We shouldn’t conflate the right to housing with the right to ownership, which would make affordability a permanent issue. (Jordan Vonderhaar / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin, July 16, 2022
Free-market champions conflate homeownership and the human right to adequate shelter. To actually solve the housing crisis, we must challenge this mistaken idea.
The front-runner for Canada’s Conservative Party leadership, Pierre Poilievre, has made a hobbyhorse out of sounding off about the country’s soaring housing crisis. For a decade, rents and home prices across the country have shot into the stratosphere, siphoning off ever more money from the working class into the pockets of banks and landlords.
Channeling anger at the market’s obscenities, Poilievre blames the Bank of Canada for inflating asset values and “big city gatekeepers” for blocking the building of new housing. Homeownership, he rails in a recent campaign video, “used to be a right. And it should be again.”
Poilievre may not have any serious policy proposals for actually fixing the crisis, but his jeremiads represent an important example of how housing is often discussed. Of all Poilievre’s messaging, the idea that homeownership should be a right — an inalienable entitlement extended to everyone, at least theoretically — resonates deeply with voters. After all, over the course of the twentieth century, homeownership has become central to the North American ideal of a decent, middle-class living.
In fact, the contemporary crisis is often understood, in news media and beyond, primarily as a crisis of ownership. The line of thinking goes like this: huge swaths of the middle class — those would-be homeowners in another, fairer generation — can’t reach the rungs on the property ladder because of NIMBYs and foreign investors. Poilievre simply personifies a broad frustration that spans the spectrum of political thought.
Deploying the language of rights therefore seems to be an appropriate response to these housing-market failures. It sounds good. It sounds fair. It harkens back to the left-wing idea that housing is a human right — an intoxicatingly attractive idea gathering momentum across the world.
But we shouldn’t conflate the right to housing with the right to ownership. While the former could serve as a basis for helping Canada escape its housing woes and secure an affordable life for everyone, the latter won’t. On the contrary, thinking of housing primarily in terms of ownership makes the crisis only more impossible to solve.
We need to think outside the market — not expand it.
The Ownership Trap
Homeownership has long been a much-vaunted ideal in both Canada and the United States, particularly since its rapid postwar expansion. While renting has historically been more prominent in Canada — owing in part to better social welfare and fewer economic inducements for ownership — both countries, especially in the last thirty years, have demonstrated a broad-based bias toward owning.
For the average Canadian or American, home ownership is a sensible and obvious move — not solely in an aesthetic or philosophical sense but an economic one. Sure, owning a house brings with it a sense of autonomy and pride. But its most valuable aspect is that it is an asset. When people buy houses, they are buying equity.
Few investments for working people are, or could be, as practical as the home: rising property values help fund a whole suite for goods, like retirement, postsecondary education for kids, renovations, and consumer spending. As collateral via debt, or through its outright sale, the home can generate a windfall of wealth to fund the components of a decent life. And in retirement, owning one’s home helps people hang on to more of their wealth — instead of it going to landlords or banks. And crucially, it’s possible to turn what would be rent payments into mortgage payments, thereby enabling investment for working people who otherwise would be unable to make monthly investment contributions.
For much of the twentieth century — and even up until the 2008 financial crisis — a large mass of Canadians and Americans could benefit from the housing market’s continual expansion. Of course, there were occasional setbacks and crashes. And the benefits were not a universal phenomenon: much of the working poor, especially those reliant on income supports, were left out and relegated to often underfunded public housing projects or slumlord-provided rental living. The growth of a decent public housing alternative was hobbled by the real estate lobby, austerity-inclined politicians, and property value–obsessed homeowners themselves.
Even so, from after World War II until the crash, a large proportion of the population ascended into the ownership class. High wages and decent jobs throughout capitalism’s postwar “golden age” helped facilitate the trend, while cultural biases toward ownership — a kind of “middle-class birthright,” as Rick Perlstein once noted — emboldened it.
And while these biases might persist, the context has shifted. Since the 1990s, housing has become much more of an investment commodity, a sector which generates billions of dollars in profit for real estate investment trusts (REITs), corporate landlords, small-scale real estate investors, and massive investment-fund portfolios. It’s become a tradable good, bought and sold globally and gambled on in financial markets.
With lax regulations, low interest rates, and meager public housing, the real estate sector has ballooned in size for two decades. House prices have soared, and rents along with them. One perverse outcome is that, because of our weak social safety nets in Canada and the United States, homeowners find themselves allied with the investors inflating the sector, hoping home values steadily grow in order to secure retirement or fund postsecondary education for their children. For many, it creates a stunning but little-discussed contradiction: they want housing to be affordable for their neighbors, but they want housing values to increase, too.
Due to state retrenchment, we ask housing to do a lot for us — far beyond the primary goal of housing people. A popular response to the problems caused by the housing market is the notion that investors can simply be kicked out of the market in order to make housing more affordable, thereby extending ownership to more people. This idea seems very attractive, even intuitive. It is the reason why calls for taxes on the foreign investor bogeyman are so common. But even at its most inclusive, a country’s housing market confers its ersatz social safety net only on parts of the population. And unlike universal benefits that would be of advantage to everyone, that social safety net could also easily disappear in a market crash — a likely eventuality after decades of investors treating housing like a casino.
Fixing the Crisis
Areal exit from the housing crisis — one that would enable the construction of a fairer and more prosperous world for everyone — requires disentangling housing from these other concerns and returning it to its original function: to house people. But doubling down on ownership won’t serve that goal. Policies that aim to induce more ownership in Canada — a country where two-thirds of the population already own homes — will only inflate the market further, creating more dependency on its continued growth.
Investors, too, will continue taking advantage of the seemingly never-ending demand for homes. Higher interest rates, better regulation, and an increase in housing stock supply will not stop housing-market investment and speculation. The fight to bring down housing costs requires much more aggressive and interventionist measures than economic inducements for workers or simply building more homes.
Throwing cold water on the idea of mass ownership might sound tantamount to recommending that workers should have lower expectations. But it is only through breaking out of the ownership straitjacket that a fairer, more affordable world might be secured.
Fixing the housing crisis requires working outside the market. A wholesale overhaul of our social safety net would be a great start: a massive expansion of public retirement benefits, free postsecondary education, and beautiful, far-under-market public housing projects. Look no further than some Scandinavian countries where long-term renting — especially in high-quality public housing — is a viable and decent option for families, especially those for whom buying might never be an option.
Well-funded nonmarket housing in particular can be an effective escape valve from the two choices that face most people: buying in a red-hot market — something that is impossible for many workers — or renting from unscrupulous and greedy landlords. Solid public housing paired with generous universal benefits would much more effectively deliver affordability to the working class, as well as peace of mind in retirement. For half a century, ownership has been a key ticket to prosperity — a scenario that’s created a slew of new problems.
A significant shift in the balance of power is necessary for these suggestions to be realized. It requires a total break from the logic of neoliberalism that has shaped housing policies in Canada and the United States for a century. But organized socialists, tenants, and activists can push that project forward.
Housing as a Human Right
Making the claim that housing is a human right — housing that is high-quality, secure, affordable, and safe — can help build support for a significant build-out of public housing. But when discussing housing as a right, we have to be specific: housing, not ownership.
For socialists, a central task in the fight to solve the housing crisis will be rejecting the idea that broad-based home ownership is a form of housing justice. We must broadcast the failure of imagination in play when housing rights and mass-market ownership are conflated as the same desirable thing.
Obscuring the difference between housing provision (as a social good) and ownership (as part of a zero-sum game) allows right-wing politicians like Poilievre — a landlord himself, who no doubt wants to see home values increase ever upward — to deploy the language of housing rights. Most nefariously, treating rights and ownership as the same thing ensures that the housing crisis will be an interminable problem, thereby preventing us from directing our energies into effective and real solutions.
Dan Darrah is a writer of nonfiction and poetry from Toronto. He has written about work, culture, money, and debt for Jacobin, Canadian Dimension, Briarpatch Magazine, and more.