Public housing is the solution!

By Dave McKee 

The housing crisis has deteriorated so much that virtually every politician, every political party, every think tank and every media outlet is compelled to discuss it and offer their solution. But with very few exceptions, they all come up with plans which treat the symptoms instead of the cause.

At best, such approaches will fail. At worst, they will exacerbate the problem and cause even more people to fall into ruin – massive debt, poverty or homelessness. The housing crisis cannot be tackled through symptoms – it must be confronted at its root cause, which is the strategy of successive governments to transfer housing provision to the private sector.

Privatization of housing has proven to be an absolute disaster.

Housing advocates estimate that just before the pandemic there were between 235,000 and 300,000 people in Canada who experienced homelessness at any given time. Without question, that number has increased since the pandemic and related economic crisis.

Government data indicates that one out of ten households in Canada lived in unaffordable, unsuitable or inadequate housing in 2021 – that is over 1.5 million households, representing nearly 3.8 million people. Of those, the overwhelming majority (77 percent) struggled primarily with affordability, spending more than 30 percent of before-tax household income on housing.

The situation is bad, and it is getting worse.

What is needed is a massive public housing program, rooted in the idea that housing is a human right and should be treated as a public utility. Such a program would build and provide housing on an as-needed basis and according to the principle of universality. Homes would be accessible, with rents geared to people’s incomes rather than some percentage of an ever-increasing market average.

Such a program cannot be seen as a temporary fix – it has to be a sustained public program like healthcare and education. Furthermore, it needs to be linked to sweeping legislative changes which reduce and regulate housing costs – rent rollbacks and rent control with teeth, so that nobody is compelled to spend more than 20 percent of household income on housing. The goal must be to take the profit out of housing – that is the only way to make it (and keep it) affordable.

Of course, in a capitalist society, most politicians are not very eager to divert billions of dollars from lucrative ventures like, say, military industries or oil pipelines, to sustained programs which meet people’s need. Nor are they keen to reduce profit (and there is an awful lot of profit in housing!)

In fact, there is so much profit in housing that governments have come to rely on it to displace proper pension programs. Why guarantee people a livable income in retirement when you can just dazzle them with calculations of how much equity they have in their home? Why provide affordable housing when you can just offer a smorgasbord of home ownership savings schemes that will tie them to a huge and highly profitable mortgage? It’s a vicious and callous cycle that is very effective for shifting wealth from working people to banks and housing monopolies.

Many politicians have no interest in solving the housing crisis – for them, it is a wonderful situation that keeps the rich rich and the rest of us precarious and dependent. Many other politicians would like to solve the problem, but they can’t see past the logic of capitalism and divorce themselves from fidelity to private ownership and profit.

The policies which these politicians usually present to us are typically designed to tinker with the worst excesses of the crisis – either assisting a tiny fraction of the people living in the most dreadful conditions, or helping a larger number of middle income people whose suddenly declining standard of living is making them reconsider their voting patterns. Either way, the privatization of housing continues, as does the housing crisis.

Some examples of this are the recent enthusiasm for “inclusionary zoning” policies, which give private developers billions in freebies (land, tax deductions, waived development fees) in exchange for building a small number of housing units that are priced a bit below the market (which is a constantly upward-moving target) for a limited amount of time. When these policies were introduced in Ontario by the Kathleen Wynne government, many housing advocates cheered publicly. Such is the depth of the crisis and the lack of political leadership.

A massive public housing program has the potential to unite tenants and homeowners (assuming that the housing provided could include some units for sale), as well as public and private sector workers and unions (since building, maintaining, upgrading and administrating housing across the entire country will create a lot of jobs in different sectors). Furthermore, it quickly dovetails with other public infrastructure and programs like transit and transportation, hospitals and healthcare, public schools and post-secondary education.

With the state assuming a lead role in building and providing housing – on a rent-geared-to-income basis – average prices will begin to come down, providing relief and stability to renters and homeowners whose housing costs are already far too high. A democratically operated public program can help ensure that housing is fully accessible and environmentally sensitive, both when it is built and through upgrades. What begins as an effort to resolve an immediate crisis quickly cascades into an endeavour that has enormous social and economic benefits.

Yet, at the end of the day, housing policy remains a class issue. Confronting the crisis means confronting and struggling against the vested interests which want to maintain the power and wealth they derive from the private provision of shelter and the crisis it creates.

That means that the working class – through the labour movement with its allies – needs to unite in an escalating campaign for a public housing program in Canada. Only with the masses of the people fighting can we win such a program and ensure that it truly benefits the majority.  

[Photo by Cathy Crowe via]

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