Columnist to Millennials: No Family Money to Buy a House? Just Leave the City
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Columnist to Millennials: No Family Money to Buy a House? Just Leave the City

The reality is our system is a deeply flawed, neoliberal hellscape in which the wealthy can afford to live anywhere they like.

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A Toronto neighbourhood most young people will never afford to buy into. Photo by Mandeep Flora via Torontoist’s Flickr pool

Matt Gurney, a former National Post columnist now with GlobalNews and an upper-end millennial (in terms of both age and, apparently, wealth), would like other millennials living in Toronto to know that housing here is expensive. He’d also like you to know that that’s okay, to him. In a column last week, he explains that he’s sorry he owns a wildly expensive house constantly appreciating in value, and he acknowledges that he’s benefited from “a well-timed inheritance or two,” but at great risk of being a jerk, he stands firm: if you can’t stand the housing bubble heat, get out of the city.

I have two issues with Gurney’s column. First, it describes a problem with which anyone in Gurney’s ostensible target audience—non-rich millennials—is well aware. “The sky is blue” is an utterly banal observation; likewise, so is “there is a lot of inequality today.” Even within this inane exercise, Gurney examines only a narrow aspect of the inequality facing Canadians today: young people’s inability to afford a detached home is certainly a problem, but it bleeds into the larger real estate market, which bleeds into the rental market, and all of that is compounded by increasingly deep income and wealth inequality. The exorbitant and rising price of a detached home is simply not the biggest issue facing many young people, but it is inextricably linked to a whole host of pressing concerns.

Second, Gurney offers no genuine solution, even to the specific, small portion of the problem that he identifies. He imagines the situation in which would-be homeowners are unable to secure the housing they’d prefer without having access to significant wealth is irremediable. Just as it was a part of growing up for him to realize that he would never work as a ghostbuster, so it is a part of growing up for Toronto-residing millennials to accept that their equally outlandish dreams of homeownership will ever be realized.

“Short of a major economic shock, housing prices in the heart of the nation’s largest metropolitan area, an emerging global economic and technology hub, aren’t likely to revert,” he writes. This is the thinking of someone who is either ideologically opposed to government intervention or convinced it would be impossible to bring about (readers might be interested to know the author’s view on the matter).

It’s patently obvious that there are things that can be done to control house prices or buyers’ access, aside from sitting back and allowing the great invisible hand of the market to work its awesome and terrifying magic. Government could impose price controls, build more housing, increase wages, institute a maximum income—any of those measures, and many others, could impact house prices or buyers’ ability to afford one. The ambitious and less focused on homeownership than Gurney could include treating housing as a human right or abolishing private property. Admittedly, politicians are unlikely to take any such actions without serious agitation, and Gurney probably would oppose some or all of these measures, but failing to even acknowledge they exist is a grave shortcoming in a piece claiming there’s nothing to be done about out-of-control house prices.

By foreclosing any avenue of political change, Gurney is able to wash his hands of the problem and suggest young people just leave for a different, more affordable city. (He’s since said his column wasn’t intended to chart a course of action for others, but it’s easy to see how someone could read lines like, “those of less modest means will have to settle for condos or apartments or live somewhere else,” or “a lot of millennials … are probably going to have to seek work elsewhere. And you know what? It’s OK,” and come to the conclusion that Gurney was, in fact, providing some direction.)

Having dismissed government action as either undesirable or impossible, it does approach some semblance of sense to write an entire column explaining that rampant, systemic inequality is simply the way things work, and if you want to own a house (or rent, or find a good job) you have to look somewhere else, and you may as well figure that out now, kid. Until that next city experiences a housing bubble, or the jobs dry up. Then, as Gurney would have it, you just…move to the next town after that, apparently.

Taken to its conclusion, Gurney’s suggestion (pardon me, his cool-eyed observation of the world as it is and must ever be) posits a neoliberal hellscape in which the wealthy can afford to live everywhere they like, banking real estate in every cool city they think they might want to spend a season, and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, forced into some kind of involuntary nomadism in a desperate search for both affordable housing and stable work. It’s not surprising this is where his logic takes us, since that’s largely where capitalism is headed anyway.

Thus, the problem with Gurney’s prescription is the same as with his diagnosis: it is banal. It offers nothing new to the reader, and its purported solution—despite claims to the contrary, there is one on offer—is not even a Band-Aid. He fails to acknowledge that there are ways to change the situation, and while he here and there affects an apologetic tone, he says it all with a smirk from his overpriced home where he counts his inheritances. At least he knows he was a jerk about it.