Opinion

This should not be a news flash — Canada's biggest cities are now out of reach for millions: Neil Macdonald

Supply and demand in free markets trumps vague notions of social justice almost absolutely

Toronto Home Sales 20170503

I couldn't afford Toronto in 1988 and I certainly can't now. Vancouver might as well be on another planet. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)

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My job includes an indulgently luxurious morning news tour, skipping for hours around some of the best English-language websites in the world.

The British have the most literate, catholic tastes; the BBC alone maintains about 50 bureaux worldwide, and nearly 250 correspondents abroad and generally, the tone of British reporting is the calmest.

The American product is dynamic, provocative and utterly solipsistic. The primary focus, understandably, is their loopy president.  (This morning's Trump headline is his dubious proposal to compare his IQ to that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: "And I can tell you who is going to win.")

When U.S. news organizations cover foreign news, it's through the prism of American power, or American interests. The tone is seldom calm.

Real estate coverage

And Canadians, I'm afraid, live up to our own clichés; a vast swath of our journalism is about how we relate to America. We obsess over defining and protecting our identity, particularly in a globalized world, and how, or whether, we matter. That, and our real estate prices.

Canadian news organizations seem to have a permanent daily space reserved for the cost of lodging in Vancouver or Toronto. Prices in those cities have been remarkably steep for decades, and yet the subject remains hot news.

I suppose I can see why they're clickbait: they inspire hopelessness in the multitudes of renters hoping to somehow lever their way onto the real estate train, and smuggy happiness in those who have owned homes for years, and who love doing the mental calculation of how much money they've made, at least on paper (reality, because all boats rise with the tide, is another matter. To realize that wealth they have to sell and leave the city).

Anyway, the tone of the coverage is always puzzlement or outrage, as if such a thing shouldn't be happening in Canada, and the stories are formulaic: the picture of some crappy little fixer-upper shot from the curb upwards to distort the size of the "sold" sign, with a headline proclaiming YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT THIS WENT FOR, or the despair of a tenant of ordinary means coping with greedy landlords (often meaning other ordinary people acting in their own economic self-interest), or an exhausted young couple who's been outbid for the hundredth time on an ordinary little house somewhere (usually meaning a house they wanted but couldn't afford), or where Vancouver ranks in the list of the world's most unaffordable cities (#3) or where Toronto ranks on the same list (#13, in cities of more than a million people).

Toronto, a recent headline proclaimed, has just hit a new record of unaffordability.

In the background is the shadowy, anonymous Chinese buyer, who flies in and pays cash, far above asking, driving prices forever beyond the reach of ordinary Canadians.

dual agency over in bc

Government power to contain market forces is limited in the extreme. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

And the subtext is the unfairness of it all, usually summed up by some househunter asserting something like: "I don't think it's unreasonable to expect to afford a home in my own city," or some reference to affordable housing as a natural right.

Which of course it isn't, at least not in a capitalist system. Prices are even higher in New York and London and Hong Kong, but news outlets in those cities don't dote on the subject, and residents seem to have long ago accepted market realities.

In any event, government power to contain market forces is limited in the extreme, despite efforts like Toronto's highly aspirational "Open Door Affordable Housing Program," or even provincial surtaxes on foreign buyers, which the market seems to inevitably absorb in its upward march.

Two classes of renters

Rent control, recently imposed province-wide by Ontario, instantly creates two classes of renters, the lucky and unlucky, and instantly discourages potential new landlords, capping their income but not their expenses. What small investor would now buy a rental property in Ontario?

The only real right you have is to seek cheaper accommodation, which can mean moving to a cheaper city, of which there are many in Canada.

I lived in Toronto and Vancouver in the '80s, and fled both after six months or so of hemorrhaging money. I realized I simply didn't make enough to live in any degree of what I considered comfort. I had a particularly hard time understanding the cost of Toronto; perhaps I'm missing something, but to me, it doesn't even compare to the other cities on the nosebleed-affordability list. I mean, over the years I've flown to New York or Chicago for a weekend of splurge-fun. Hard to imagine jumping excitedly on a flight to Pearson.

I know, I know, TIFF, but still….

Housing affordability 6:11

I couldn't afford Toronto in 1988 and I certainly can't now. Vancouver might as well be on another planet. I'd far sooner consider moving to Halifax. Or Calgary. Or Montreal. But Ottawa is a fine compromise. I can be cycling in a national park within 15 minutes of leaving my doorstep. There are excellent restaurants here, decent city services and I can always find on-street parking downtown for about three dollars an hour.

I realize not everyone is mobile. Some people are stuck in Toronto and Vancouver for family or job reasons, and simply cannot uproot. And Montreal has punitively high taxes and a language wall built around it that is insuperable for most Canadians.

We live in Canada, but we also live in the world. Supply and demand in free markets trumps vague notions of social justice almost absolutely. Our three biggest cities are for financial and social reasons now out of reach for millions of Canadians.

That's not going to change, at least in my lifetime. And by now, it should no longer be news to anyone.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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