HANSARD: Debating housing crisis and raising concerns on the operations of the largest real estate investment trusts

Debates of June 13th, 2023
House of Commons Hansard #212 of the 44th Parliament, 1st Session.
Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, there is no question that there is a housing crisis from coast to coast to coast. In my own riding, Vancouver East, we had one of the largest homeless encampments, and when the encampment came about, there was neither a plan nor housing available to put people in. Consequently we were just moving people from one homeless space to another homeless space, which does not solve the problem.

Part of the issue of the inaffordability of housing is the fact that people are treating housing as a commodity. They use it as an investment tool instead of recognizing that it is a basic human right. Would the member support the call for what the housing advocate is recommending to the government, which is to treat housing as a basic human right and not a commodity?

Scott Aitchison Parry Sound—Muskoka, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for the question. Her record on the housing file is well known. However, where I fundamentally disagree with her is on the fact that, when the federal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau got out of incentivizing the construction of purpose-built rentals, which I spoke about earlier, the private sector picked up the slack. Mom and Pop bought a second place, maybe because they had a little money to invest, so they did.

If that is the financialization of housing, then yes, I guess it is, but without them doing that, there would be no rentals at all. Therefore, we need a federal government that is focused on what needs to be focused on so that we can get more rentals built, period.
Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thought the member's comment about the importance of treating housing as a basic human right was absolutely dead on. However, the government has allowed for the corporate sector especially to come in and treat housing as a commodity, renovicting people, kicking people out, jacking up rent to make a larger profit and displacing people. Should the federal government stop this practice, stop treating housing as a commodity and treat it as a basic human right?

Denis Trudel Longueuil—Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, that is a very good question. I did not have time to address it in my speech.

Financialization of housing is a problem that is getting worse; we can see it. Just to put this into perspective, the federal government withdrew from housing in 1993. At that time, 30 years ago, 0% of the Canadian rental market was owned by private interests, either national or international. That phenomenon did not exist when the federal government was involved in housing prior to 1993. Now it is 23%. That means that 23% of Canada's rental housing stock is currently owned by national, private or international interests. When it comes to the right to housing, these people could not care less. All they want is to make money.

This problem needs to be addressed.

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to enter this debate about housing, although, like my Bloc colleagues, I got notice that this would be up about 10 minutes before I walked into the House.

I am always happy to talk about housing. What are we talking about here today? We are talking about the accelerator fund as it relates to the national housing strategy.

The Conservatives will have people believe that the way to fix the problem is to say to local governments that we need to stop Nimbyism, as though that is the panacea to fixing the housing crisis. I agree we need to make sure communities do not engage in the not-in-my-backyard approach. I absolutely support that. I was a community legal advocate before I got to this place. For all those years, we were fighting for treating housing as a basic human right for people and calling on local governments to ensure that social housing, co-op housing, was built. When we build this kind of housing in a community, it does not make communities worse. In fact, it makes our communities better, as we are supporting each other and ensuring that people have a place to call home and a place they can afford.

On the local government side, the Nimbyism issue that needs to be tackled is not the only issue. It is very interesting to me that the Conservatives are completely silent on an equally significant issue for local governments, that is, the issue of gentrification. What is gentrification? It is basically developers coming in who want to push out existing residents to get them out of a community. They buy up the stock and develop it into luxury condos, and as a result, people do not have safe, affordable homes to live in anymore. That has added to the housing crisis, no question.

I was on the ground in the community watching that take place. In fact, that was one of the reasons that propelled me into electoral politics, along with the federal government in 1993 cancelling the national affordable housing program. What was the effect of that? Canada, after all those years, lost more than half a million units, which is an underestimation, of social housing or co-op housing that could otherwise have been built had the the national affordable housing program not been cancelled by the federal Liberals.

I should add this by way of context. Before the the national housing program was cancelled in 1993 by the federal Liberals, the Conservatives were in government. What did they do? They gutted funding for the national affordable housing program significantly. The dip in the development of housing went down so deep that it was devastating to see on the ground. I was working as a legal advocate helping people find housing and have their basic rights honoured, and then in one fell swoop, the situation got so bad that people in our community were rendered homeless literally overnight. We were seeing that on the ground. Then we saw gentrification coming in and pushing people out so they could not stay in the housing they needed.

What is happening today with that gentrification process? As it happens, we are now seeing corporations coming in, and not just on the development side. They are also sweeping up existing affordable housing stock. If we look at some of the websites for real estate investment trusts, for example, we see they explicitly say what their purpose is. Their purpose is to purchase up what they call “undervalued assets” or “undervalued properties”. That is the lower-cost housing in the private sector. They buy up this housing stock, and then what do they do? They renovict people. They push people out and they jack up the rent. We saw rents go up from what was affordable, like $750, for example, to $2,500. That is the trend we are seeing. We are seeing rental increases expand and increase exponentially.

In the face of all of that, when the federal government walked away from housing, we started to see the private sector swoop in and purchase this affordable housing stock. We saw those numbers increase steadily. The federal government aided and abetted that process by giving the sector preferential tax treatment. These real estate investment trusts do not pay the corporate tax rate even though they operate as though they are corporations. When they do not pay the tax rate, it only encourages them to get into that market to displace people. Not only that, CMHC, the government's own agency, also helped them finance their projects with mortgage insurance, low-interest loans, and so on. It helped finance the corporate players in displacing tenants and jacking up their rents. That is what is happening. We saw this escalation in the crisis we are living in today in our communities, where people cannot access safe, secure and affordable housing.

If we listen to the Liberals and Conservatives, they will barely talk about the fact that housing is being treated as a commodity. They will not even acknowledge the fact that this special tax treatment needs to stop. Why are real estate investment trusts getting this special tax treatment?

Just for context, over the years the seven largest real estate investment trusts, as a result of this special tax treatment, did not pay taxes into the general revenues of the federal government to the tune of $1.5 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Officer just did another report to indicate that over the next four years taxpayers in Canada will lose another $300 million. That is a gift to the corporate sector to renovict people, displace people, jack up the rents and escalate the housing crisis. Why on earth would we do that? The Liberals and the Conservatives allowed that to happen and are all silent about it. They say that they cannot talk about it because the private sector has a role to play. Yes, it does. I will tell members what role it has to play: to stop displacing people, renovicting people, jacking up the rents and escalating the housing crisis that we are faced with today. If it does not come to the table willingly, the government has to take action. That is what the NDP has been calling for.

I came from a municipal government, a provincial government, and I am now here at the federal level. When I was at the provincial level, the federal government had walked away. B.C. and Quebec were the only two provinces that continued to do housing on their own without the federal government. I will tell members what British Columbia did. We took our resources and leveraged money from the non-profit sector, some of which had land, and the faith communities, some of which had resources. We leveraged that. We went to the local governments and said that we the province would work in partnership with them to build social and co-op housing for the community if they gave us city land for free. We also said to the developers that if they wanted a rezoning done we wanted them to also provide a community return. In fact, city council could consider upzoning a project on the proviso that they also built social housing. We the province partnered with the private sector in doing some of that and instead of building one building, it built two. It paid for the construction, and then the province came in and provided the subsidies to operate those projects. Instead of the 700 units that we would have built with the federal government's funding, we moved that number to 1,200. Then we moved it to 1,900. Under the NDP, we leveraged and worked in partnership with the private and non-profit sectors and the local government when the federal government walked away.

It is so important for the federal government to play a real leadership role. Yes, they did announce a national housing strategy is 2017, but that strategy has not worked in developing the necessary housing.

It is not just me who is saying it. There is actually a full report from the Auditor General indicating that the federal government does not even know what kind of housing it builds. It has no idea what the level of affordability is for the units that were built.

CMHC, at the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, came to the committee to answer some questions. It actually said that it does not track it. What exactly is it doing if it does not track the affordability of the housing units that it funds? It says, oh, it is not its job. It is infrastructure's job. It is someone else's job.

I thought I heard the government say that it takes a whole-of-government approach to address the housing crisis. Why are they all asleep at the switch? Nobody is taking responsibility and all of them are saying, no, not me.

In the meantime, what is happening? The sad reality is this: people are losing homes. People do not have access to housing. People are displaced. People are living in tents. Come to my community in Vancouver East, in the Downtown Eastside. The crisis is right there before our eyes.

Do not tell me that they are getting to us, that it is going to take 10 years. The government's own homelessness targets are to reduce homelessness by 50% in 10 years. Yippee, that is going to work for the people who are sleeping on the streets right now.

Not only that, it is not even going to meet that poor target. That has been established, not by the NDP but by the independent officer of the House. That is what is going on, as to the magnitude of the crisis.

In the meantime, we have the private sector coming in, buying up low-cost rental apartments, sweeping them up and then pushing people out.

Just to put this into context, for members to think about this number, for every one unit of social housing or co-op housing that is built, we lose 15.

How can we make up for that loss? The only way one can do it is to stop the commodification of housing, the profiteering of housing. Put a moratorium in place for the financialization of housing. Create an acquisition fund for the non-profit sector in land trusts, so they could be the ones to go into the market to buy the private housing that is coming onto the market and to retain it, so that we can hold onto the stock for the community. Put people before profits. That is what we need to do.

I would also add that there are other measures we need to put in place. There is zero justification whatsoever for CMHC and the government to help finance these corporate players who are coming in to displace people. If we are going to partner with them, and we can, as I am not saying we should not, there has to be a return tied to it.

There has to be a no-displacement policy in place. There has to be affordability tied into it so that when they get something from the taxpayers, whether it be insuring their mortgage or any of the benefits that they get, they need to give a return back to the community. We also need to ensure that there is a level of affordability, so that the rent they charge the tenants needs to be below market.

We have to make sure that this is held in perpetuity, so that it is not just a one-time thing. We need to put these measures and policies in place for a return.

One does not get access to taxpayer funds and support doing harm to the community. There has to be a return to help the community, to support the community. In the case of housing, there have to be these measures of no displacement, of affordability in perpetuity, as an example.

There is another thing that would help a lot. Do members know how many tenants I talk to who do not even know who their landlord is? These corporate players hide behind numbered companies because the truth is they cannot show their faces. They do not want people to know that they are the ones who are actually jacking up the rent and displacing people.

We need to ensure that there is disclosure of all landlords. There should be information in public records so people know who their landlords are. People have the right to know who they are renting from. That is another measure that the federal government can take.

We need to stop the preferential tax treatments, stop giving them a benefit, make them pay their fair share and invest that money in the development of true social and co-op housing. That is what the NDP would like to see.

Ken Hardie Fleetwood—Port Kells, BC

Mr. Speaker, my first speech in this House involved a compliment to the hon. member for the great work that she has done in the Downtown Eastside in representing a constituency that has a lot of challenges. I do not disagree with anything that she said, but I wanted to introduce two aspects and get a reaction to them.

One is the zoning and the difficulties that people have getting cities to actually approve developments. Second is the reticence of municipal governments to increase property taxes on existing residents, which leads to the pilling on of development cost charges on new buildings that only serve to jack up the price for people who are buying those units.

Can she comment on both of those?

The Deputy Speaker Chris d’Entremont

Before we go to the answer, can the hon. member make sure her cellphone is not near the microphones? The interpreters were saying there was a noise.

The hon. member for Vancouver East.

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, my phone is not near the microphone.

On the issue around local governments making decisions with rezoning and the question around nimbyism, that is a real problem. I think local politicians just need to take a deep breath and say to those communities, as I did when I was a municipal councillor, we need this housing done.

Any time we had social housing development come forward, I voted for it and I spoke for it vociferously because it is the right thing to do. It is important for an election, for people to support politicians who will get the job done. The government can use incentives and disincentives to motivate that process as well.

On the question of development cost charges, the development cost charges are fees that are necessary. Let us be clear that the developer will work out its pro forma and determine what it can and cannot do. Local governments can look at that issue as it ties to the zoning. Literally by the flick of a pen and by signing that signature, the government is giving money to the developers. What is the return? The return is also in community amenities, whether in green spaces, social housing or other community amenities that are necessary.

Let us just remember this: Developers should not get a free pass. They should pay their fair share. Let us make sure local governments know the strength and power that they have in yielding that return to the community.

Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné Terrebonne, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for her speech.

Fundamentally, we agree. The housing crisis has reached catastrophic levels. We need to build 1.1 million housing units over the next 10 years. That is how many units it was determined we need. However, in the last five years, the federal government managed to build only 200,000. We agree that this is a disaster.

I agree with my colleague, and I want to commend her. Her speech dovetailed with those of my colleagues. She spoke about how renoviction is bad and how certain landlords prioritize profit over tenants' well-being. She is totally right.

Why then is she supporting a government in exchange for its support on another matter, dental care? Is dental care really worth abandoning the housing crisis for?

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am so glad the member asked the question. Dental care is absolutely essential, because it is part of our health care system. However, the NDP did not just ask for dental care; we absolutely asked for housing investments as well. The NDP is not in government, although I know people think we are. However, we are leveraging our power to push and to force the government to take action.

With respect to the housing file, while we asked for the government to provide, for example, a permanent program for the rapid housing initiative, to inject funds into the co-development fund and a number of other measures, what we were able to get out of all our asks with respect to housing was the investment in an urban-rural northern housing strategy. In budget 2022, we were able to secure $300 million; in budget 2023, we secured $4 billion over seven years. Finally, for distinction-based funding for indigenous communities, we were able to secure $4 billion over seven years in budget 2022.

Is it enough? No, it is not. Are we going to continue to fight for more? We absolutely are.

Charlie Angus Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her passion for fighting on the issue of housing.

In Timmins right now, a community of 45,000 people, we have almost 1,000 homeless people. This is creating a serious social crisis and a policing crisis, as well as exacerbating the opioid crisis. We have no place to get people into safe housing. We have no support for single moms. What we need is mixed housing and co-operative housing of the kind that built much of the community housing that we have in our region, which is sustainable for families. We see the Liberals making lots of promises with respect to housing, but we are not seeing it on the ground. What does my hon. colleague think about the need to guarantee that we have mixed co-operative housing in all our communities, whether it is in northern Ontario or in downtown Vancouver, so we can maintain sustainable communities and people can live humane, decent and hopeful lives?

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, there is no question that we need the federal government's leadership. The federal government used to develop social housing and co-op housing; it did so really well. We used to provide subsidies to ensure that rent was low. We would partner with the local governments, the provincial governments and the non-profit sector. That is what we need to get back to. Right now, the program that the federal government has in place is ineffective; if we truly hope to treat housing as a basic human right, the government needs to make more investments into housing to address the housing crisis.

Wayne Long Saint John—Rothesay, NB

Mr. Speaker, I certainly respect and recognize the member opposite's passion on this file.

Let us also talk about a lot of the good things we have done as a government, whether it is through the billions of dollars of national housing strategy investment, the rapid housing initiative, the coinvestment fund, the accelerator fund or the Canada housing benefit. These are programs that the NDP, the party opposite, has supported.

Given the fact that the member was a former cabinet minister in a provincial government, though, could she speak about the provincial role in housing, the vital role the provinces play and how we need the provinces to step up to the plate to help us help them?

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, the provinces obviously have a role to play; they need to do so, although some provinces choose not to. However, of the provinces that do play a role, in the case of British Columbia, for example, the NDP B.C. government actually created an acquisition fund to buy up housing stock that came onto the market to house people who are homeless and do not have access to housing. We wanted the federal government to partner with us. Would the federal government do that? No, it would not.

Right now, in my riding, there is a site, 105 Keefer Street, where a developer wants to build luxury condos in a low-income area in Chinatown. The community wants the federal government to partner with the provincial government and the city government to do a land swap. Then, we could take that site to develop social housing to meet the needs of the community, particularly for seniors living in Chinatown in deplorable housing conditions. That is what we need the federal government to do to be a true partner at the table.

Mike Morrice Kitchener Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to start by thanking the member for Vancouver East for matching, in her ferocity, the depth of the housing crisis that we are in across the country. I also appreciate that the member spoke specifically about the deep issues with respect to the financialization of housing and the work that we have both been doing when it comes to addressing that, through getting rid of the tax exemption for one specific type of corporate landlord: real estate investment trusts. As the member referenced, this is a pretty simple, reasonable measure to redirect $300 million over the next five years to build the affordable housing we need. That report came out months ago. The member has been here longer than I have. Could she reflect on why it is that, months later, such a reasonable measure still has not been followed through on?

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, if I were the minister of housing, we would have taken action long ago. In fact, I would not have eliminated the national affordable housing program back in 1993, which caused the escalating problems of the housing crisis that we are faced with today.

I cannot speak for the Liberals on why they would not take these measures. The only reason that I could guess at is that it is because of those very insider friends that they have. Perhaps that is what is immobilizing the Liberals from taking action.

The other possibility, of course, is that, here in the House of Commons, the Minister of Housing is using housing as an investment tool. Perhaps he has a blind spot in looking at the true situation as it is and making sure that housing is not treated as a commodity.

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