At the beginning of this year, the public was rightly outraged after learning about politicians flouting public health guidelines and jetting off to sunny destinations. This behaviour was a blatant betrayal of the, ‘We’re all in this together” refrain that we’d heard throughout 2020. Yet another betrayal by elected representatives, however, has gone under the radar: politicians making money off real estate during the pandemic and ongoing housing crisis.
In Canada, the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons requires MPs to provide the ethics commissioner notice within 60 days of certain changes to their financial situation. Summaries of these changes are then posted on a public registry.
A review of “Notice of Material Change” summaries posted to the registry over the last year reveals that since the beginning of the pandemic, at least eight MPs — seven Liberals and one Conservative — disclosed new rental property assets. (While summaries on the public registry do not specify whether properties are commercial or residential in nature, where streets have been disclosed, the properties owned by Liberal MPs appear to be in predominantly residential areas.)
Housing affordability was a focus of Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign, but measures introduced during his first term failed to meaningfully improve the situation facing renters or prospective homebuyers.
This has been especially true throughout the pandemic, when house prices have dramatically increased, many Canadians have struggled to pay their rent and the most marginalized have been forced to weigh spending the night in unsafe shelters or outdoor encampments.
And yet, at the same time, a group of mostly Liberal MPs have been scooping up investment properties and collecting rent.
Liberal MPs banking on income properties being good investments doesn’t instill confidence the government plans to meaningfully address the affordable housing crisis anytime soon. Looking at where some of these MPs chose to buy rental property paints an even more troubling picture as their participation as investor purchasers is adding fuel to rising house prices in hot markets.
House prices in the Greater Toronto Area shot up last year as people left for more room. According to Move Smartly, Durham Region home prices rose 35 per cent from January 2020 to January 2021. During that time, MP Jennifer O’Connell (Pickering-Uxbridge — Liberal) disclosed purchasing a rental property in Ajax. Ironically, in January 2020, in her first speech in the 43rd Parliament, she spoke about affordable housing and stated that “actions speak louder than words.”
Montreal has been experiencing an affordable housing crisis so severe that the city recently advised tenants to renew their lease rather than try to move. Meanwhile, MP Soraya Martinez Ferrada (Hochelaga — Liberal) disclosed a new rental property in the city earlier this year.
In addition, MP Sameer Zuberi (Pierrefonds-Dollard — Liberal), who stepped down from his parliamentary committee roles after disclosing he travelled out of the country in December 2020, seemingly had a real estate spree in recent months. In January he filed a notice listing joint ownership of new triplex and quadplex rental properties in Montreal boroughs, in addition to a rental in Gatineau. The following month, Zuberi filed another notice disclosing that he no longer owned a rental property in Gatineau, suggesting it was sold shortly after being acquired.
On the east coast, MP Andy Fillmore (Halifax — Liberal) disclosed a new rental property in Halifax in September 2020, while rents reportedly rose 20 per cent between January 2020 and 2021. On the west coast, real estate developer and MP Randeep Sarai (Surrey Centre — Liberal) disclosed four new rental units in Burnaby, part of Metro Vancouver and one of Canada’s most notoriously expensive housing markets.
However, profiting off housing is not limited to this handful of new MP landlords. About a quarter of those sitting in Parliament, and more than 18 per cent of those sitting in the Ontario Legislature, reported supplementing their salaries with rental income in 2020.
Quite astonishingly, according to Public Disclosure Statements published by Ontario’s Office of the Integrity Commissioner, at least two GTA MPPs also claimed real estate commissions as a source of income in their 2020 disclosures.
MPP Stan Cho (Willowdale — Conservative) reported both rental income and real estate commissions, and listed four investment properties he at least partially owns in Toronto. His MPP website says he’s been managing his family’s real estate business for the last five years.
MPP Amarjot Sandhu (Brampton West — Conservative), chair of the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, has also disclosed real estate commissions since being elected in 2018.
For the politicians who didn’t sell real estate, but brought home passive rental income last year, the public deserves answers to other questions. While officials have urged landlords to work with their tenants to avoid evictions, how did MPs and MPPs respond to any financial distress their tenants experienced? Pandemic aside, which politicians have contributed to the decreasing affordability of rental units by raising rents above guidelines between tenants?
The number of politicians with multiple properties highlights a disconnect with those they’re supposed to serve, and their apparent indifference to the fact that commodification of housing is at the core of the crisis we face. Perhaps in future elections, voters should push for candidates to disclose their real estate holdings before heading to the polls.