a slap in the face as owners accumulate wealth — and power — at their expense, including the landlords who own the buildings they live in.
The Housing Crisis Is Making Everything Worse
As bad as the housing crisis is itself, it also creates or worsens other social ills — from food insecurity to homelessness. The more people have to pay for shelter, the less they have to spend on everything else.
Coupled with a weak welfare state, routine economic crises, stagnant incomes, and moderate-to-low union density, the housing crisis and its attendant challenges immiserate millions, leaving them angry, distrusting, and vulnerable.
Discussions about housing in Canada need to be about more than lamenting the absurdity of prices and gut-wrenching stories about listing half a bed. While these concerns are legitimate, it is imperative that we delve into broader considerations involving the commodification, class dynamics, and decades of retrenchment shaping our treatment of property within the legal, financial, and cultural framework that disproportionately favors some over others. That discussion cuts to the heart of the matter — the division between those benefiting from escalating prices, commodified housing, and special financial privileges, and those left out.
When a half of the population is spending 50 percent or more of their household income on housing costs, the market is profoundly broken and we must reconsider the nature of its very existence as a hypercommodified space. Until we do so, we’ll continue to read headlines about desperate people seeking unworkable solutions to a crisis they’ve had no role in creating but whose effects they feel every single day of their lives.