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This is a class struggle, not a housing crisis—and it’s time to pick a side

Ricardo Tranjan's latest book, The Tenant Class, asks you to pick a side. Do you stand in solidarity with the rising tenant class, or will you uphold the exploitative status quo?

May 1, 2023

5-minute read

What if there is no housing crisis, but a housing market working exactly as designed?

Ricardo Tranjan’s The Tenant Class rests on this premise, effortlessly dismantling apolitical narratives of Canada’s housing system to reveal an intentionally obscured class struggle between exploited tenants and extractive landlords—most of whom wouldn’t have it any other way.

In this timely and refreshing manifesto, Tranjan takes aim at Canada’s structurally inequitable and increasingly deregulated rental market, which prevents, rather than promotes, housing security, affordability, and adequacy among tenants.

He draws parallels between exploitative labour relations and the exploitative rental market to describe how property-owning landlords amass wealth on the backs of tenants—all thanks to government complicity dating back to the dispossession of Indigenous lands and creation of property rights.

He then uses historical and contemporary tenant organizing stories—alongside his own professional and lived experiences as a political economist, policy researcher, and child of turbulent 1980s Brazil—to argue that the only solution is a struggle: the tenant class must organize to build political power and demand a more equitable, regulated, and largely non-market housing system.

To create the conditions for social change, Tranjan also calls on progressive researchers and allies to practically feed and support on-the-ground movements. After all, “it takes political power to go up against the landlord class and force governments to rein in markets,” and part of building that power involves addressing the cultural marginalization of the tenant class.

But more than that, it requires that the rest of society see and name the class struggle within Canada’s housing system for what it is. To this end, Tranjan advances a simple and unsettling provocation in the last chapter, reminding readers of their own agency: “now the question is… where you stand.”

The message is clear: it’s time to pick a side in this class struggle. There is no neutrality in the face of injustice, disinformation, and exploitation.

The Tenant Class practices what it preaches, systematically busting harmful myths about tenants and “struggling landlords” while offering compelling and research-backed arguments, stories, and quips, which can be mobilized by organizers and advocates to push for housing justice. And though it may not be politically palatable to the roughly two-thirds of the population who benefit from the status quo (namely, property owners), Tranjan’s clear and incisive class-based analysis extricates itself from the endless housing “policy merry-go-round” in important and radical ways.

For one, Tranjan decisively names the power-holders that feed, constitute, and enable the elite landlord class in its mission to extract more and more income from tenants. From homeowners to industry players, landlords, real estate investment firms, pension funds, developers, banks, and other mortgage providers, he makes apparent that a huge segment of the population benefits from a housing market in which rents rise faster and faster, untethered from income, inflation rates, and vacancy rates (not to mention human rights standards).

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however—government laws and policies (or lack thereof), institutions like landlord and tenant boards, and mainstream moral standards permit and legitimize this wealth accumulation. Meanwhile, disproportionately racialized, low-income, and already marginalized peoples in, or in need of, rental housing face deepening intergenerational poverty at the hands of the property-owning elite—a fact that is conveniently obscured in our mainstream news media and consciousness.

Tranjan thus argues that mainstream narratives that frame the “housing crisis” as an apolitical, complex, or new issue that requires technical or win-win solutions only serve the interests of the elite. In fact, these elites pour money and resources into making these narratives appear to be common sense or the way of the world, particularly through their influence over news media and government. They even co-opt progressive language (like the language of human rights, equity, and “affordable housing”) or use disinformation to undermine criticism, disguise their exploitative policies and practices, and maintain the status quo.

“Supply-side” arguments constitute one such narrative, suggesting that we simply need to build more housing faster to make housing affordable—a solution that conveniently involves sweetening the deal for developers and landlords through financial incentives. And, as Tranjan notes, our governments reproduce, pander to, and invest in these narratives.

Take Canada’s National Housing Strategy, for example. Steeped in supply-side logic, the strategy funnels billions of dollars to for-profit developers who produce housing that, more often than not, ends up contributing to, rather than addressing, the root causes of unaffordability, homelessness, and housing inequity. Yet, insidiously, the strategy uses the language of human rights and affordability to disguise these extractive practices.

In the context of my own work to implement the human right to adequate housing via federal policy, I see these dynamics first hand. Well-intentioned and progressive housing policy professionals too often become trapped in cycles of consultation, make-work, and self-censorship with governments, only to have their research and solutions shelved time and time again.

Government and sector leaders engage in the endless “merry-go-round” of debating policy tweaks or band-aid solutions to homelessness and inadequate housing rather than meaningful, structural, and human rights-based change. And all the while, our political and policy leaders (many of whom are part of the elite class) manage to evade naming and regulating the profiteers and beneficiaries of housing injustice.

This reality is what makes The Tenant Class so powerful, timely, and necessary. It resists the cyclical dynamics of the housing discourse and reminds readers of what tenant movements have known for decades: the problem is political, not technical. And importantly, profit doesn’t have to be part of the housing equation.

Drawing from inspirational stories of defiant tenant movements, resistance, and power, Tranjan places our contemporary “housing crisis” within a century-long history of class-based struggles—struggles that are ongoing.

The book reminds tenants of their agency and allies of the need to centre and support those tenants, all while recognizing that “the challenge for the tenant class is not to find solutions for the so-called housing crisis, but to enact the solutions we know work”: namely, moving as much housing as possible outside of the private market (i.e., to increase non-market housing); tightly regulating private market housing (i.e., via tenant protections, rent and vacancy controls, etc.); and keeping tenants organized to ensure ongoing political pressure and access to adequate, affordable, and secure housing.

In this way, The Tenant Class stands apart from the mainstream housing paradigm and gets to the heart of Canada’s so-called “housing crisis” with precision and conviction. Weaving together history, data, and stories with thoughtful ease that makes the complex feel accessible, it serves as fuel for social change and vividly demonstrates the power of collective action. It paints a vision of a housing system that decentres profit in favour of justice, democracy, and human rights—one in which everyone has access to safe, affordable, and dignified housing.

And, most importantly, it makes social change feel possible so long as readers confront the reality of our class-based housing system head on.

This book is, therefore, a must-read for tenants, housing advocates, policy professionals, or “anyone else interested in rental housing.”

To tenants, it says: join or start a tenant union—you have the power to fight back.

To housing advocates and policy wonks, it says: now is the time to organize, build political pressure, and link arms with tenant movements who have been doing this work all along.

And to everyone else, it says: pick a side. Do you stand in solidarity with the rising tenant class, or will you uphold the exploitative status quo?

Tranjan doesn’t let anyone off the hook in this compelling piece, asserting that it is up to all of us to take up the mantle of tenant organizing, to support those on the front lines of the struggle, and to demand a world in which adequate housing is truly for everyone.

Topics addressed in this article

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