Rob Csernyik is a freelance journalist.
Along with the certainty of death and taxes, a growing number of Canadians are pencilling in a third fate: renting. In the post-Great Recession years that have framed my adulthood, home ownership has shifted from an inevitable milestone my peers and I took for granted to an opportunity stretching further from our grasp.
Yet Canadians remain deeply attached to home ownership, with only a third of us renting. Even with an average Canadian home price of $626,318 last December, people will take extreme measures to call themselves owners. Leaving one’s community, family and friends behind to be a property owner rather than a leaseholder (even if the cost savings aren’t significant) is increasingly considered “normal” thinking. Renting in the community you would prefer to live in is viewed as financially imprudent, stripping quality of life (enjoying where you live) out of the equation completely.
By not only normalizing but embracing renting we can redefine what it means to live in Canada. This alone won’t solve housing gaps and spur necessary construction, but shifting public sentiment can offer an impetus for that necessary journey. More importantly, we can unlock economic gains that are currently sidelined.
The effects of well-stocked, reasonably priced rental housing reach a lot further than they often get credit for. The U.S. non-profit National Low Income Housing Coalition identifies affordable rentals as opportunities to increase economic mobility while reducing intergenerational poverty. Meanwhile, a 2020 CMHC-funded study found that, although there was a relationship between intergenerational income mobility and home ownership access, a lack of causality meant promoting the latter wouldn’t necessarily foster greater equality.
On a larger scale, changing our perspective on renting can have economic effects far beyond individuals and families. Researchers Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti estimate that between 1964 and 2009, U.S. GDP could have been 13.5-per-cent higher if not for “increased constraints to housing supply in high productivity cities.”
Normalizing renting also offers opportunities for companies to expand and hire easily. Millennials are the largest generation of Canadian workers, and renting is a good fit for young professionals who accept moving to new cities as part of their career trajectory. As a renter who has moved to take advantage of different career opportunities, I’ve been able to do so affordably and nimbly when the need has arisen.
Companies prize this too. When Toronto bid for the 50,000-employee Amazon HQ2 – the second headquarters of the e-commerce giant – housing availability was seen as one of its biggest deficiencies by critics and boosters alike. Then-mayor John Tory told the media as much, recalling that in a meeting with Silicon Valley businesspeople, the first questions he was asked were about housing supply. Even comparatively modest company expansions take housing stock into account, and the communities that reap the economic benefits are going to be the ones better prepared to house an influx of workers. This point doesn’t get reached when renters are an afterthought.
Compared with homeowners (especially the outsized “not-in-my-backyard” contingent), developers, Airbnb hosts and, yes, landlords, renters lack a strong say in the conversation about housing. The five million rental households across the country are viewed as lacking the financial clout or political power needed to influence housing policy. But it’s not impossible for societies to normalize renting. In Germany and Switzerland, for instance, renters constitute the majority, not homeowners.
In Canada, look no further than Quebec, which has the lowest home ownership rate in the country, hovering around 60 per cent. Having lived and rented in Montreal, I can say this is partly cultural. There’s less stigma around renting versus buying, and nobody raises an eyebrow when residents eschew other material markers such as owning a car instead of taking public transit. But the 2022 CMHC Rental Market Report says there are more tangible reasons, such as a larger rental stock of older and smaller structures, both conditions that help make renting more affordable there.
Since having a fulsome conversation on the benefits of renting is still challenging, let alone getting the housing supply up to speed, we need another tack to move forward. A renewed focus on the economic benefits, from the household level on up, may be the best way to redirect the conversation and normalize renting instead of treating it as a second choice.