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Condo towers dot the Toronto skyline as a pedestrian makes his way through the COVID-19 restricted winter landscape on Jan. 28, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Rental apartment vacancy rates fell in almost every major Canadian city in the second year of the pandemic – except for Toronto, which faced long lockdowns and government restrictions.

In the Toronto area, the most populated region in the country, the apartment vacancy rate climbed to 4.4 per cent in October, 2021, from 3.4 per cent a year earlier, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s annual rental report, which was released on Friday.

These numbers apply to so-called “purpose-built” rentals – apartments in buildings, many of them older, that were specifically constructed for rental. These apartments are cheaper to rent than condos owned by individual investors. (Condos that are rented are considered part of the “secondary” rental market.)

In contrast to Toronto, Canada’s apartment vacancy rate remained steady at 3.1 per cent over the first two years of the pandemic. Rates declined over that period in 21 of the country’s 37 census metropolitan areas, including Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Ottawa, London, Hamilton, Quebec City, Halifax and St. John’s.

CMHC’s rental report is another indicator of the pandemic’s impact on low-wage earners, many of whom worked in the services industry and lost their jobs when COVID-19 lockdowns shut down the economy.

While apartment vacancy rose in Toronto, the city’s condo rental vacancy rate remained low, at 1.6 per cent, according to the report. Condo rentals tend to attract higher-income earners. The disparity in rates suggests those wealthier renters were better able to stay in their homes during the first waves of the pandemic than lower-income earners.

“You’re looking at folks that are earning more, have more money and they were able to keep their jobs and work from home,” said Dana Senagama, CMHC’s senior specialist for the Toronto region.

“The majority of people that were impacted through the pandemic were lower income, working in the services sector and young folk that tend to rent at a lower rate, which is predominantly in the purpose-built market,” she said.

In Toronto, the share of tenants in purpose-built apartments who were in arrears on their rent payments was 10.37 per cent in October. The rate during the first year of the pandemic was similar.

The report did not provide an arrears rate for condos.

Cities close to Toronto and throughout Southern Ontario are dealing with a growing housing affordability problem. The apartment vacancy rate in Barrie, north of Toronto, is below 2 per cent. There, the typical home price has shot up by 40 per cent in one year.

Ontario’s provincewide arrears rate for apartments remained close to 10 per cent in October, while across the country the rate declined to 5.3 per cent in 2021, down from 6 per cent in 2020.

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