Skyrocketing Rents are Squeezing Everyone, But Here's How People Are Fighting Back
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Skyrocketing Rents are Squeezing Everyone, But Here’s How People Are Fighting Back

New NDP bill aims for real rent controls for everyone across Ontario.

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The 1991 loophole eliminated rent controls on anything built after that year, impacting Toronto’s rapidly growing condo towers. Photo by Lori Whelan via Torontoist Flickr Pool.

For most renters, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to afford a roof over your head in Toronto.

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment went up 4.4 per cent between September and October last year, even though inflation for the entire year of 2016 in Canada is expected to have been only around 1.7 per cent.

Vacancy rates are near zero, and many property owners are turning to Airbnb, where, incredibly, they can rake in even more money than they do on the traditional rental market.

None of this is news to the nearly half of Toronto households that rent or have searched for an affordable rental unit. Even upscale renters are familiar with the frustrating vagaries of the rental market, the dearth of available units, the fickle nature of potential landlords, and the anxiety and dread of wondering how they will afford a place to live, should they manage to find one.

The median income among low-income families in Toronto was $15,430 in 2014, so an average one-bedroom apartment’s rent for a year comes out to more than what many poor families bring home—meaning people are choosing between rent and food.

In this rental market, it’s no wonder many landlords are flouting the rules.

A recent Radio-Canada investigation found rental and real estate companies asking for money from prospective renters—not upon reaching a rental agreement, but in exchange for a rental application. Some of the people posing as renters were told they would forfeit their “deposit” of hundreds of dollars if they failed to return their application within a few days.

This practice is not only illegal, but it places prospective tenants in an impossible situation: stand up for your rights and forfeit any chance at the apartment you’re looking at, or give in and hope, with no guarantee, that it means you can find a place to live.

Then there’s the 1991 loophole, courtesy of former premier Mike Harris. There is essentially nothing stopping landlords whose properties were built after 1991 from jacking up rents as much as they like, thanks to a 1997 bill that created an exemption from Ontario rent-control legislation. That covers a huge portion of the condos young urban professionals now live in, and it means even the relatively well-off can find themselves dealing with financially untenable situations with no warning.

To that end, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns announced Thursday he plans to introduce a bill on Monday that would close that 1991 loophole.

“I’m increasingly hearing from constituents who live in non-rent-controlled buildings–buildings built after 1991–who are facing very steep rent increases,” Tabuns said. “It’s causing a lot of disruption and a lot of problems for people who are just paying rent and assuming they’re living in a unit that will be their home.”

He added that these calls appear to be increasing recently. The Federation of Metro Tenants Association said as much at the press conference unveiling his legislation. It stands to reason that more landlords would be interested in reaping the benefits of lax laws and overheated rental and real estate markets.

Tabuns admits that, as with most private members’ bills, his might not make it into law. But, he said, he hopes it will add to the political pressure tenants’ associations are putting on the Liberal government and encourage them to act.

Even units that should be covered by rent controls aren’t always free from the steep rent increases so many Toronto residents are dealing with.

MetCap is attempting to increase rents above what’s allowed in rent-control guidelines in four of its 19 Parkdale buildings, in what some tenants say is an effort to push out low-income renters (the company’s president told inside Toronto that the increases are related to renovations). Renters at the MetCap building at 87 Jameson Street have banded together to initiate a rent strike, and between 50 and 100 people showed up at the company’s headquarters Thursday to protest.

“For people on fixed-income, these rent increases are an eviction by another name,” Parkdale Community Legal Services worker Cole Webber told CBC. “The bigger issue is the displacement of working class and immigrant tenants from Parkdale.”

“At its core,” Webber wrote to Torontoist in an email, “the tenants’ struggle is against the displacement of working class tenants from Parkdale by a huge corporate landlord that has an interest in pushing out long-term tenants in order to jack rent on vacant units.”

Webber’s point shouldn’t be lost as the drastic situation in the city’s rental market gains wider attention. Dramatic rent hikes and unaffordability have begun to affect even the well-heeled, but that doesn’t mean we should focus solely on the wealthier renters. Toronto’s lower- and middle-class residents, especially racialized residents, have been squeezed for a long time, and the city’s survival—both moral, as a place we can be proud to call home, and practical, as a functioning metropolis—depends on finding solutions that account for all of us.