Landlords, tenants, and the housing crisis that isn’t are explored in a provocative new book The Tenant Class

When is a crisis not a crisis at all but a permanent state of affairs? Ricardo Tranjan argues the housing crisis isn’t really a crisis at all, but the system working exactly as intended.

In The Tenant Class – which is part analysis, part history, and part manifesto – the Ottawa-based author, political economist, and senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives challenges the reader to pick a side.

“Yes, the call to pick a side might be a little bit provocative,” he admitted. “You know, we have to understand that the status quo is benefiting, enormously, certain segments of the population. It’s driving profit margins really high for other segments. And they are not only not interested in finding a solution for any of this, [but] they sometimes are actively lobbying and using their political power to ensure that things do not change.”

Related article: Land of Destiny:  A History of Vancouver Real Estate 

One of the accepted notions Tranjan challenges right away is the relationship between supply and demand and the housing market. When it comes to increasing supply to meet demand, he says that responsibility can’t be left to the market alone.

“Truly affordable housing for the lowest income segment of the population is very unlikely to be met through private development because once you put the profit [motive] in there, it just can’t be affordable,” he said. “So, these are the types of discussions we need to have. Pretending that supply will solve all our problems doesn’t help.”

He also identifies four persistent myths about renters that are harmful to their cause: that renting is a phase, that tenants don’t pay property taxes, that a large share of tenants don’t work, and that everyone would do anything to own a home.

“It is a part of our culture in Canada and in other Anglo-Saxon countries. We have equated homeownership with success, with security, with making it,” he explained.

“I think this fixation on homeownership and the stigma attached to renting prevents us from having a better conversation about the different options to achieve housing security. And in some countries that is more commonly achieved through renting – if renting is regulated, if it’s [rentals] of good quality. [Then] there’s no stigma attached to it.”

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He also challenges what he calls the romanticized view society has toward landlords.

“There is a view in Canada that landlords are either a family or a very small business, and they are also struggling to pay their own mortgage and that they’re somehow really financial-insecure as well,” he said.

“Some of my earlier studies show that the levels of savings of [tenant families] is, in general, very low. So, they couldn’t go without wages for more than two or three months because they just don’t have enough saved up. But we equate them with the landlord as if they were in the same place.  [Yet], we don’t do that with the labour market anymore. We need to start applying that same understanding to the housing market.”

Tranjan devotes a fair amount of space in the book to the history of tenant organizing in Canada, as a call to arms for renters to bargain with one voice, much like trade unions do. He says many of the gains tenants have made over the years have come from such organizing.

Related article: Vancouver Tenants Union launches to give tenants a unified voice 

“Vancouver, of all places in Canada, has an amazing story of tenant organizing. And the regulations that exist now, that provide some sort of protection for tenants, are the results of the fights that happened back in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said.

“When it comes to housing, there is no win-win situation. One side is going to have to give and it’s the side that is profiting and is enriching at the cost of low- and moderate-income tenants. That side is the one that is going to have to give if things are going to change and I don’t think they’re going to do it voluntarily. So, it’s going to have to take a fight, as it has in the past, as it always has.”

The Tenant Class is available from Between The Lines Books.

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