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Housing: a right or a nightmare?

John Bell

January 23, 2019

It is cold comfort to know that one’s immediate, personal suffering is part of an international crisis. I have just had a taste of the crisis of affordable housing that is gripping cities from San Francisco to Dublin, from St. Catharines to Moncton.

After nearly 15 years in my endearingly decrepit apartment my landlady joined the choir invisible. Her heirs jumped to cash in on the Toronto housing bubble, and the fact that my shack was in a hot midtown neighbourhood. I was being “renovicted.”

I knew I was going to have to pay more rent, and was prepared to shell out a third more–surely $1300 would find me a new hovel. It took me almost no time to find that I was living in a fool’s paradise. In the just the few months in which I was house-hunting, the average rent for a Toronto one-bedroom apartment went from $1800 to $2260. The latest report projects another 11% increase in the coming year.

These wild increases are mostly the result of pure speculation. Almost all the new housing stock within the city is condos. Interest rates are kept low, and the pressure is on to buy a crackerbox in the sky. Those of us who cannot, or choose not to be “home buyers” are left squabbling over dwindling rental stock.

In Hamilton, where activists made housing an issue in recent municipal elections, city councillors voted to allow conversion of 252 apartments to condos. They say developers meet all the legal requirements.

One landlord in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove neighbourhood described how some prospective tenants were willing to bid between $100 and $350 per month above the advertised rental to get an apartment. Others offered to pay not just first and last month’s rent, but an entire year in advance.

So we have runaway construction of condos, many of which sit empty, more which are used as AirBnB units (unregulated hotels). It is estimated (as of 2017) that in Toronto there are 99,000 empty housing units, enough to house over 250,000 people.

Ontario: open for business, closed to tenants

When he was campaigning for office, Doug Ford explicitly denied he would remove rent controls. “When it comes to rent control, we're going to maintain the status quo,” he said in May. Promise made, promise broken. In November he removed all rent controls on new units. According to Ford, the incentive to his developer friends would result in the creation of lots of new, affordable rental stock – trickle-down housing as it were.

Once upon a time, Ontario had effective rent control which limited how much a landlord could hike the rent between tenants. Mike Harris’s Tory regime got rid of that; landlords were limited in how much they could raise the rent as long as you remained in your apartment, but once you moved out they could raise the rate to agree with “the market.” But don’t worry, Harris promised, “thousands and thousands” of new rental units would be built.

Except it didn’t happen then, just as it won’t happen now. Developers and their bought and paid for politicians created a condo boom and encouraged renters to go into deep debt to buy their units. Boom became bubble as the economies of major Canadian cites became focused on real estate speculation. Big capital, looking for a place to park their money rather than invest in new technology or industry, played the housing market.

And developers bought and payed for politicians like Ford to protect their investments.

During the election campaign Ford was caught in a secret meeting where he promised to open the “Green Belt” – designed to limit Toronto’s suburban sprawl and protect the aquifer – to real estate developers. Public outcry made him back down. But now that he has his majority, all bets are off.

Ford’s omnibus Bill 66 is all about “cutting red tape” and “making Ontario open for business” – not only does it scrap environmental precautions dating back to the deadly Walkerton poisoned water disaster, it would allow development in the Greenbelt. Again, we are told that the move would result in more “affordable housing.” What we’ll get are endless tracts of wasteful suburbia, homes that the urban working class can’t afford and don’t want.

At the same time as Ford’s government scraps rent control, his MPPs voted in favour of giving themselves a 20% raise for housing subsidy, financed by taxpayers of course. How’s a Tory supposed to be able to afford to live in Toronto in style, with these rents! Proving once again how tone-deaf they are, NDP MPPs also voted in favour of the rental allowance raise. Ontario MPPs receive a base annual salary of $116,500. The average salary in Toronto is $58,500.

Vancouver fights back

Everything that is happening now in Ontario will be familiar to people living in BC. But in Vancouver the housing crisis has created a political, activist response. Tenants rights groups organized and fought back, raising housing rights as the highest profile issue in recent local elections. A slate of housing activists campaigned hard and refused to compromise, shaming “progressive” NDP and Green Party candidates who had talked up the issue but failed to act.

Long-time activist Jean Swanson was elected to council and proposed new protections for renters facing “renoviction” – a law that would let them return to their renovated apartments at the same rent. Big crowds of supporters were mobilized to pack city hall. The reform passed.

This is a first step, a taste of what is possible. The fightback has to begin with a recognition that housing is a human right. It has to include a solution for the army of homeless that crowd our city streets, an army that will only grow with the austerity and cuts being brought in by Doug Ford’s gang. It has to include decent, subsidized housing solutions for seniors and people on fixed incomes. It has to include affordable inner-city rentals for the workers existing pay cheque to pay cheque.

The money is there. Developers have been raking it in for years. Now wonder they are organized to back up Ford all the way, with money and political clout. It is time we start to fight back like our homes depend on it.






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