Brianna Bell is a Guelph-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Independent and on TVO.org and CBC.
It’s a perfect summer day, and I’m spending it chatting with my next-door neighbour, sharing our weekend plans and discussing the wasp invasion on our front yard. Soon we veer into more serious territory: the shared fear we have as renters. We are both long-term tenants in a townhouse condominium in Guelph, Ont. We have different landlords, but we feel equally comfortable and happy in our current rental situations. Our complex is in one of the most desirable areas of the city, a short walk from the downtown, in a historic neighbourhood full of lush trees and an abundance of parks and walking trails. With rental prices skyrocketing, we know a good thing when we see it – and what we have is very good.
The lack of permanency as a renter niggles at the back of my mind, an anxiety that grows the more I focus on it. The possibility of losing my beloved rental home is not unrealistic. My brother-in-law and his partner are currently dealing with this exact situation; their landlord is selling their home, forcing them out in 60 days. For my brother-in-law, the solution is to move into his parents’ home with his partner and save for a down payment on a home of their own. That’s an unrealistic solution for someone such as me, living with my husband and our three rambunctious children 7 and under.
My husband and I married and had children young, making it almost impossible to buy a home in a housing climate that is already inhospitable to new buyers. Despite being long-term renters, we’ve remained committed to making the best of our living situation. For the past three years we’ve lived in a three-bedroom townhouse for an affordable $1,550 a month. In many ways, we feel like a typical suburban family, not that different from those of our own childhoods. We have close relationships with our neighbours, our kids spend their days riding their bikes on our private street, and on weekends they like to set up a lemonade stand under the shade of the mature Japanese lilac on our lawn.
My children will be entering their fourth and second years at our neighbourhood school, a place that feels like a second home to our family. It’s where I volunteer weekly for the breakfast-club program and am an active classroom volunteer, and it’s the only school my children have ever attended. We crave consistency for our kids, but we also feel powerless to secure the future we envision. A five-year-old and seven-year-old don’t understand the concept of renting – their home is their home, and to be forced to leave would be beyond their comprehension. We have no interest in uprooting our lives, but it doesn’t take much to shake the foundation we’ve created. Our landlord, who purchased the home as an investment, could sell the place at any time.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) publishes an annual rental market survey. As of October, 2018, there is a 1.4-per-cent vacancy rate in Guelph. Over the past three years, rents have increased substantially here – according to the CMHC, by 4.1 per cent in one year. If we were facing eviction, we would have no local family members to turn to and would be confronted with the challenge of finding something comparable to our current home at a significantly higher price.
Last week, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) issued an eye-opening report on rental affordability. The report, called Unaccommodating, paints a bleak picture for families and individuals renting in Canada. For anyone working full-time at minimum wage, only 24 of the 795 neighbourhoods the CCPA looked at across the country have two-bedroom apartments that are considered affordable – a meagre 3 per cent. The report also indicates that one in four Canadians earn within $3 of their provincial minimum wage, so it recommends an increase in affordable housing to address the issue.
The CCPA calculated the hourly wage required to afford a two-bedroom apartment – which it says is the most popular type of rental property – in each neighbourhood. In Guelph, in order to keep rent at a reasonable 30 per cent of earnings, a tenant would have to make $22 an hour to afford a two-bedroom. By way of comparison, Toronto requires that an individual earn an hourly wage of $34 for a similar apartment. (Full disclosure: My husband and I pay less than 30 per cent of our annual income on rent, yet we still find it challenging to cover all our bills, despite being frugal and living within our means.)
The entire report is illuminating, but a very small and potentially overlooked detail stood out to me: Less than 10 per cent of rentals in Canada are three-bedroom homes or apartments – properties that appeal most to families with two or more children. This leaves such families competing against each other for the best rentals, driving prices up further and creates a vulnerable situation for those families.
I’ve watched half a dozen friends and family face eviction, through no fault of their own, over the past few years. According to Toronto-based landlord and tenant lawyer Caryma Sa’d, renters should consider their options if they’re being evicted. “You can’t be forced out without the sheriff coming to your door and an eviction order, and that doesn’t happen magically overnight, leading up to if you get a hearing,” Ms. Sa’d said.
That hearing is with the Landlord and Tenant Board, where tenants can argue their case for staying or at least extending their time in their rental unit. Ms. Sa’d said some landlords will ask tenants to sign an N11, which confirms the termination date (typically 60 days), but the tenant is not required to sign this form, especially if they want a hearing. While going forward with a hearing may secure you extra time, Ms. Sa’d explained, if the landlord’s reasons are legitimate, a hearing will rarely lead to a cancellation of the eviction.
She added that renters who have put down permanent roots should have a signed lease with their landlord. Once that lease has expired, it’s important to have a new one drafted and signed so you don’t leave yourself vulnerable with a month-to-month situation.
Amy and Nathan Kuenzel were renting month-to-month when they were notified that their landlord was moving back into the home, forcing them out. The London, Ont., detached home had three bedrooms and a large backyard – ideal for their growing family. The couple hadn’t known that re-signing their lease would have given them more security or that requesting a hearing was an option.
“It was perfect for us. We didn’t want to move because the price was really good,” said Ms. Kuenzel, who was in the first trimester of her third pregnancy when she received the news.
At the time, Mr. Kuenzel was completing his seminary degree and final year as an intern at a nearby church. After that he would be looking for another job and relocating again. “It was really uncertain, because we knew at the next place we would be there for only a while,” Ms. Kuenzel said. The family found a smaller, semi-detached house for $100 more a month, and once Mr. Kuenzel completed his internship, they moved again, to an even more expensive townhome.
“We’ve gone a little bit more expensive each time we’ve moved, but we’ve gotten less and less house,” Ms. Kuenzel said.
Now they, too, are saving for a down payment to purchase a home.
The Kuenzel family’s housing situation is my worst nightmare. It highlights the forced transiency of many renters, made even more heartbreaking when young children are pushed from one home to the next. For the Kuenzels, who knew they had to relocate in a year, the additional, unexpected move added a layer of frustration and an unnecessary financial and emotional burden.
Like the Kuenzels, I didn’t know about the many ways that renters can safeguard themselves, but luckily it’s not too late for us. In the meantime, we continue cultivating relationships with our neighbours and our surrounding community, establishing roots in a home that isn’t really ours to claim.
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