Elise Stolte: Housing for all efforts ‘going backward very, very quickly' in face of mounting private pressure

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There’s an awkward problem in Canada’s affordable housing strategy.

Even as it builds more units, the number of homes available at a price the working poor can afford keeps shrinking.

In fact, say researchers, if trends in the market continue as expected, Canada is losing four units in the private market for every one publicly subsidized unit the federal government helps build. They fear the pandemic is only making that worse, that instability in the market has sped up consolidation, increasing the reach of the large investment trusts behind this trend.

Even in Alberta, where rents have been virtually flat since the market slump six years ago, these large investment trusts are hunting for deals, which means low-rent properties they can flip and re-rent to a new crowd of well-heeled renters.

On an investors’ call Friday, Boardwalk executives said Edmonton has seen several large properties change hands already in 2021. Boardwalk itself has sales pending on three properties and said its 1,170-unit West Edmonton Village property is the next local target for “repositioning.”


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That’s industry jargon for renovating and re-renting at a higher rate, which is expected but exactly the type of activity that is erasing Canada’s affordable housing stock. Boardwalk aims for an eight-per-cent return on renovation projects and said this one will be even better.

It might feel strange to be concerned about this now. After all, Edmonton is currently one of the most affordable big-city markets in Canada; sales of single-family homes are picking up, but nothing like the bizarre stories filtering out of Toronto and Vancouver, where a four-bedroom heritage home just sold for $4 million.

But this is a long-term, structural issue, likely to grow again as Edmonton pulls out of its slump. The impact on this low-rent bracket has only recently been quantified and more broadly recognized.

Steve Pomeroy, an Ottawa-based consultant, is one of the key analysts. He used data from the 2011-2016 census to show Canada lost 322,000 units priced at $750/month or less over that five year period, which is 15 times as many as the publicly subsidized units Ottawa added to the mix.

After that point, Ottawa increased its building commitment through the National Housing Strategy. But if the rates of loss continue, which appears likely, losses still outpace gains by a factor of four, Pomeroy said. New census data set to be released later this year will confirm the details.

“We’re going backward very, very quickly,” he said. “That’s the scary part. It undermines the ability of the governments to achieve their objective to reduce housing need and end homelessness.”


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Much of Canada’s current rental stock was built in the 1960s and ’70s before federal policy shifted to support home ownership. That means a large stock of rental is now roughly 50 years old. In Edmonton and in other cities, much of this is close to the city core, where city councils would like to see higher-density redevelopment.

Pomeroy says some units have been taken off the market completely as developers demolish low-rise developments to build towers, like what’s happening at Regency Development’s Holyrood Gardens. But more is lost through this almost hidden creep, the steady renovation and re-rent.

Income trusts started to focus on real estate in the ’90s, their success enhanced by the federal decision to stop building affordable housing and provincial rent deregulation. Without building many new units, they now own 10 per cent of Canada’s apartment buildings, including 24 per cent in Alberta, according to University of Waterloo assistant professor Martine August.

Map of REIT penetration
Market penetration by Real Estate Income Trusts and other financialized landlords varies by province and territory in Canada. This map comes from University of Waterloo professor Martine August’s paper published February 2020 in the Journal of Urban Affairs. jpg

Her February 2020 paper in the Journal of Urban Affairs documents that nine out of the top 10 largest landlords are now income trusts or other big financial players. She also demonstrated how this trend is nearly absent in provinces and territories with strong rent controls.

This is a big deal. Canada’s National Housing Strategy is a 10-year, $70-billion plan that aims to secure affordable homes for 530,000 families. That means a living situation in which they spend only 30 per cent of their wages on housing and can afford more than ketchup sandwiches for lunch.


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But if the federal plan doesn’t actually increase total affordable housing, what then?

There is no simple solution here, not when something as basic as a person’s home has been turned into a globally-traded financial asset. But with even the middle class squeezed by rents in Canada’s biggest cities, expect this to be an issue in the upcoming federal election.

Locally, I’ll be looking for at least an appreciation of the complexity from Edmonton council candidates. They have a say in planning decisions that encourage growth; will they explore ways to limit these unintended consequences?

But I’ll give the last word to Greg Dewling, head of Civida (formerly Capital Region Housing), which gets the call when families are pinched by rent they can’t make. Its waitlist is now at 10,400 families.

“The system is broken,” he says. “It took us a generation to get where we are today. It’s going to take a generation to fix this, but we have to get on that plan.”



Elise Stolte is a columnist with the Edmonton Journal.

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