Pandemic Borders: Analysis

For migrants in Canada, who bears the cost of home ownership?

Buying property can be an expression of belonging, but the nature of the housing market makes it an unequal process

Amin Moghadam
15 June 2021, 6.12am
One property in five is bought by newcomers to Canada
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Vl_K / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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When migrants enter the housing market or invest in real estate, local housing, urban and migration policies are all naturally brought into play. But what people do not realise often enough is the emotional and social cost of such investment.

As an educated middle-class Iranian woman in Toronto told me: ‘I wasn’t necessarily keen on buying property. We’ll be in debt for 23 years and can't send our son to a private school because everything goes on the mortgage. We won't necessarily enjoy it much ourselves, either – we'll be too old. It will be for our son. But it seems as if everyone here has to buy a house.”

According to a 2019 Royal LePage survey, one property in five is bought by newcomers to Canada, and a whole system of mortgages and low interest rates encourages investment in Canadian real estate. But one of the repercussions of this situation might be the emergence of a 'culture of property' as a form of social control: property ownership at all costs!

This situation can turn into a trap for households that are financially more vulnerable, with disastrous effects in the event of market collapse (something that is continually predicted for Ontario), which would lead to social disintegration for migrant and non-migrant families alike.

A piece of this land

Buying a house often expresses a sense of attachment and belonging and is seen as a sign of success, particularly for migrants. It may (or may not) overlap with the dynamics of home-making.

The decision to buy property intersects with migrants’ administrative status, the education of their children and even their daily life. It shows us how and why they safeguard their financial capital. Such decisions often reflect the ways in which family, gender relations, and strategies to accumulate cultural and social capital have evolved over time especially for the middle class.

“A little bit of this land,” an Iranian father and decade-long resident of Toronto told me proudly, continuing: “It moves me to think that I own a piece of this land and that I'm leaving something for my boy, even though he will be more Canadian than I am. It isn’t the same as it was for us.” He and his wife were recently naturalised, whereas his son was born in Canada.

Pension plans

For many migrants, home ownership marks a step forward, a form of social and economic integration, both within their own community, and their host society. Investment in real estate and ownership may not only be a case of economic efficiency, but also the impact that cultural conceptions of money may have on family fortunes.

Housing assets make up a bigger share of the average wealth of migrant families than of Canadian-born families

According to data from the Survey of Financial Security (SFS), analysed in a report published by Statistics Canada, home ownership practices and perceptions of the importance of owning property differ between migrant and Canadian-born families.

Housing assets make up a bigger share of the average wealth of migrant families than of Canadian-born families. And as migrants frequently join pension plans later than their Canadian-born counterparts, they are more likely to see real estate as a potential retirement asset and a form of wealth creation.

As with any other social or economic practice, however, all are not equal in making the dream a reality. This inequality can lead to resentment on the part of some people, and even to dispossession.

Dirty money

Behind the transnational real estate market we also find speculation and dirty money, laundered in the country of origin and transferred to migrants’ host countries, a phenomenon that is encouraged, explicitly or implicitly, in liberal democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes.

The role of neoliberal migration policies, aiming to attract migrants with significant economic and cultural capital, is key to our understanding of this dynamic. So is the way that urban and housing policies adapt to the dreams and aspirations of the privileged social classes and their lifestyle preferences.

The rise of Condo-isation in North American cities is one example. In Toronto and Vancouver, it has become a dominant housing style during the last decade. This leads to the intensification of land use and gentrification.

But the dream of some is a source of frustration to others, since these policies, also known as the financialisation of housing, directly affect other groups’ ability to find homes. For many people (migrants or not), the dream remains out of reach, marked by the vagaries and precarity of the housing market, and their experiences of dispossession, eviction and urban displacement.

What is certain is that access or attempts to acquire property are not just matters for the rich and super rich. This serves to underline the fact that property is an interdependent phenomenon that affects the living conditions of the whole of society.

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