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Condominiums are seen in the Yaletown neighbourhood of Vancouver on Sept. 30, 2020.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

Maytal Kowalski has been scouting apartment listings in Vancouver for weeks, preparing for a move from Toronto in April to start a new job. She’s seeing a lot of vacancies, especially in the West End – sometimes even the same apartment listed two months in a row.

So she’s preparing to do something she’s never been able to do in her almost two decades as a renter: bargain with the future landlord.

“It hasn’t been a renters’ market for so long that people don’t realize they can do that,” said the 37-year-old, who is looking for a two-bedroom for herself and her husband.

That’s new territory for Vancouver renters, where the pandemic has resulted in dramatically reduced numbers of new immigrants, university students from Canada and elsewhere, and tourists who typically flock to urban centres.

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Vacancy rates have now inched up in the region to levels not seen since 1999, while rent increases have slowed as landlords in some buildings compete to get tenants.

The annual rental report by Canadian Mortgage and Housing pegged the 2020 vacancy rate for purpose-built rentals in Metro Vancouver at 2.6 per cent, compared to 1.1 per cent in 2019 and one per cent the year before.

In one section of downtown Vancouver with a lot of newer buildings that rent at the top end of the scale, the vacancy rate is currently as high as 6.3 per cent. In the University of B.C. district, the vacancy rate has gone from 0.4 percent in 2019 to 13 per cent in the past year.

That has turned Vancouver from almost the tightest rental market in the country (after Halifax) to one more in line with that of Montreal or Peterborough, Ont.

That has prompted some landlords to offer incentives and to loosen bans on pets, say those who work in the sector.

“So many people are getting cats and dogs now [in the pandemic] and the rental market is trying to adapt,” said Paula Azevado, business development co-ordinator for liv.rent, a platform that manages landlord-tenant connections.

She said landlords of larger operations are also offering incentives like free parking, a first month of rent free, or discounted rent for the first four months in some markets.

The downside is that vacancy rates are still below what’s considered a balanced market in many areas – and that rent is still unaffordable for many.

As well, vacancy rates got worse in some of the region’s suburbs, which also saw higher rent increases than the central city.

Abbotsford dropped from a 1.1 per cent vacancy rate in 2019 to 0.6 per cent in 2020. The same happened in some smaller cities in the province, like Kelowna.

There are still nowhere near enough apartments at cheap rents anywhere for those in lower income ranges, the CMHC report notes.

Renters like Ms. Kowalski, who will be working for a non-profit foundation, and her husband, who works in the restaurant sector, figure they can afford a unit in the mid-$2,000s range. That gives them lots of choices.

But CHMC analyst Eric Bond noted in his report on Vancouver that about 40 per cent of people in the region make less than $47,000 a year – but only about 24 per cent of apartments are in the $1,400-a-month-or-less range that they could afford.

“So they have to pay more [to get an apartment] or look in the non-market sector,” Mr. Bond said.

The report, which obtains its data through a comprehensive survey of property managers and owners that covers about 116,000 units in the Lower Mainland, also identified for the first time how many renters are behind on payments.

British Columbia is doing relatively well, compared to Alberta and Ontario. In Vancouver, renters behind on payments make up only 2.5 per cent of all rents, compared to 11 per cent in Toronto. In B.C. overall, the arrears rate was at 3.2 per cent when data was collected last October, while Ontario was at 12.2 per cent and Alberta at 7.5 per cent.

LandlordBC CEO David Hutniak said that the province’s rent-supplement program and a proactive effort by landlords to work with tenants on repayment plans helped keep debts down during the pandemic.

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