Not for rent: Abbotsford has tightest rental market in Canada

One family is finding just how tough it is to find a new home in a city with the lowest rental availability in the country

For months, Rachel Colquhoun has been looking for a new home for herself and her three children.

In September, the owner of the McCallum Road home she had been renting moved back, forcing Colquhoun and her kids out. Since then, the family has bounced around town. They have couch-surfed, accessed emergency shelter, and are now living in a friend’s basement on a short-term basis.

All the while, Colquhoun – an industrial painter who is a credit away from obtaining her criminology degree – has searched and searched and searched.

Money hasn’t been the main issue, she said. Instead, she says, there is so much demand for so few places available that landlords aren’t choosing to rent to Colquhoun, with her eight- and 11-year-old daughters and her 14-year-old boy, who also has a disability. She said she has never been evicted from a home before or failed to pay rent.

“Wherever I go, it’s way overpriced or 30 other people show up – married people with no kids. I don’t know if we don’t present well, but I’ve pounded the pavement and gone to every ad. I’ve had people say ‘yes,’ then call me back and say ‘no,’” she said.

If the family doesn’t find something soon, Colquhoun predicts they will have to leave the province.

A new report shows she is hardly alone in Abbotsford.

Abbotsford and Mission have the scarcest supply of rental housing in the country, according to a new report from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The area has the joint-lowest vacancy rate of all major Canadian centres, a factor in pushing average rents in the region considerably higher over the last year.

The region’s vacancy rate of 0.5 per cent – down from 0.6 per cent last year – is tied with Victoria for the lowest among major Canadian centres.

Its availability rate – which also factors in rental homes that are occupied but have an outgoing tenant – is the outright lowest in the country among all major areas.

Yet, the number of rental apartment units hasn’t so far kept up with demand, with a net increase of just four such units seen so far in 2016. Although 2015 saw the addition of around 200 units, the number of available rental units is still below levels seen more than 15 years ago, according to CMHC numbers compiled by the city.

The scarcity of rental units has pushed the average rent in the region up 4.9 per cent in 2016, from $787 to $829. That increase is more than the residential tenancies branch allowable rent increase of 2.9 per cent, but is possible because there is no limit to the amount a landlord can increase the rent after a tenant leaves.

“Despite high demand for rental accommodations, one-fifth of the rental stock did become available in the CMA during the past year,” the CMHC said in its report. “However, since the vacancy rate is low, there is a high probability that these units would have been rented quickly.”

Although there is some relief on the way in the long-term, Mayor Henry Braun expects the situation to get worse before it gets better.

“I think it’s going to continue to tighten, or even get worse,” Braun predicted, suggesting that the area won’t see a significant uptick in rental supply for at least six months, and maybe a year.

More than 1,100 purpose-built rental units are currently either under construction or in the planning and development stage, but Braun said “they’re going to be a year away from being able to receive any occupants.”

The increase in demand for rental housing is primarily due to more people moving to Abbotsford, particularly from other B.C. cities, the CMHC said. More than 2,400 new people came to Abbotsford in 2014 and 2015, and many such migrants choose to rent before deciding whether to buy a home.

A strong local economy has spurred that migration, with employment levels above historical levels and the number of full-time jobs rising throughout 2016.

While Abbotsford’s vacancy rate already didn’t have much room to drop, Mission’s vacancy rate was a comparably high 3.2 per cent in 2015. Over the past year, though, that figure has dropped significantly, to just 1.2 per cent.

The report also suggests that finding certain type of accommodation is nearly impossible. Vacancy rates in purpose-built apartment buildings for both bachelor units and those with at least three bedrooms were both 0.0 per cent. Across the region, just 275 such units exist. And the vacancy rate for apartments built since 1990 was just 0.1 per cent.

Braun predicted there will be a long-term easing of the rental crunch, saying that a combination of market forces and improvements at city hall have made Abbotsford more attractive for developers of new rental units. As rental units are built and open for new tenants, the hope is that those at the bottom-end of the market will be able to move into newer units, opening up more spaces.

The city hopes to encourage the development of rental units by allowing secondary suites and coach houses and promoting densification. But Braun says senior levels of government also have to step up to the plate. Braun said he continues to hope that the federal government fulfills its promise to create a national housing strategy.

Last week, the B.C. government announced dozens of projects to be built across the province for a price tag of $516 million. None of those projects, however, will be built in Abbotsford or Mission.

When asked about the need for such projects, Braun suggested the new units being built by private developers will have a greater impact and, even if they aren’t immediately available, will be finished well before any provincially funded projects begin welcoming residents.

Meanwhile, Colquhoun continues her search.

In desperation, she has now broadened the range of housing she’s looking at. With so few three-bedroom homes available, she’s now willing to move herself and her kids into a two-bedroom unit, if that’s what it takes. But she will still need someone to take a chance on her and her kids.

“It’s not always about money. It’s about opportunity.”

 

 

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