Finding rental housing in Abbotsford like ‘searching for the Holy Grail without Indiana Jones’

City has Canada’s tightest rental market, but no sign it will improve this year

Stephnie Smith doesn’t need statistics to tell her it’s difficult to find housing in one of Canada’s tightest rental markets.

For nearly two years now, Smith has been sharing a bedroom in a central Abbotsford home with her 10-year-old daughter. Seven other family members live and share rent in the unremarkable two-storey home.

Smith, along with her daughter and uncle, moved to the crowded home last year after having had enough with a basement suite that needed – and was not receiving – significant maintenance. The house wasn’t the first option; the move came only after Smith tried for six months to land another rental unit.

“I called all the apartments out there,” she said. “They’re all full.”

Smith and her daughter aren’t alone.

Abbotsford has the tightest rental market in the country, according to a new report issued Tuesday by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Last year’s vacancy rate of 0.5 per cent – already among the lowest in the country – plunged even further, to just 0.2 per cent.

That means that of every 500 rental homes in Abbotsford, just one is vacant. Provincewide, the vacancy rate is 1.3 per cent, while Metro Vancouver’s rate sits at 0.9 per cent. Mission’s vacancy rate also dropped by half over the last year and now sits at 0.6 per cent.

Even if you factor in homes where tenants have given notice but no tenant has been found, only one of every 200 units is up for grabs in a given month. Those figures mean there is significant competition for any rental units that become available.

The CMHC attributed a strong local economy, more migration to the area and high home ownership prices for increasing the number of renters.

The Abbotsford News asked readers on Facebook about their experiences trying to find rental housing.

“Finding a cheap apartment in Abbotsford is akin to searching for the Holy Grail without the help of Indiana Jones,” wrote Wallace Wells. Others wrote about the difficulty in finding apartments with children or pets.

A common sentiment is that landlords and rental agencies are charging more than is warranted or trying to evict tenants because the housing market is so tight.

“I am in a panic every month because my landlord reminds me I pay way under what his home is ‘worth’ now (I’ve lived here seven years) and has asked me to pay over the allowed percentage increase in rent,” Korinne Charity wrote. “When I say I can’t, he threatens to kick me out and rent to a new family who will have to pay him more.”

Some renters have suggested a need for caps on what landlords can charge for rent.

The tight market is squeezing renters, but it has also prompted a growing number of developers to look into building rental housing in Abbotsford.

The problem, Mayor Henry Braun said, is that both the private and government responses to the rental housing shortage will take years to actually show results. Currently, 552 rental units are under construction, but only 74 have been completed so far in 2017. Another 400-plus have been proposed by developers.

The CMHC predicts the vacancy rate will stay below one per cent for years to come.

“We have to do something to increase the supply and reduce the cost if that’s possible,” Braun said.

Property tax dollars are insufficient to make a dent in the issue. Instead, he said the city needs help from senior levels of government to provide affordable housing. Braun is hopeful that the federal government’s recently announced National Housing Strategy will help. But even that multi-billion-dollar program won’t translate to more rental units within the next year or two.

The City of Abbotsford is also working to refresh its own Affordable Housing Strategy, which was last updated in 2011. That program set a goal for all residents living in “safe, stable, appropriate housing that is affordable for their income level.”

That will remain the goal, Braun said, adding that council and staff are working to try to find solutions. The city has recently launched a survey to solicit public input for the new strategy. The public can take it at affordablehousing.metroquest.ca. The city has also relaxed parking rules on recent applications for new rental housing buildings near transit routes.

But renters continue to struggle.

In recent months, Smith’s search for an apartment or basement suite has been reinvigorated. Once or twice a week, she checks listings for, as she describes it, “anything that will get my daughter and I into a place where she has her own room.”

Her goal of a $900 two-bedroom unit is in line with average rents for such units But those averages are skewed by the fact that landlords are limited by how much they can raise rents on existing tenants. Units that are open tend to rent for much more, as Smith has found.

“The prices people are asking right now are ridiculous,” she said. Two-bedroom basement suites that rent for $1,500 are out of the price range for single working people. And there are other obstacles which, in a cooler rental market, probably wouldn’t be barriers.

The pair have two pets: a nine-year-old dog and a cat that Smith’s daughter takes care of; giving them up isn’t in the cards yet. And Smith has found one more issue: before she landed a job at Tim Hortons two months ago, she was previously on income assistance. That, she found, could be a deal-breaker. On one occasion, the pets were fine until she revealed she was on social assistance; suddenly, the animals weren’t welcome. Such housing discrimination is illegal under the BC Human Rights Code, but in 2016, The News found multiple instances of landlords discriminating against protected classes of tenants.

The competition for available apartments is such that new spots invariably go to the prospective tenant who is first able to come up with a deposit. So far, that’s a race that Smith – who relies on transit and still has limited savings – has been unable to win.

Given current conditions, she puts her chance of landing a new apartment at 40 per cent.

“It can be frustrating because I want my own place. I want my daughter to have her own room, her own place.”

Watch Friday’s Abbotsford News on how governments are – or are not – addressing the rental crunch and what renters think should be done.

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