No place to charge one’s phone (or hang one’s hat)? On renoviction in Canada’s home rental market

Like many small business owners in SK, I appreciate having the opportunity to work from home. For nearly 10 years, I have benefited from writing and editing online and off, from a home office that was conveniently located close to downtown Saskatoon and its amenities.

But I recently relocated to avoid extremely noisy, light reducing building renovations in the highrise complex that I had called “home” for 10 years.

This week’s blog posting addresses the politically charged topic of “renoviction”— a disturbing trend in urban rental housing (chronicled by the CBC and other sources) where lower, or lower middle class, renters are forced to vacate rental property, by a landlord’s intrusive renovations. When tenants leave, they incur costly moving and relocating expenses, and forgo the reasonable cost of rent that had come with their original, long-term leases. Depending on the city where you reside, other reasonably priced, rental housing can be hard, if not impossible, to find.

Online articles from the CBC tell us that factors that keep vacancy rates low are rising interest rates, tougher rules to qualify for mortgages, housing prices that have cooled but are still high–all of which keep prospects from buying houses or condos. These people, plus new immigrants, students and low income seniors keep demand on the rental market steady, if not high. Although Saskatoon currently has high rental vacancy rates (14% in 2018), that has not always been the case. And the above factors (interest rates, mortgage rules, the costly housing market) have intensified in the downtown core and in the upscale new neighbourhoods of Saskatoon.

If tenants facing “renoviction” stay put (while significant, structural changes are being made to their dwellings), often little or no rental discount or incentive is provided for them. Meantime, their lives are disrupted by noise and other diminishing factors. Following potentially months or years of such disruptions, property management companies, often driven by greedy owners, drive up the cost of rent by $200 or $300+, per month, pushing many, lower income tenants to the edge of bankruptcy.

There are important exceptions, to be sure: Some local owners and landlords work hard to maintain the quality of the properties they own or manage and strive to treat their tenants fairly. These landlords live in our city and take their responsibilities to the community seriously.

But “renovictions” have been an acute problem in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where credit counsellors have warned of a general increase and (notably since 2019 began) a recent surge of “renovictions” in the rental market. The problem has swept across Canada, with implications also for smaller centres with higher vacancy rates, like Saskatoon. Some of the problematic rental properties are managed long distance by owners and landlords who have no office or residence in our city or our province.

Desperate tenants in Vancouver and Toronto sometimes go to “payday” lenders with astronomical interest rates, to get installment loans to pay for such spikes in rent. Credit counsellors warn that such debt can be very difficult to resolve.

The plan to renovate buildings is a lawful excuse to evict, according to Canadian landlord-tenant law. In Ontario, where rental practices have been best publicized, landlords must demonstrate that significant renovations are being done and they must allow evicted tenants back into their buildings after the renovations, and at the same rate of rent, until a rental increase can be lawfully scheduled. This has not been my experience in Saskatoon.

But one tenants’ advocate in Toronto (and such advocacy groups are too few on the Prairies) has argued that once evicted, many renters are not financially able to move back in. CBC online tells us that landlords can schedule rent increases for a new lease at whatever the market demands. Furthermore, the landlord has no obligation to say how long the eviction will last, threatening the renters’ financial and personal planning and security. The rise in rent may not necessarily reflect tangible improvements to the ostensibly upgraded property.

If the newly renovated building becomes ready when the tenant has already started a new lease elsewhere, few such tenants can afford pay for two leases.
In both large and small cities in Canada, wages of tenants are not rising to reflect the increasing cost of the rental market, so that some tenants must give up jobs and flee the cities which earlier sustained their livelihoods.

“Renoviction” can force tenants to give up optimally located careers, relationships with friends, family and local resources (e.g. small businesses, not-for-profit organizations).

Paul Kolinski, a musician in Toronto’s College-Dovercourt neighbourhood for 10 years, told the CBC that while he was fighting “renoviction” in his building, he was expecting to “start over,” somewhere else. He wondered how far west he’d have to move, speculating “Hamilton,” or even “Winnipeg?”

But anecdotal evidence among friends and family indicates that tenants in Hamilton, Waterloo, Winnipeg, and smaller centres like Saskatoon are not immune to the crisis of “renoviction.”

However, while the condominium and housing market crises of the last 30 years have been widely discussed, “renovictions” in the Prairie rental market have not yet been widely discussed.

The City of Saskatoon continues to license apartment complexes (such as the one where I was based for 10 years) and to charge entrepreneurs for those licenses, when the properties involved may be under the siege of ”renoviction.” That does not help to support the small, home-based businesses that are the lifeblood of our local economy. (The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses tell us that 75% of most of our provinces’ economies are fueled by small businesses, many of which start as home-based ventures.)

The CBC reports that monthly rents in Canada rose by 6% in January, 2019, alone. Houses that tenants could once have rented as an alternative to high or low rise buildings, have often been converted to Airbnb (short-term) rentals, removing another option from the table.

While we have had a healthy vacancy rate of 14% in Saskatoon (2018; a supposed “renter’s market”) and the average rent increase expected in 2019 will be only 2%, reasonably priced and quality rental property can be hard to find, especially when located close to the city’s services and amenities.

Meantime, the vacancy rate for rental property in hubs like Toronto in 2017 was only 1.1% (the lowest in 16 years). And yet the population base of central Canada has historically allowed them to develop stronger advocacy groups in all sectors, including the housing market. Those groups are calling for government intervention, to prevent “renoviction” from emptying out Canada’s urban landscape.

Governments are slow to respond in Central Canada and even slower out West. But respond they must, since vulnerable seniors, students and renters with steep rent increases will be lobbying and voting for rent controls and more affordably priced housing.

Saskatoon might consider itself a “kinder, gentler” urban centre, a “university town” that is reputed to be kind to its students, seniors and new Canadians. But in or near the downtown and in new neighbourhoods currently under development, the pressure of “renoviction” is real. Overworked, stressed, managerial staff on-the-ground are left to cope with angry, complaint-ridden tenants, while distant wealthy property owners benefit.

And this is not aided by the significantly fewer number of advocates/advocacy organizations for lower/lower middle class and home-based business owners. For instance, Saskatoon’s “Rentalsman Office” (Office of Residential Tenancies) says nothing about “renoviction” on its website or online materials. And to the best of my knowledge, no other organization publishes policies for public support, on this issue.

While I found an alternative housing option with room for a home office, operated by a local property management company that has its roots in Saskatchewan, I don’t delude myself that the matter is resolved. Saskatoon may be touted as one of the cheaper Canadian cities to rent a condo, some of the apartment stream is another story. “Renoviction” is here, too. And I’m only too aware that side-stepping the city’s residential tenancy court, in the effort to avoid disruption to life, career and privacy, does nothing to curb the broader problem we face.

Change to government policy is needed and it’s needed now.

And now it’s your turn: Do you rent your home or run a rented, home-based business? Have you found that policies of “renoviction” undermine your life and work? Please write in; I’d be pleased to widen this discussion.