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What would a Canadian rental-housing disaster look like?

Would it look like 42 per cent of young adults between 20 and 29 living with their parents, up 10 per cent from the early 1990s?

Would it look like 156,358 people waiting for affordable housing in Ontario? Or Vancouver seniors on $1,200 monthly pensions trying to afford that city's average one-bedroom rent of $982?

While the effect of home ownership on the economy is watched with X-ray vision, the rental market is pretty much ignored. This despite the fact that a full third of Canadians are renters, many of them students and newcomers whose journey to stability is made difficult by crowded living situations and constant moving.

Those who follow the rental market daily don't hesitate to call the situation disastrous. Vacancy rates are dismal across the country. Only 10 per cent of the shiny new buildings that have gone up during the past decade's housing boom were built expressly to house renters. Many older rental buildings have been demolished in favour of condominiums, while those that still stand have often been left to crumble.

Arguing that housing is a human right doesn't get much traction with the federal government. Neither, it seems, do economic facts, like the usefulness of a mobile labour force not tied down by mortgages and heavy household debt. Also pointless is linking traffic congestion to the inability of workers to find housing they can afford close to their jobs. "The incremental nature of the problem is what stops us from seeing it as a crisis," says Steve Pomeroy, a senior research fellow at the University of Ottawa Centre on Governance.

Domestic life is largely invisible. I know that families are squished into tiny, cockroach-infested old buildings, but I don't have to deal with the broken elevators. My friends' Facebook posts seeking an okay space in an okay neighbourhood for an okay price are sometimes desperate, but they're my latte-drinking peers, not a vulnerable population suffering through a disaster.

Renters are a big but disparate group: their main commonalities are having a landlord, and not having much political clout. It's hard to weave their bitsy-piecey stories into a big picture with larger political implications, and harder to see those bits and pieces as a disaster.

That's not to say nothing is being done at all. In April, Manitoba's new budget introduced an eight per cent tax credit on construction costs, with a goal of producing 1,000 affordable and social housing units. To qualify, builders must ensure that at least 10 per cent of units in a new development are 'affordable' – the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation considers this no more than 30 per cent of gross income, and the Manitoba government is setting an upper limit of $748 for a Winnipeg one-bedroom, including utilities.

In 2011, Regina instituted a bold five-year, 100 per cent tax exemption for new rental developments. Since 2007, any builder wanting to demolish rental housing in Toronto must include the same number of rental units in a new project, contributing to a slower rate of rental erosion than in Calgary.

These initiatives are well-meaning and they may have success, but without broad, federal action, they're merely stop-gaps. This is a country-wide problem that goes back decades: purpose-built rental housing delivers a measly return to investors, and tiny tax breaks don't shield landlords from ever-shifting rules and laws. This impasse isn't for lack of ideas, since everyone from builders to academics to actual renters have ideas about tax incentives, the best use of capital cost allowances and inclusionary zoning. There just isn't any interest at the national level at finding a solution.

Maybe the enduring inaction is because it's hard to pinpoint exactly when warning signs become an actual crisis – like a blackout in Lower Manhattan from a long-predicted hurricane, or 1,000 workers dead under a building that was noticeably cracked.

It seems that we won't act on Canada's rental disaster until it's really ugly, and in our faces. Thirtysomethings who hate their roommates or seniors eating canned food in basement apartments just don't make a dramatic enough story.

Denise Balkissoon is a Toronto writer and co-editor of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Greater Toronto Area.