Globe & Mail: Is a bedroom for the cat a sign of Canada's new housing aristocracy?

Originally published in The Globe & Mail on January 6, 2023

Pierre Poilievre is strong at observing that skyrocketing home values have driven “a colossal wealth transfer from the working wage earner to the wealthy asset owner.” This is one of the Conservative leader’s most important insights about Canada’s housing system.

He described those who have gained especially large windfalls as “landed aristocrats.”

He may mean people like me. My home has increased in value by $1.5-million. This windfall came from “doing absolutely nothing,” as Mr. Poilievre rightly observed. My gain is a loss for those who enter the housing system after me, because they must pay higher rents and larger mortgages.

This “colossal wealth transfer” leads to important questions about how we adapt. While my last column suggested that housing wealth should factor into how governments earmark retirement income benefits and raise revenue, comments left by some readers signal that I was getting ahead of myself.

Their comments remind me that politicians generally require the public to provide political cover before they will act on new evidence. This means older, affluent homeowners like me must band together to acknowledge our relative privilege. We must signal there is a path to political success for politicians to respond to the “colossal wealth transfer” that Mr. Poilievre diagnoses.

We can start by calling out those among us who fail to show sympathy for younger Canadians struggling with housing. Like one person who left a comment on my last column.

After I suggested that my housing wealth should be put to work when determining my eligibility for public subsidies, or the taxes I pay, the commenter mocked: “My wife and I are finally empty nesters and are putting our home to work for us. One of the spare bedrooms is a reading room, another is my audio listening room and the third is the cat’s bedroom.”

A bedroom for the cat? Perhaps the individual means to be funny. But the housing crisis is no laughing matter for younger Canadians in cities across the country. Many have degrees and good-paying jobs, yet struggle to find – let alone afford – rentals with enough bedrooms for their kids.

Spare bedrooms may not yet be the sign of a housing aristocrat. But it is an increasing marker of the housing “haves” and “have-nots.” As one younger reader responded to the commenter’s belittling comment: “I really envy the life your cat seems to live.”

The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis shows there are millions of empty bedrooms across Canada – five million in Ontario alone. There are far more empty bedrooms than households searching for extra space.

So a spare bedroom is increasingly a sign of privilege, regardless of one’s income. For the record, I have two spares: My partner and I share one as an office; the other is for guests.

Presently, talk of Canada’s housing crisis is dominated by concern over a shortage of supply. Yes, we must add density in land already zoned for residences to create enough new rental, co-op and ownership homes. This is a key part of any comprehensive plan to restore affordability.

But the next version of the National Housing Strategy should also recognize Canada has a surplus of bedrooms that is badly distributed. Because when an owner flaunts his cat’s bedroom, he sounds a lot like a housing aristocrat.

Such mocking needs to stop. Especially when the dream that a good home should be in reach for what hard work can earn is becoming a nightmare for many people who are not already homeowners.

I never anticipated that “Be kind” would become a key solution in my column for the financial section.

But policy change requires public support before it is feasible electorally. This creates a responsibility for those of us who entered the housing market when homes remained affordable, before we were made more affluent by the “colossal transfer of wealth” described by Mr. Poilievre. We need to band together to concede our relative privilege without being defensive.

That’s my New Year’s resolution, and I invite other affluent homeowners to join me. Let’s acknowledge that most Canadians don’t own million-dollar homes with mortgages that are a fraction of the value, if we have any mortgage at all.

Let’s renounce “room-for-my-cat aristocrats” when they belittle people who started in the housing market after the wages paid by good jobs became disconnected from the value of local homes.

Let’s tell policy makers to respond boldly to growing housing inequalities for the sake of our kids and grandchildren.

If you share this New Year’s resolution, join our Rooms for Kids, Not Cats campaign. I promise it’s a project fully endorsed by Sheyn, Shanna and Pekoe – my three feline friends.

Support Rooms for Kids, Not Cats


Paul KershawDr. Paul Kershaw is Founder, Lead Researcher & Executive Chair of Generation Squeeze. He is a policy professor in the UBC School of Population and Public Health, and Director of the UBC Masters of Public Health program.

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