A Worthy Cause

When I was in Fiji on vacation a few years ago, I met a wonderful family from Belgium. They were chocolatiers and had their own booming business, according to their own admission. As a life- long chocoholic, I understandably developed a strong bond with the family, as well as a way to order superb chocolates that none of my friends could figure out a way to buy.

But, chocolate is not the object of my article today. Over the ten days in this paradise on earth, we got to talking, my Belgium friends and I. As it turned out, they were homeowners, as they said quite a few times with enormous amount of pride. After a few not so subtle hints, I finally had to say, “Tell me more about your home.” Boy, did I open flood doors!

Judging by the way they talked, I initially though their house would be a heritage mansion, worth millions of dollars. Turns out it wasn’t, but it sure was pricey. It was a tightly packed townhouse in Brussels, only five meters wide, but with four floors and a tiny backyard, big enough for a few plants and bistro table and chairs.

So, what was the big deal? Well, simply the fact that new houses are rarely built these days in Europe. There is not enough space and, as a result, not enough homes on the market. Even when money is not an object, there are no guarantees a Belgian would be a homeowner. To make matters worse, my friends also told me that “every Belgian is born with a brick in his stomach.” Imagine how those unfortunate enough not to own a home must feel, never to be able to lay that brick to rest in their own home.

This is why North Americans are lucky. Having enough space to build homes and dreams was never our problem. Canadians are even luckier because they are also becoming wealthier each year– for real! Apparently, in the past six years, the nation’s collective wealth increased by an amazing 42% to about C$5.6 trillion. Translated into a more understandable figure, the median net worth of an average, two-income Canadian family now stands at $148,400.

At this point, doubting Thomases would for sure jump in merrily with a question about debt. And they would be right–Canadians too owe a lot of money, about C$760 billion. Not much in comparison to trillions of dollars owed by our neighbors south of the border, but then again, we’re a nation of just over 30 million. One could say we’re heavily in debt.

The only thing is that not all debt was created equal. Canadians are not crazed shopaholics as it may seem on the surface. We do not spend recklessly, but rather borrow money to invest in our own future and that of our society on the whole. According to Statistics Canada, more than 75% of those C$760 billion in debt is chalked under the column of homeownership, while only 3.4% represents credit card debt. Moreover, over the past six years, homeownership in Canada rose from 59.6% to 61.9%. Sure, it is only a statistic, but Canadians should be proud of it and celebrate it.

Why? Owning a home is not just a matter of comfort and social prestige. It is so much more. Owning a home is the best and biggest form of saving for retirement. Plus, it is a way to support healthy functioning of the society as a whole.

Because a home is the largest financial transaction most Canadians will ever undertake, their investment spreads much further than towards meeting their financial obligations. Homeowners are optimists; they are more engaged in local political institutions and more interested in what goes on in their neighborhoods than renters. And I don’t mean just when it comes to littering and beautifying their front yards.

If only politicians would find a better way to embrace this pride of homeownership instead of lamenting about urban sprawl or ignoring the benefits of homeownership to our great society. If only Canadian politicians would find a way to build up on our dream and nurture every Canadians’ desire to own a home. Australians have done it. They are not curbing homebuilding. Quite the contrary, their approach to the issue has helped push the homeownership rate past 70%, making it one of the highest rates in the world!

I don’t like the word ‘crusade’ very much, too many unpleasant historic references. However, the word ‘campaign’ could work, and the banner “Every Canadian a Homeowner” seems to me as a cause worthy of undertaking by any politician, regardless of his or her respective party colors.