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Signs for apartments available for rent in a building at 55 Isabella St. in Toronto, are photographed on Jan 28 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Renters have largely been left out of federal election campaign promises to make housing more affordable, even though a growing portion of Canada’s population rents and struggles to make their payments.

The three leading federal parties have each proposed to build more homes and make it easier for Canadians to buy property by reducing monthly mortgage payments. But they have just a handful of policies that would help the millions of renters.

“Most of the major party platforms focus primarily on making home ownership more accessible. None of the party platforms go far enough to address the housing crisis as it pertains to renters,” said Douglas Kwan, director of legal services for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

The lack of affordable housing has become a major issue ahead of Monday’s federal election.

The Liberal Party has vowed to stop so-called renovictions, in which landlords evict tenants on the pretense of moving themselves or a family member into a unit, but instead turn the property into a short-term rental, or renovate and increase the rent for the next tenant. As well, the party said it would review taxation of corporate landlords such as real estate investment trusts and stop them from making excessive profits from rent.

The Conservatives promise they would defer capital gains taxes on the sale of a rental property if that landlord buys another property to rent. The NDP has proposed to build 500,000 affordable homes over 10 years, as well as provide up to $5,000 a year for renters in need.

“A rental solution must be a big part of any housing affordability program and unfortunately it’s not in the discussion,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC Capital Markets. “We haven’t seen much directed towards more supply in the rental space.”

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More than 30 per cent of Canadian households rent, according to the 2016 census. That percentage is expected to climb as home prices soar and push more prospective buyers out of the market.

The typical home price across the country reached $736,600 in August, up 21 per cent year over year, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association’s home price index, which adjusts for pricing volatility.

Rents are also rising. The national average monthly rent for a two-bedroom was $1,165 last fall, up from $1,113 in 2019, according to a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. survey. And that was with many renters vacating downtown Toronto and Vancouver, the two priciest cities for housing.

Today, demand for rental housing is growing, with students and workers returning to city cores. The industry research group Urbanation says the average monthly rent in Toronto was $2,359 in the second quarter of this year.

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s city program, said he is surprised at the lack of policies for renters.

Mr. Yan analyzed the 2019 federal election results and the homeownership rate per riding. The average homeownership rate in Conservative ridings was 76 per cent; for the Liberals, it was 65 per cent; 59 per cent in NDP ridings; the Green Party at 71 per cent and 69 per cent for the Bloc Quebecois.

Although rental laws are in provincial jurisdiction, Mr. Yan said there is role for the federal government. For example, he said Ottawa could make it easier for renters to save for a home, such as increasing the limits on money they can accumulate in their RRSPs and tax-free savings accounts.

Although thousands of housing units are being built in Toronto, southern Ontario and other major markets, the majority are not specifically for rental, also known as purpose-built rental. Last year, just 31 per cent of the 202,655 housing starts across Canada were rental, according to data from CMHC for regions with at least 10,000 residents.

In Ontario, 14 per cent of the 78,916 new builds were rental. In Toronto, the country’s largest job market, 15 per cent of the 38,587 housing starts were rental, CMHC said.

The three largest federal parties, the real estate industry and many economists say a greater supply of homes is needed to help meet demand. All three parties have promised to build more, but not much funding is dedicated to housing with below-market rents.

“Unless housing is specifically built to be affordable, there is no reason to believe rental rates will significantly decrease given the magnitude of the under-supply,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former chief planner, who now runs her own rental development company.

The Liberals propose to build or repair 1.4 million homes over four years and set up a $4-billion fund to incent cities to accelerate their housing plans. The Conservatives propose to build one million homes over three years.

It is unknown if the party leaders have experience as renters. The Globe and Mail asked the three parties if their leaders, the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, Conservative Erin O’Toole and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, owned a home, owned more than one property and the last time they were renters.

The Conservatives said Mr. O’Toole owned his house but did not respond to the other questions. The other two parties did not reply to the questions.

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