Photo By: Zia Syed from Unsplash

Speculators holding onto empty condos in Toronto while homelessness figures continue to rise is an issue resulting from the nation-wide aversion to the idea of publicly funded housing. This aversion needs to be reconsidered in light of the country’s housing crisis as prices continue to rise, which hasn’t been helped by the recent spike in inflation. 

A rumour floated around a few years back suggesting that there were 65,000 empty condos in Toronto that investors were sitting on as valuable property. While there’s been no confirmation if this is exactly the number, it’s reasonable to say that vacancy is an issue in the city that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Since Canada didn’t suffer the same consequences from the 2008 market crash as the the United States did, which scared investors off for years after, housing has continued to be an incredibly lucrative investment in Canada. While the issue of vacancy may appear most glaringly in Toronto’s condominiums — with rental space and condo construction coming out to 72 per cent for the city’s housing starts last year — it is one that extends to the entire country. In fact, Canada has over 1.3 million vacant homes according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Furthermore, in the last two decades, housing prices in Canada have gone up by 375 per cent. 

Returning to Toronto specifically, the city’s vacancy rates did drop 3.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021 due to the lowered restrictions which caused students and residents to start coming back. That’s down from the 9 per cent vacancy rate reached in the first quarter of last year. Of course, now that folks are moving back in, landlords are removing rent supports and prices are going back up.

“In the last three months of 2021, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom in the city was $2,140, up 14.5 per cent from $1,869 in the same period of 2020, although still below 2019′s average of $2,251,” read an article by Rachelle Younglai at The Globe and Mail.

This will be the pattern that continues if we are forced back into lockdown again, and it affects the homeless population most of all. It doesn’t make sense that over 100 people died of homelessness in 2021 in Toronto with a cracking shelter system to boot. Meanwhile, condominiums and rental apartments are the main form of housing being constructed in the city and speculators and investors now have statistically surpassed the number of first-time buyers in the market. 

In addition, young people trying to buy a home and those with little wealth to their name are now cast into a precarious housing market, having to keep up on their rent while studying in fields they will likely not work in, working multiple low-paying jobs, and all while the possibility of ever owning a home becomes increasingly unlikely with every condo unit that goes up.

That being said, it wasn’t always this way. Prior to the 1990s, Canada was a welfare state, providing robust financial safety nets via public programs for the lower and middle classes. The country hadn’t quite caught wind of the emerging neo-liberal era which was sweeping other major Western superpowers, the United States and the United Kingdom, which were spearheaded by the governments of both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (who were the dearest of friends). Although the policies of economic austerity started to make their way into Canada with the Mulroney administration from 1984-1993, it wasn’t until the Chretien government was elected in 1993 that the rubber truly met the road.

In the wake of neoliberalism, the idea of publicly funded housing today sets off alarms in well-intentioned people’s heads thinking that it’s a communist plot to remove all private ownership. However, Canadians forget that in the post-WWII era there was a large consensus in the West that publicly funded housing made sense, and indeed it did provide homes for those returning from war, settling down and making way for the Baby Boomers. 

It’s also important to acknowledge issues such as redlining, which sprung out of the government subsidized suburban sprawl as a result of the New Deal initiatives in the United States (though it did take place in Canada, too). That being said, the important point to take away is that, for the most part, housing was treated by people in power as a fundamental human right akin to water or electricity.

The popular attitude today towards what’s possible when it comes to housing is a product of the past 40 years of neo-liberal policy erasing the legacy of publicly funded measures that protected the have-nots. Public funding’s aim should be to help those most vulnerable in the society have a sound starting point so a more genuine and socially productive competition can take place; competition that would look nothing like the kind seen in late-capitalism wherein the fast-food corporation with the funniest Twitter feed is how we decide which is the most legitimate. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt made the situation worse when it comes to Canada’s housing crisis. However, it has only inflamed issues that have been around for decades. 

Toronto’s vacant condos, being the main object of a lot of the city’s visible construction and towering crane activity over the past ten years, are increasingly built only for speculators to scoop them up immediately. They serve as patent indicators that we have no substantive free market solutions to the housing crisis, yet we continue to pretend to appear productive in a zombie-like state induced by the very failures of neoliberalism itself

Much like how metaverse property is becoming increasingly popular, empty condos are beginning to serve a similar purpose; existing as wasted space that has more value on a ledger than as an actual dwelling for someone to live in.