Editorial: The ‘financialization’ of housing puts profit over people

by | Feb 7, 2022 | News – editorial

Dear readers,

The financialization of housing. You may have heard about it in recent years if you watched Fredrik Gertten’s 2020 documentary Push. Or read Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance by Raquel Rolnik, or Le promoteur, la banque et le rentier by Louis Gaudreau.

The financialization of housing, according to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, “occurs when housing is treated as a commodity—a vehicle for wealth and investment—rather than a social good.”

Admittedly, the subject sounds as dry as month-old toast, but it is critical to understanding why, in a society as wealthy as ours, so many people cannot afford an appropriate place to call home. The issue is far from new, but a few events, readings and discussions have led us to want to talk about it this month.

On January 24, Sahar Raza of the National Right to Housing Network addressed the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance on the subject.

A few days later, a Canadian survey by RATESDOTCA and BNN Bloomberg showed that 19% of respondents who bought a property during the pandemic already owned multiple properties. So for one-in-five new owners, it appears investment and not shelter was their main concern.

A simple description of the phenomenon would be that of University of Waterloo professor Martine August in her enlightening 2020 article on the financialization of multi-family rental housing in Canada: “Underway for [four] decades, financialization is a process of transformation in global and national economies, with profound social and spatial impacts. Emerging alongside neoliberal structuring, it refers to the growing role of finance in the operations of capitalism, such that profits are increasingly made through financial means rather than industrial commodity production.”

When a building is “financialized,” the only way to boost profit is to reduce expenses related to the building or increase the revenue it generates. In either case, this is to the detriment of the people who live in these homes and find themselves having to leave or live in worsening conditions.

August’s study showed that, in Canada, provinces and territories that do not have rent control mechanisms (surprise!) are the ones most affected by the phenomenon.

The particular impact of financialization on women was discussed in December at an online conference organized by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, which invited Leilani Farha as a panelist. We encourage you to follow the link for an eye-opening discussion.

Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing and director of The Shift, points out that “property and property laws have traditionally and historically been used to create hierarchies and to create power imbalances, and it’s been between men and women, it’s been between white people and Indigenous communities, and it’s been between dominant cultures and minority groups.”

***

Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion, Ahmed Hussen, did not mention financialization by name, it asked Hussen to work on an action plan that included “a ban on the purchase of non-recreational residential property by foreign buyers in the Canadian housing market, so that housing does not remain unoccupied and unavailable to Canadians; supporting the review and possible reform of the tax treatment of Real Estate Investment Corporations; [and] the development of policies to limit excessive profits in investment properties while protecting small, independent owners.”   

As well, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is continuing its work on a Financialization of Housing Solutions Lab.

***

As John Belec, professor emeritus at B.C.’s University of the Fraser Valley, wrote in the Globe and Mail last month, “prepare to hear much more about the financialization of housing in 2022.”

That is obvious, but to better address a problem, we have to start by better understanding it. And to understand it, we have to talk about it. Talking about it more often can give the worrying impression that the situation is becoming worse, which it likely is. But it is also a starting point for action and for being better equipped to find solutions.

Have a hopeful February!


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