Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 21, 2007
Affordable housing a distant memory
Private property is an essential part of a healthy social order and a democratic society. But the right to own private property is not absolute and untouchable. It is subordinate to the right of all to a fair share of the goods of creation. In fact, private property needs to be regulated in order to ensure that all people have access to their rightful share of society's goods.
That, in a nutshell, is the Catholic teaching on private property. While it is a teaching that can be explained in terms of divine revelation, it is at heart based on natural justice. If we want a good society, private property cannot be abolished. Nor can it be allowed to take priority over meeting human needs.
This social teaching is of great relevance to the current skyrocketing housing prices and rental costs in Alberta. The ability of middle and low-income Albertans to find and keep affordable housing has been seriously compromised by a booming economy.
Sale prices for homes in the province's major centres have shot through the roof over the last couple of years, seriously impairing the ability of people to buy their own homes. Rents have also skyrocketed, in some cases by $1,000 or more a month. In one well-publicized case, the rent on a basement suite for a low-income couple was cranked up from $495 to $1,695 a month.
Likely the majority of landlords have avoided giving their tenants outrageous increases. But some have been openly exploitive of a situation of low vacancy rates combined with growing numbers of well-paid workers.
Meanwhile, the likelihood of more rental units being built in a climate of high construction costs is low. Relief for tenants is nowhere in sight.
The provincial government, while not turning a blind eye, has responded ineffectually. It has set aside $285 million for affordable housing for low-income people and has talked of refusing government funds to landlords who treat tenants unfairly. Its free enterprise ideology has kept it from taking the obvious step of imposing rent controls, even though the vast majority of Albertans favour such controls.
Rent controls need not be the ham-fisted vehicle they are often portrayed as. Apartment owners can still be allowed a reasonable profit and allowances can be made for larger rent increases when landlords upgrade their properties.
Government has a responsibility to defend the weakest, most defenceless members of society, a responsibility this government is currently failing to exercise.
The deeper issue is that of the over-heated economy itself. The premier has said he will do nothing to slow the pace of tar sands development in northern Alberta. Yet this untrammelled economic growth is the root cause of skyrocketing housing prices.
Truth be told, it is also having serious environmental costs, is an engine driving large hikes in property taxes and has even coincided with sharp increases in sexually-transmitted diseases.
The tar sands are not going away. They have covered a quarter of Alberta for tens of thousands of years. Nor is the world demand for oil going to disappear in the foreseeable future. A more measured and regulated development of the tar sands would be in both the short-term and long-term interests of the people of Alberta.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of The Church says, "Those people and societies that go so far as to absolutize the role of property end up experiencing the bitterest type of slavery" (no. 181). Slavery is an overly harsh term to describe what Alberta is now undergoing. But our priorities are seriously out of whack.
Greater government oversight and control of the pace of growth and its undesirable effects would not be a step towards socialism. Rather, they would move us towards ensuring the people of Alberta can afford basic necessities and have a fairer chance at having a good quality of life.
- Glen Argan
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