Why Canada might just need a tenant revolution 

A Q&A with housing researcher Ricardo Tranjan 

Mathew Silver
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(Photograph courtesy of Ricardo Tranjan, Illustration by Maclean’s)

(Photograph courtesy of Ricardo Tranjan; illustration by Maclean’s)

Ricardo Tranjan wants Canadians to rethink what we call our national housing crisis. Tranjan, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says what we’re experiencing can’t even be called a crisis—our housing system hasn’t suddenly failed. Instead it’s working exactly as designed, enriching property owners at the expense of everyone else. The problem is that it’s gone into sudden overdrive.

That’s why he thinks the fixes espoused by government and industry—more supply, for the most part—aren’t going to get us where we need to be. Instead, he wants to inject politics back into the housing discussion, framing the problem as an issue of class, with tenants on one side and landowners on the other.

Tranjan describes his ideas in-depth in his new book, The Tenant Class. We asked him about how he believes the problem is misunderstood and how he thinks tenant activism can go mainstream, drawing lessons from Canada’s own past housing crises, and the labour movement.

In The Tenant Class, you argue that there’s not really a housing crisis in Canada. That would probably surprise a lot of people. If it’s not a crisis, what is it?

We have a housing market that allows certain segments of the population to benefit enormously from real estate transactions and accumulate wealth. Homeowners, for example, are seeing their house prices increase. Even if they’re tied down with a mortgage, they’re still benefiting. And landlords—who are operating in a mostly unregulated market, where rent controls are becoming weaker and weaker—are also benefiting.

Meanwhile, another segment of the population has a really hard time achieving housing security. To call it a housing crisis is politically naïve; when we talk about a crisis, we refer to something unexpected and unavoidable. But our housing market is set up to work this way. The crisis framing prevents us from having serious conversations about how to find a solution.

This framing also gives us a sense that most people are interested in solving the problem, willing to sit around a table and find a solution. But that’s not true. There are folks, particularly in the real estate industry, actively lobbying for things to stay the same. An unregulated housing market benefits them enormously. Profit margins are high, and investors are building wealth quickly. They like the way things are.

So why is the crisis framing so common?

Governments have invested very little in non-market housing for the past 30 years, and a smaller and smaller percentage of the population has been able to access housing, which has put pressure on the market. Provincial governments have also been weakening rent controls, notably in Ontario, enabling the predatory practices of landlords. At some point, this all started catching up with us. Mostly, it started catching up with the 30 per cent of the population who are renting or trying to rent. Those are the people experiencing a crisis.

Meanwhile, we talk about housing as if it’s only a matter of supply and demand. The logic goes that if we build more housing units, housing will become more affordable. The answer is always to build more housing, and the corporate developers become the solution. So, the government drops regulations and provide more subsidies to the developers. But we’ve built more housing and prices continue to rise.

An economist might argue that we’re still not building enough houses to keep pace with population growth.

I agree that building more houses is necessary, especially purpose-built apartment buildings and non-market housing. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. We also need to regulate what we’re building, and how much it costs to live there. Otherwise, we’ll be talking about this again in 10 years.

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How do we shift the conversation away from those simple fixes?

We need to politicize the housing debate in Canada; the tenant class needs to organize, accumulate power and force the government to make change. We’ve seen examples of this throughout Canadian history. In Vancouver, starting in the early 1960s, at the local level, tenant unions started fighting landlords about rent increases. They eventually connected with other groups in the city, before moving up to city councillors and the provincial government. They fought the war on two fronts: making specific demands to the landlords, and liaising with government.

What’s your take on the rent strikes we’ve seen in Toronto, with tenant groups withholding rent to protest rent increases? Could they point to the beginnings of this kind of movement?

Yes, you see it happening again, right now. The Ontario’s Federation of Labour’s “Enough is Enough” campaign brought a lot of people together. Their five demands included things like protecting public health care, and wage increases for workers. But they also included rent controls. The tenant movement is strong enough to make its voice heard. And if you look at the political platforms of a bunch of the mayoral candidates in the upcoming Toronto election, a lot of them are mentioning rent controls. We hadn’t seen that in the past few elections.

It’s understandable that politicians are hesitant to take actions that might lower voters’ property values.

I think governments have to be cautious about measures that impact the current value of homes owned by individuals as their primary residence. You don’t want to throw the entire middle class under the bus, because the situation is not their fault. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t move in the direction of doing something that might lower property values, but we should be cautious, targeting only those who are using housing as an investment. For example, in Toronto, 40 per cent of condos are investment properties. It’s fair to push back against that.

This points to a growing tension we all probably feel, between housing as shelter, as a basic right and as an economic asset. Can these things be reconciled?

There are working-class families who get married, buy a house, raise their families and grow old. Their house is an asset, at the individual level, to provide housing and financial security. That’s absolutely fine. Then there are investors, purely seeking profit, who purchase several properties, leveraging the bank, letting working-class families rent units and pay it down. In the latter case, the investor has wealth and a few properties by the time they retire, while the working-class family has nothing. We need to put in restrictions and increase taxation on folks using the real estate market as a way to create quick wealth, instead of as a place to live.

What can the government do?

One obvious solution is regulating rent, though in Ontario, we’re moving in the exact opposite direction. In 2018, the Ontario government passed a law stating that all new units occupied as of November 15 of that year were exempt from rent control. Even if we build more units, they go into the rental market with no controls whatsoever. So, if a family moves in, the landlord can increase rent by however much they want, regardless of inflation or minimum wage. How do we pretend to care about the tenant class if we removed rent controls on new units? That’s the most basic security you can provide a family.

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What kind of role should the government have in building housing itself?

The government at all levels needs to come in and participate more directly, through funding and sometimes even managing not-for-profit housing. The public seems to deprioritize profit in so many sectors. In health care, early education and public transit we removed profit because we wanted everyone to have access. Same with water, sewage, garbage and electricity. The essentials for life should not be left to the private sector. When it comes to housing security, we should also want everyone to have access.

With that model of housing, profit is not part of the equation. We used to do this; the government in Canada used to play a much larger role in non-market housing. But in the 1990s, the federal government put the onus of providing non-market housing on the provinces. Ontario delegated that down to the municipal level. It was at the peak of neoliberalism, when governments worldwide were withdrawing from the direct provision of public services.

All of that is going to cost money. So, is it just a matter of raising taxes? People might be inclined to push back against that.

We’re a rich country. Government, at all levels, has shown it’s capable of mobilizing massive amounts of resources when the political will is there. When we decide a project is of national importance, we’ll buy a pipeline, we’ll create CERB overnight, we’ll fund the development and deployment of a vaccine. Despite all of the rhetoric about the so-called housing crisis, the government has not really allocated resources toward it or implemented policy changes.

Obviously, a tenant social movement would require a lot of time, resources and organization. Where will that come from?

The labour movement provides a good example, both in terms of what can be achieved and how to achieve it. The protections unionized workers have today—in terms of wages, benefits and workplace safety—those didn’t come about because some enlightened politician woke up one day and decided to defend worker’s rights. Workers had to organize at a factory level and build city-wide organizations. Slowly but surely the labour movement grew. Nowadays, we could follow in the footsteps of the labour movement. Organizing at the factory-floor level, building broader political influence and fighting the fight on two levels: versus the landlords directly, and in government. We have civic and political rights in this country. We can organize. We can fight back.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.