Sorry, no vacancy

MARY McIVER November 23 1987

Sorry, no vacancy

MARY McIVER November 23 1987

Sorry, no vacancy


When 33-year-old advertising sales representative BetsyAnne Barton returned to Toronto in June after more than a year in England, friends told her that she would find apartment rents surprisingly high. Barton said that she replied, “Don’t be stupid. London is expensive. Toronto’s not expensive.''' But then, she added,

“when I started looking for a bachelor apartment, I was just amazed at how much everything cost. Anything decent was $700 or $800 a month.” Barton said that she finally heard about an apartment “through a friend of a friend” and eventually sublet a one-bedroom apartment in a highrise building in central Toronto for $480. But when she moved in on Sept. 1, she said, “there were gaping holes in the walls that were only fixed after I complained. And they did such a shoddy job, the plaster kept falling down.

The place was so filthy that I had to use industrial-strength cleaners.”

Still, Barton said that she considers herself lucky, and most apartment hunters in Toronto would agree with her.

The rent, which included a storage area and parking, was breathtakingly reasonable in a city where downtown one-bedroom apartments routinely rent for $1,000 a month. Although the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) has calculated the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto at $465—compared with

$443 in Vancouver, $391 in Winnipeg, $397 in Montreal and $444 in Halifax— those figures include already-occupied quarters. They do not reflect current rates in Toronto, where the scarcity of affordable apartments has pushed rents far beyond the reach of the average wage earner. Indeed, the shortage in rental accommodation has become so severe over the past year that many desperate apartment hunters agree to rent quarters sight unseen.

Finding adequate and reasonably priced rental accommodation has always been a challenge in major urban centres across the country—but in Toronto, the apartment shortage has reached crisis propor-

tions. The CMHC estimates the current apartment vacancy rate in Metropolitan Toronto at 0.1 per cent—meaning that out of every 1,000 existing apartments, only one is available. That rate is almost two full points behind Montreal and Winnipeg, which have the next lowest at 2.0 per cent.

Some experts attribute the scarcity to the provincial government’s system of rent controls, a measure undertaken in 1975 with the intention of protecting tenants from arbitrary and unfair rent increases. But the critics say that the rent controls—which have generally limited annual rent increases to be-

tween four and eight per cent—have reduced the supply of apartments and, as a result, have backfired against tenants. Still, tenants’ rights representative Michael Blazer says that the formula officials use for working out rent increases is generous to landlords. Said Blazer, director of law reform for Metro Tenants’ Legal Services, a provincially funded tenants’ legal aid clinic: “The legal rents that are permissible are so high, they even exceed the going market rate.”

Donald Richmond, general manager of the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Development Corp., which loans money to nonprofit builders, has a different explanation for the problem—the influx of people from the rest of Canada. A general downswing in the economy in some parts of the country, he said, “has resulted in the private sector virtually moving out of the production of rental units in most urban markets in Canada.” At the same time, added

Richmond, Toronto’s relatively buoyant economy has attracted new residents looking for jobs. “With low supply and lots of demand,” he said, “you’ve got a problem.”

Meanwhile, government promises of new low-rental housing have fallen short of a solution. In 1985 the provincial government committed $500 million to supplying an additional 100,000 units by 1990. But critics say that many more are needed even to begin to accommodate Toronto’s growing population. For its part, Metropolitan Toronto Housing Development has made a loan fund of $10 million available—

but only nonprofit builders or builders of co-operatives can borrow from it. Said Dennis Flynn, chairman of greater Toronto’s governing body, the Metropolitan Toronto Council: “We

wouldn’t lend money to people with a profit motive because we’re not charging any interest.” In any case, added Richmond, since the application of rent controls, private companies have refused to build without “massive subsidies”—which neither the federal nor the provincial government have provided.

One result of the scarcity of apartments has been a growing demand for self-contained units in private homes, known as flats or duplexes. But those are also in short supply—and that situation has focused attention on one possible solution to the problem: the potential rental space in existing, roomy single-family dwellings. Indeed, some experts claim that Toronto offers a mother lode of accommodation. “We

are probably the most overhoused people in the world,” said Richmond. However, that avenue has been frustrated by the fact that most local municipalities in Toronto have strict regulations forbidding single-family homeowners from converting their dwellings into multiple units—or even from renting out their basements.

Flynn says that Metro planning officials are encouraging local municipalities to change their zoning bylaws “in order to permit, for example, a second family to live in a house that has adequate space.” But he added that municipalities, in turn, must abide by provincial government regulations that will not allow people to live below an acceptable standard. Under any circumstances, he said, basement apartments are illegal, unless a certain portion is above ground.

But some experts say that the biggest obstacle in the way of home-toapartment conversions is local ratepayers groups. Said Richmond, in a colloquial turn of phrase: “Them that have got it, got more than they need. And they are saying, ‘I’m all right, Jack, and I don’t care.’” Still, Blazer said that he is convinced that a large percentage of homeowners would be interested in renting out part of their houses if they were allowed to. Said Blazer: “There are probably tens of thousands of units that could be created overnight.” He added that local government should show more leadership: “They have to go around and educate people and change people’s attitudes.”

One Toronto resident who would likely benefit from such a campaign is Cathy Jones, a city employee and the divorced mother of a teenager, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because she is living illegally in a twobedroom basement apartment. “I resent paying rent for this dump,” she said. “It’s November, and it’s cold here at night. I work, I make almost $30,000 a year and I’m paying $685 a month that I can’t afford. But I can’t afford not to pay it. I really feel trapped.”

For his part, Richmond said that the current situation reflects a complete attitude turnaround. “The ‘housing crisis’ in the 1940s and 1950s meant overcrowded conditions,” he said. “People were living in basement flats and duplexes, and we were trying to get enough housing built to allow people privacy. The great success story of the 1960s is that we were able to do that. Now we have reached the point where we can no longer do it.” Indeed, Torontonians, grateful just to find a place to live, may well come to regard privacy as a quaint notion from a bygone era.