Homeowners Refuse to Accept the Awkward Truth: They’re Rich

Owners of multi-million-dollar properties still see themselves as middle class, a warped self-image that has a big impact on renters

A photo of a miniature house on a stack of coins.
The Walrus / iStock

In September, Vancouver City Council approved an array of new and increased fees for businesses and residents. Individuals adopting an exotic bird would now pay a $300 fee; standard business licences increased 46 percent, to $250. The motivation behind the fees was simple: to offset the proposed increases in property tax—which had risen by 10.7 percent in 2023, a hike obviously unpopular with homeowners—for the coming year. “I know increases like this are hard,” said Vancouver mayor Ken Sim when the raise was announced. “Frankly, they suck.”

Everyone loves to complain about taxes, but in Vancouver, this familiar tune strikes an off-key note. The city’s property tax rate is the lowest of any major city in Canada, less than half that of Calgary or Toronto, and for the owner of a $2 million home, that 10.7 percent increase amounted to just $326. As a millennial, I could return the advice my generation has so often received: just skip a couple of lattes each month and you won’t even miss it.

This beleaguered attitude is nothing new. In 2018, NDP MLA David Eby introduced an additional school tax on BC homes worth more than $3 million, which caused affected homeowners to revolt. Signs began sprouting like mushrooms on manicured front lawns: “Eby wants to confiscate your hard-earned home savings” and “Eby’s penalizing hard working Canadians hurts seniors the most.” (Unmentioned is the difference between senior owners and the much more vulnerable demographic of senior renters.) Therein lies the contradiction at the heart of the persecuted property owner: their wealth is deserved, by virtue of their lifetime of hard work and careful planning; at the same time, it’s not fair to tax them in proportion to that home’s staggering value. One protester told Global News, “I don’t think people who live in this neighbourhood should be punished because their house prices have gone up.” The same logic would dictate that they should not reap those tremendous gains when they sell (or die and pass them along, tax free, to their children), but you never hear anyone arguing that point.

In 2018, the concerns of these protesters were hardly representative. Most Canadians will never see their property values ascend to the ludicrous height of $3.5 million—the benchmark price of a detached house on the west side of Vancouver, as of September 2023—and would probably be unable to muster up much sympathy for those who have. But I thought of them recently when BC announced new laws restricting short-term rentals, which summoned forth a wave of tragic Airbnb hosts, like Debra Sheets, a retiree who had bought four units in a Victoria condo building. “Most of us are small owners,” Sheets told the Times Colonist. “We are not big organizations.”

In BC and Ontario, more than one-fifth of owners also have at least one investment property; in Nova Scotia, it’s nearly one-third. The decades-long decline of rental stock in Canada has created a housing market dependent on privately owned condos and suites to house renters, which has in turn created government reliance on small-time landlords amid a national housing shortage. In the Yukon, the territorial government is offering cash rebates to landlords as a kind of apology for limiting annual rent increases. In this system, the security of renters is secondary to the financial interests of owners. But listening to the laments of the Airbnb class, it’s clear there’s an identity crisis playing out among property owners who do not understand—or refuse to accept—that their assets confer upon them a status that makes Canadians squirm: rich.

Canada has always been a country of middle-class ideals: a 2023 survey by Angus Reid found that 43 percent of Canadians identify with the label, while just 1 percent are comfortable describing themselves as upper class. According to 2019 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a member of the middle class earns between 75 and 200 percent of the median household income after tax; in Canada, this would be an income of $32,621 and $86,990 per year to be in the middle-income class. But wages have stagnated for decades, while households have taken on more debt; a middle-class income doesn’t mean what it once did. (Even Mona Fortier, during her brief tenure as Canada’s first and last minister of middle-class prosperity, couldn’t offer a clear definition of the term.)

Housing, in particular, has muddied the waters: in Canada’s most expensive cities, even people earning incomes in the top 10 percent may not be able to afford to buy so much as a condo—not exactly the “starter home” of generations past. In 1976, it took around five years for a young adult working full time to save for a down payment; it now takes seventeen years, according to a report from Generation Squeeze. Meanwhile, many pensioners who have defined themselves by their lifetime of modest incomes have found themselves in possession of a fortune—by dint of buying decades ago and staying put. Many have leveraged that value to multiply their assets: one in ten Canadians now owns at least one investment property.

The problem is not that the owners of multi-million-dollar homes, or those like the landed gentry of the Regency period who are deriving their income from investment properties, still believe that they are humble members of the middle class. It’s how this warped self-image is wielded, in ways that impact everyone—notably, the one in three Canadians who rent. This is most obvious in the inclination of owners to rent on Airbnb rather than long term; in North Vancouver, one Airbnb host complained to North Shore News that “people don’t want to deal with [long-term] tenants” who are less profitable and harder to evict. But it’s also evident in the way that homeowners frequently oppose new developments that encroach on their neighbourhoods, fighting—often successfully—against change and exacerbating unaffordability and insufficient housing supply in the process. This opposition frames apartment dwellers not as prospective neighbours but as interlopers; when BC’s NDP government introduced new legislation to end restrictive zoning in communities with more than 5,000 people on November 1, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer described it as the latest escalation in a “war on single-family neighbourhoods.”

But houses do have a unique status (and not just because they are exempt from capital gains): they are our homes. And as our self-images are fixed in time, so too are the qualities we attach to a home. A house’s dramatic accumulation of financial value feels speculative and illusory, whereas the place itself—the years of memories and meaning that it holds for owners—feels far more real. Protecting one’s neighbourhood from shiny new developments and the inevitable changes they’ll bring can be seen, through this prism of personal history, as both anti-elitist and pro-community—even though renters have, on average, twenty-nine times less wealth than the typical homeowner. The less defensible truth is that homeowners are often fighting to preserve a street where only millionaires (or their children) could ever hope to live from renters who will never catch up no matter how hard they work.

These tensions illustrate the social and economic schism between renters and owners, which is widening each year as property values climb, distorting the concept of the middle class beyond recognition or meaning. Along with that is the psychological disconnect among homeowners between their past selves and their present circumstances, which allows them to believe that, despite their many advantages, they deserve even more: to arrange the world in a comforting reflection of their personal values, to resist changes that threaten their increasingly unattainable way of life, and to rely on the continued precarity of renters to subsidize their investments and multiply their wealth. To see the problem clearly, they need to step outside and see their homes for what they are now: costly relics of a long-ago era, tributes to a middle-class identity that no longer exists.

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.