‘Working poor. I understand that term now’: Renters say competition is stiff as market trends cut options

Sewage leaks, black mould, pet problems and a long search. Ask about renting, and some Calgarians will tell you it’s tough and that it’s getting tougher, especially for anyone on a tight budget.

For years, the rental market has been losing cheaper private rental units far faster than Ottawa or any other government has built them.

Now those looking at the low-end of the market say there’s stiff competition for anything decent, and across the rental market, the average price on newly-vacant places has started to climb. Some residents say that will make housing top-of-mind as they vote in both upcoming elections.

“For the first time in my adult life, I’ve decided I’m actually going to go (to forums) and really hear what the candidates are saying,” said Celine Chorney, a health-care aide who feels too many promises are “smokescreens.”

“This year, I’m definitely interested in actually learning more.”

Chorney, who works close to full-time hours, discovered how tough renting can be after separating from her husband just before the pandemic. She and her two teenage children moved into a three-bedroom rental, then discovered it had a cracked and leaking sewage pipe.

But when she looked for a new place, she got turned down, often. Landlords said her income without child benefits must be at least double the rent. 

A unit is listed as “for rent” on this street in Forest Lawn. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

She searched three months for a new place, finally getting one surrounded by drug activity; she has naloxone by her front door and had to use it to save a stranger from an overdose last week. But that’s OK; it’s safe and clean inside, she said.

“Working poor. I understand that term now,” said Chorney.

“Raw sewage is my deciding factor in housing — I never really thought I would have that standard.”

Boosting rent with new tenants

The riding of Calgary Forest Lawn stretches from Southview to Monterey Park, including more than a dozen neighbourhoods east of the Deerfoot Trail.

CBC Calgary chose to focus our in-person listening here this federal election because it had the lowest voter turnout in Alberta in 2019, but the issues raised apply to many parts of the city.

One of the things we heard most about was housing, a concern across the city and here as well.

Several people said having a job no longer guarantees you can afford a roof over your head. And that the cost of utilities, groceries and rent are creeping steadily up, outpacing incomes. They’re also seeing more people sleeping in tents or even under bridges.

Having now spoken with more than 60 people in person for this project, we also turned to neighbourhood Facebook pages to reach others.

There, one landlord complained she was having a tough time evicting tenants who let their dog pee in the basement. But other tenants said they see a lack of renters’ rights: that listings unfairly ban guests and alcohol, are only for women, or include hundreds of dollars in pet fees.

Some told of landlords increasing rent by several hundred dollars a month when contracts came due.

A version of that happened to Marie Tucker, a live-in caregiver. First, the landlord told her family he was selling and they had to move, she said. Then, as they were moving, new tenants stopped by. It was a five-bedroom house in the Rundle neighbourhood that Tucker’s family had been renting for $1,650. 

The new tenants said they were taking it for $2,250. After two months of searching, they found a new house for a similar price, but it left a bitter taste. 

“I do plan on voting,” Tucker said. “I think we have a major housing crisis here in Alberta.… (I’ll be paying attention to) housing and our drug issues. We have a huge issue here and it’s going to get worse.”

One cause is the steady disappearance of cheap housing.

The cheapest units disappear

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) says Calgary has an “affordability gap” for low-wage earners.

Twenty per cent of Calgary renting households make $36,000 a year or less. That means they can afford to pay $900 a month or less in rent (using the official standard of 30 per cent of their income).

But only 11 per cent of rental units in Calgary are that cheap, and most of those are one-bedroom units.

Many of the cheapest units were built 50 years ago. Researchers say landlords, especially the large real estate investment trusts (REITs) that started buying up apartment buildings in the 1990s, have been demolishing or renovating these and re-renting at higher prices. 

It’s gone so fast, it’s out-paced federal efforts to build affordable housing. Using 2011-2016 census data, Ottawa-based consultant Steve Pomeroy found Canada lost 322,000 units priced $750/month or less over that five year period.

Even the Liberal’s National Housing Strategy couldn’t keep up to that. Since 2016, Pomeroy estimates those losses outpaced new units by a factor of four. 

Members of Acorn Canada’s fledgling Calgary chapter called for more affordable rental policies at a protest Sept. 1. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

“The loss of rental housing over decades has been a huge factor in the problems we see in rental markets,” said Tim Richter, head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and part of a Vote Housing awareness campaign.

Calgary’s dealt with it for years, Richter said. Nationally, it’s now affecting people outside the big cities and getting more attention.

“You’re starting to see it in other places, like Hamilton and Windsor, Sault Ste. Marie and Wetaskiwin…. This is the first federal election that I can think of where all major federal political parties have a housing platform. That tells me Canadians are really feeling the pinch.”

Larger units tough to find

Nerissa Jobe, who’s off work on medical leave, has been watching the market with a wary eye.

She needs to move before next June because the landlord decided to cancel the rent-to-own contract on her main floor suite.

She has a teenager, a preschool-aged daughter and a cat — a “support pet” for her kids. 

“I’ve even been looking at owning a home,” she said. “(But) if you make less than at least $6,000 a month, there’s no way you’d qualify for a mortgage, let alone be able to save up.”

That leaves renting. She can afford $1,000 a month. But she says, “for a three bedroom right now in the city, I haven’t seen anything under $1,500. And most places don’t want children.

“I’m not sure how any single parent does it, let alone a single person in general. It’s just crazy.”

Many older rental buildings have been bought up by large companies such as Mainstreet Equities and Boardwalk. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Even with two incomes, the search can be frustrating. Matthew Home is a tire technician at Kal-Tire, now renting in the trailer park near Elliston Park, the far east end of the riding.

He, his wife and six-year-old daughter were in a two-bedroom suite for $1,200, he said. That was fine. But then she got pregnant with twins. 

They found a townhouse for $1,350 in Forest Lawn, only to discover it had black mould, a two-inch crack in the foundation and questionable wiring. They left after an inspection found it wasn’t up to code, he said.

The federal parties seem to be letting investment groups and these big corporations off the hook– Matthew Home

The mobile home is $1,400 a month plus utilities, but there aren’t many options anywhere in the city for families who need more space.

“The only full houses available (for rent) are far southeast, far northwest and large. They’re not starter homes. It’s a full sized house in a suburb and they’re asking $2,200 or more a month.”

Major parties all focus on affordable housing

Home wants to see federal parties control investment trusts. So far, he’s not impressed. 

The Liberals plan to cut back on people flipping houses by taxing anyone reselling a house in under 12 months. 

That will do little for the rental market, Home said. 

“It bothers me that the federal parties seem to be letting investment groups and these big corporations off the hook by saying, well, we’ll tax you if the house is empty but you can buy up as much as you want.”

The Liberal platform also says it will review the tax treatment these large investment groups get.

The Conservative platform focuses on building more homes overall — encouraging 1 million homes in three years — with the belief increased supply will cause prices to drop.

The NDP platform focuses on subsidized housing for those most in need, promising to get 250,000 new units built in five years.

Many of the renting issues residents in east Calgary bring up are not strictly federal. But some say they’re hoping a strong voice in Ottawa could pressure Alberta to act, and others are already looking further ahead to the municipal election in October.

CBC Calgary is on the ground in the riding of Calgary Forest Lawn, which spans more than a dozen neighbourhoods east of Deerfoot Trail, because that riding had the lowest voter turnout in Alberta during the last election. We’re there right through the campaign seeking out perspectives we might not hear otherwise.

But we also want to hear from everyone. Take a minute to fill out this form and let us know what you want the candidates to be talking about as they try to win your vote. We’ll read every answer and use them to help guide our broader election coverage.