Hamilton Spectator: Vital Signs: The problem with Hamilton’s ‘Hunger Games’ rental market

Posted June 1, 2021

In her daily online searches for apartment rental listings in Hamilton, Miranda Alessi recently came across a two-bedroom unit that looked familiar.

Complete with a washer-dryer, it was listed for about $1,700.

The Brock University student quickly realized she had seen the same apartment online roughly three years ago. The monthly cost then? Less than $1,400.

“It doesn’t make sense to me how (prices) could go up so high in such a short period of time,” the 25-year-old said.

Alessi, who was laid off from her job as a legal assistant during the pandemic, said her partner’s steady income was a saving grace, allowing the pair to land a two-bedroom unit near Bay Street South and Main Street West for $1,650 per month, including parking. They plan to move in this month.

“It was very hard to find a place that was decent for that amount,” she said.

Soaring rental prices are one of several housing-related challenges highlighted in the Hamilton Community Foundation’s annual Vital Signs report. And they go hand in hand with rental shortages.

“We’re literally into a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario in which people are competing in an impossible market,” said Terry Cooke, president and CEO at the Foundation.

While the city should work to “hold landlords to a higher standard, (that) in and of itself is not going to solve this problem if we don’t deal with the issue of supply,” he added.

Citing a 2020 rental market report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the foundation noted rents in Hamilton climbed 49 per cent over the past decade — more than double the cost of living increase. In the past year alone, rents for a two-bedroom unit jumped 25 per cent.

Jeff Wingard, a project manager at the foundation who analyzed the data, said average rental prices are “nuanced” because rates paid for occupied and vacant units can vary dramatically.

“They’ve usually been pretty close, but they’re not anymore,” said Wingard, with the average rent for a vacant two-bedroom unit increasing to $2,057 in March 2021 from $1,639 a year earlier.

If a property owner has a tenant who has been renting for years and only paying $700 a month, “there is an economic benefit” for the owner to renovate the unit and rent it to a new tenant, he added. “So, it puts pressure on existing tenancies as well.”

Such renoviction scenarios are playing out in buildings across Hamilton, including at a two-storey walk-up at 309 Strathearne Ave., where Darlene Wesley and her neighbours are fighting a legal notice to leave for renovations. Wesley, who has a chronic lung disease, has lived in the building for almost two decades and pays about $665 per month in rent from her disability support.

“It’s horrible, not knowing where you’re going to go,” said Wesley, a member of tenant advocacy group ACORN’s east-end chapter.

For those looking to pay less than $1,000 per month, the options are limited.

According to data provided by the CMHC, the average rent for a vacant bachelor unit in Hamilton in October 2020 was $921; $1,176 for a vacant one-bedroom; and $1,355 for a vacant two-bedroom. In occupied units, the average rent was about $185 less than that each month.

Renters aren’t the only ones in the city grappling with unaffordability. Prospective homebuyers are also up against a swelling market, with a recent study showing Hamilton is the third-least affordable metro area for housing in North America, behind only Vancouver and Toronto.

Anthony Passarelli, a senior analyst at CMHC for the area, said he expects sales activity to cool from an “unsustainable” level this spring.

“If things continue to moderate … it will affect the rental market a bit, but we’re at a point where affordability has really deteriorated in home ownership,” Passarelli said, adding he doesn’t expect to see many first-time potential buyers who are now renting find a home.

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Article by Vjosa Isai for the Hamilton Spectator

 

 

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