Opinion: False equivalencies are hurting the housing conversation

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Rent control legislation won’t turn Alberta into B.C. or Ontario; it might be the only chance we have to prevent that from happening.

Rents are soaring, vacancies are dwindling, students are sleeping in their cars, and families are forced to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table. It’s troubling that Alberta continues to stand alone as the largest province in Canada without some sort of protection against dramatic rent increases.

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In the past couple of months, I’ve heard many stories from Albertans who’ve experienced rent increases of 20, 30 and even 50 per cent. I heard from a senior living on a fixed income whose rent increased by $1,800 a month. Amid a housing and affordability crisis, Albertans are desperate to catch their breath. Bill 205: The Housing Security Act would give Albertans that chance.

Arguments against Bill 205 often rely on a comparison to provinces such as B.C. and Ontario, which have rent caps and also have the highest rent prices in the country. Critics point to these provinces’ high rent prices as evidence against the efficacy of rent control. But that argument fails to take into account one of the most basic principles of research methodology: correlation does not equal causation.

B.C. and Ontario do not have the highest rents in the country because they have rent control. In fact, rent control in both provinces has been used to help keep already high rents from increasing at astronomical rates. And Alberta, a province with no rent control, consistently has the cities with the fastest increasing rent in the country.

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The suggestion that rent caps in these provinces preceded and directly caused their high rent prices, and that introducing rent caps here would result in Alberta mirroring B.C. and Ontario, is a false equivalence. It’s fundamentally flawed and categorically untrue. And I fear that by perpetuating these false equivalencies, we risk doing nothing at all, which at this rate would lead Alberta to reach or even surpass the unaffordability levels seen in those provinces.

Another point overlooked when comparing Alberta to B.C. and Ontario is the absence of vacancy control. Vacancy control ensures that rent increase caps apply equally to vacant units, preventing landlords from exploiting turnover to unfairly raise rents. Rent caps without vacancy control allow landlords to exploit loopholes such as fixed-term leases to circumvent rent caps, leading to increased evictions and tenants being trapped in unaffordable housing situations. Currently, B.C. and Ontario do not have vacancy control; however, if Bill 205 passes, Alberta’s temporary rent cap would include this critical measure.

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Critics of Bill 205 tend to advocate for the same solution: increasing housing supply. On this, we agree. In fact, Bill 205 is designed to ensure Albertans see more housing supply, rather than merely the promise of it.

Alberta’s housing crisis and affordability crisis have been met with a lot of broken promises. Albertans were promised a tax credit to alleviate the stress of rising costs of living, but they were then told the credit wasn’t coming. And despite promising to increase rent supplements by 1,200 households per year, the UCP only increased rent supplements by 550 households.

One of the most important parts of Bill 205 is that it requires the government to set housing targets and publicly report on their progress so we can truly tackle this housing crisis.

We have to keep talking about the housing crisis if we want any chance of fixing it, but false equivalencies and surface-level criticisms are hurting the conversation. Using the examples of B.C. and Ontario to argue against rent caps completely misinterprets the relationship between rent control and housing affordability, and overlooks how Bill 205 differs from rent regulation seen in B.C. and Ontario.

We need to move the conversation forward on housing, and to do that we need to think critically about all the potential solutions.

Bill 205: The Housing Security Act is a private-member’s bill presented by MLA Janis Irwin and is currently being debated in the legislature.

Janis Irwin is the Opposition NDP critic for housing and MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood.

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