UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Urban rental housing in Canada, 1900-1985 : a critical review of problems and the response of government Selby, Joan Louise


There is widespread agreement among housing policy analysts that there are serious problems with Canada's urban rental housing sector. The specific problems include declining and persistently low vacancy rates, declining private sector starts, and the unaffordability of private stock for a considerable portion of low- and moderate-income renters. Given the importance of rental accommodation, particularly for those lower-income households unable to enter or remain in the ownership sector, this situation has prompted a discussion as to whether the past and current approach to rental housing policy is appropriate to the solution of rental housing problems, or whether new or different strategies for addressing rental problems are warranted. Within the context of both this discussion and of an ongoing debate as to the appropriate role of the state in housing markets, this thesis investigates what measures the Canadian government has taken over the past eighty-five years to address rental housing problems. Dividing this period into four eras - 1900-1940, 1940-1949, 1949-1964, and 1964-1985 - the thesis examines the existence and extent of rental housing problems; documents how rental problems have been defined and analyzed by housing experts and what their policy recommendations have been; and reviews the response of the federal government to rental problems. The primary assumption underlying the research is that government intervention in the rental market has been minimal, ad hoc, and largely market-supportive, and that this approach to rental problems has had an enormous impact on problem resolution. Government response to rental problems is reviewed and the research assumption is tested by examining major government and private housing studies, contemporary academic articles and media reports, statistical analyses, the debates in the House of Commons, and housing-related legislation in its original and amended forms. The evidence suggests that government intervention in the rental sector has indeed been minimal, piecemeal and reactive, largely market-supportive, and carried out within the framework of housing as a market commodity. It suggests further that intervention in the rental sector has been shaped largely by two interrelated factors: the federal government's terms of reference for intervention in the housing market, and its failure to adequately define the rental housing problem. The federal government's terms of reference for intervention in the housing market define housing provision as a private sector responsibility, home ownership as the desirable tenure option, housing problems as temporary conditions, and housing policy as a provincial responsibility. These terms of reference have severely constrained rental policy and program options and have prevented the implementation of potentially more effective rental programs. Moreover, they have resulted in either the neglect of Canada's rental problems or the adoption of a variety of short-term, ad hoc programs in response to crisis situations. The federal government's failure to see the relationship between the quality, supply and affordability elements of the rental problem and thus to adequately define the problem is the second factor which has shaped intervention in the rental sector. Intervention has tended to focus on the three problem elements separately and in a clearly sequential manner, with the result that opportunities for developing a long-term, comprehensive rental housing policy aimed at simultaneous treatment, of all three aspects of the problem have been missed. The thesis concludes that only by questioning the conventional assumptions underlying Canadian rental policy and by acknowledging the interrelatedness of the three problem areas will we make progress on resolving rental housing problems.

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