This story is part one of our series Making Rent.
Read part two to understand how rental rates got so out of control.
Read part three to learn about what experts say we can do about it.
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“Right now my landlord, I’ve been living here for six years, but the market’s really good so of course she’s selling,” says Nanaimo resident Maegan Strom. “So I’m back looking for a place.”
As a fourth year geoscience student at Vancouver Island University and a single mother of four, Strom says even though she has an income and two of her children are grown and working, she feels that landlords just hear “student and single mom” and immediately reject her.
“I was just dismissed. I wasn’t even allowed to look at places,” she says. “Out of the 30 places I’ve applied for, I’ve only been able to view two.”
Strom says she had a good relationship with her landlord, who never raised the rent while she was there. In exchange, Strom replaced the rotten back deck and renovated the top floor of the house, thinking she’d be there for at least three more years.
The rentals currently on the market are at least double her current rent of $1,200, she says, usually for fewer bedrooms – sometimes suites in a shared house – and include no utilities.
At one of the houses she contacted, the landlord (who didn’t want to be named) told The Discourse he had received more than 100 inquiries immediately after posting his rental ad. One of the respondents even offered him $3,200 a month, $650 a month more than what he was asking, he added.
Though he declined the offer and went with a different tenant, the landlord says he was surprised by the response and felt sorry for many of the respondents, who seemed desperate.
To many Nanaimo renters, Strom’s story is familiar. Most renters we spoke with and who responded to our survey describe feeling increasingly strained as rent eats up more and more of their income — if they’re lucky enough to even find a place at all in the current market.
What is it like to be renting in Nanaimo right now? Here’s what the numbers tell us.
Higher rent, lower income
According to government agencies like BC Housing, housing experts and advocates for rental affordability, housing is considered to be affordable if its cost doesn’t exceed 25 to 30 per cent of a household’s pre-tax income.
If it goes above that, the household is considered to be in “core” need, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
In Nanaimo, about a third of residents live in rental housing, according to the city’s most recent estimates.
Though the number of rental units increased in 2019, a growing population and demand for rental units has caused the average vacancy rate to drop to one per cent in 2020, down from two per cent the year before.
“One per cent is fairly low. It’s lower than the provincial average, especially last year in Nanaimo. It’s actually lower than Victoria and Vancouver’s,” says Pershing Sun, a senior analyst with CMHC.
“Victoria’s vacancy [rate] went up, but it’s interesting that Nanaimo’s went down. So that could be some data to support that there was less demand for rentals in Victoria, and more demand in Nanaimo.”
Of these rental households in Nanaimo, almost half – 48 per cent – fall into the category of spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent and utilities, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index (CRHI), which is produced by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.
However these costs are even less sustainable for 23 per cent of Nanaimo renters who report that they spend more than half of their gross income on rent and utilities (in the rest of B.C. it’s 21 per cent).
When we separate Nanaimo renters into four income brackets (ranked from highest to lowest with 25 per cent of the population in each), the differences become even more stark.
At the highest income levels, some wealthier households only spend 16 per cent of their income on rent and utilities, but for the lowest income group of Nanaimo renters (who on average earn $12,752 per year), the amount they spend balloons to 72 per cent of their income. In other words, they would need to earn 142 per cent more to make rent affordable.
The data that the CRHI uses comes from the 2016 long-form census, which they obtained through a Statistics Canada custom data request. When they calculate average rent, they include longtime renters who have resided in the same unit for a long time, which pushes the averages down.
However when we look at the current numbers for people entering the rental market, known as market rent, it becomes clear that over the last few years the situation for Nanaimo renters has become even more dire.
Part of the issue is how swiftly rents have increased. According to the online rental service Zumper, which aggregates rental data from hundreds of thousands of current listings to calculate median rents, in 2016 the average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Nanaimo was around $975.
However in less than five years, the average rent for a two-bedroom in Nanaimo has grown by 59 per cent, to the current estimate of $1,550.
If we crunch the numbers for a single mom who makes minimum wage of $14.60 an hour working full time, her gross wages for a year are around $28,000.
If she needs to move, with one or more kids she needs at least a two-bedroom place, which is currently about $1,550 a month (for an apartment), or $18,600 per year for rent.
Using the affordability standard of 30 per cent of her income, she should only pay about $750 per month in rent. But to be able to afford rent of $1,550, she should technically gross about $62,000 gross per year, which is a shortfall of $34,000.
If we enter the data for this single parent household in BC Housing’s rental assistance calculator, making minimum wage with one child, the rental supplement she could receive is approximately $225, leaving her with a $31,300 shortfall.
Though the temporary rental support program offered by BC Housing as a response to COVID-19 shortfalls has ended, the provincial rent increase freeze put in place by the NDP has been extended to July.
However there is currently no legislation in place to prevent landlords from hiking the rent once a tenant leaves, which leads to a “moving penalty,” explains Marc Lee, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“The fact that the ownership market is so out of control means there are more people stuck in the rental market,” says Lee.
“And then the rental market itself is vulnerable in the sense that even though we have rent controls, the rent controls are only one particular tenancy. Once the tenant leaves the unit then the rent can be jacked up to whatever the market will bear.”
Vacancy control would help, advocates say
This situation prompted Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson to advocate for the implementation of vacancy control last year, a move that Lee also supports.
The concept is that rental rates are tied to the housing unit, not to the renter, and rate increases are locked to inflation, instead of set by the landlord when a tenant moves out.
“In 2016 I was evicted because the new owner said he had to live in my tiny carriage house while he renovated the main house,” says local resident and renter’s advocate Dianne Varga, via our survey.
She suspects the reason for the renoviction was that the owner then wanted to boost the rent. “That eviction set off four moves in five years, raising my rent 50 per cent overall.”
When she lived in Kelowna, Varga founded the advocacy group Renters United Kelowna and believes that it is through a lack of vacancy control that “rental rates for 50-year-old apartments are not far off those for brand-new buildings” and that it incentivizes landlords to evict tenants, among other issues.
Record-breaking housing prices
Another incentivizing force for evictions is the recent rise in housing prices, which reached record highs last year.
This month, the BC Real Estate Association (BCREA) reported that January 2021 residential unit sales across Vancouver Island had increased by 80 per cent over last year, breaking all previous sales records. The total dollar sales volume across Vancouver Island this January soared by nearly 100 per cent over January last year.
Crucially, the BCREA reported that the number of sales listings in B.C. are also now at a record low, potentially prompting some landlords to feel that now is the time to sell.
The potential of eviction and uncertainty looms even for Nanaimo renters who earn far more than minimum wage, like Sarah Brown, a parent and partner in a successful marketing firm who has saved a downpayment for a house she fears she’ll never be able to buy.
Last summer she split from her husband, and stayed living at their house until the following April while she immediately looked for a place to buy. However logistical problems due to COVID-19 delayed the paperwork process of getting her name off the mortgage.
“I ended up just having to sit and wait. I went and looked at this one townhouse last year in December. It was listed for $289,000 at the time and I put an offer in, but they couldn’t accept me because I needed to figure out my other mortgage. That same townhouse now has been relisted for $329,000,” says Brown, which is a price now out of her budget.
Around the same time, Brown’s boyfriend and his roommate got a notice that their landlord was moving back into the rental they had occupied for ten years, so all three of them and Brown’s two children decided to pool their resources and look for a place together.
“We ended up in a five bedroom at $2,500, which is great. This place is awesome. I’d be so sad if we had to move out, but that could happen at any time because the owner wants to move in here. His buddy lives next door and it’s his plan to come and live here at some point,” says Brown. “So it’s tentative, right? It’s fine for now but I’m terrified. I can’t buy anymore because in the meantime of waiting to get off that mortgage, now there’s nothing.”
Moving in with a new partner before she was emotionally ready also took its toll and made her “super uncomfortable,” says Brown, but it felt like her only choice.
“I just ended a 20 year marriage, I needed time,” she says.
Ultimately, even renting again feels potentially out of reach, considering that Brown estimates her current rental would probably cost at least $500 more per month if it was put on the market again.
“I feel frozen, right? I’m so happy that we ended up in a nice rental but I’m so disappointed at the same time that I’m completely at the whim of somebody else, and I can’t get into stable housing,” she says.
“It’s not a forever home. I literally… sometimes at night I’m like, ‘What am I going to do when [the landlord] wants to move into this house?’ Because god only knows what the market’s going to look like then. And then what am I going to do?” [end]
Average vs median rent: Average rent is calculated by adding up the total cost of rents and then dividing them by the total number of units. Median rent is calculated by ordering the rents from highest to lowest and then finding the middle between the two.
Average rent: Average rent calculated by CMHC and CRHI include the rental rates of people who have been renting their units for a long time. Because longtime tenants’ rates are rent-controlled, these averages tend to skew lower than market rent.
Market rent: This is the average rental rate for prospective tenants without any subsidies for a unit considering location, condition and amenities.
Affordable rent: Most housing advocates use 30 per cent of income as a benchmark for affordable housing. Prior to the 1980s, that benchmark was 25 per cent based on studies of what families historically spent on housing dating back to the late 1800s, which was roughly a week’s worth of wages, according to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.