Canadian entrepreneurs used to build over 75,000 apartment units per year. Then came rent control, tax changes and other government intrusions, and they all-but abandoned the rental housing market. Now, with rental housing once again in short supply, the private sector has returned – pouring its own capital into improving and expanding Canada’s long-ignored stock of apartment buildings. Rather than celebrating this flood of new investment, however, a federally-funded cadre of housing activists is working overtime to prevent it. Peter Shawn Taylor examines the strange, Soviet-style demands of the Federal Housing Advocate and the harm such policies will do to Canada’s tenants.
As the Trabant was to cars, so was the panelki to housing.
The East German-made Trabant, powered by an obsolete two-stroke engine and lacking in all modern conveniences, stands as stark proof of Communism’s inability to respond to market demands, produce high-quality consumer goods or keep up with technological change. The same holds true for Bulgaria’s panelkis, shoddily-constructed government apartment towers made from prefabricated concrete panels that allocated a mere 100 square feet of living space per inhabitant. Massive, soulless structures of this sort once dominated the outskirts of major cities across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in sprawling complexes.
Andrey Pavlov grew up in Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia during the Communist era and recalls how the panelkis loomed over the urban landscape like a grim curse. “As with everything built during the Communist years, they were a complete disaster,” says Pavlov, now a finance professor at the Beedie School of Business at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, in an interview. “Not only were they depressing to live in, but the execution was terrible – there were gaps between the prefabricated panels and water constantly leaked into the units. Even brand new they were falling apart because there was no incentive to do better.”
The many failures of Communism: The underpowered, cramped, smoke-belching East German-made Trabant (left) and crumbling Bulgarian panelkis (right) are two prominent examples of the Communist system’s inability to meet basic consumer requirements or keep up with technological change. (Sources of photos: (left) D. Currie/The GDR Objectified; (right) BnR Radio Bulgaria)
Besides the terrible quality and cramped conditions, the allocation of panelkis was even worse, determined by corruption rather than need. The most desirable units – those with a view, or perhaps fewer leaks – went to Communist Party members and their families. “It was especially bad for anyone who was not politically connected. But that’s what you get when the government provides all the housing,” Pavlov warns. “The world has tried such a system many times before and it has failed every time. To see it proposed here again in Canada is very disappointing.”