Housing in Toronto: report shows grim rental market

Rent continues to rise, building of expensive condos favoured over cheaper rental units

Housing in Toronto: report shows grim rental market

The rental market in Toronto remains dismal, with a recent report from Rentals.ca showing that Toronto rents are the highest in the country, especially in the heavily student populated areas around UTSG.

As of October 24, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom was $2,166, and a two-bedroom was $2,589.

Rentals.ca, a popular website for apartment hunters across the country, also reported that the Ontario average asking rent per square foot was $2.76. Vacancy rates in the city are below two per cent, creating a competitive housing climate among Torontonians.

Being in the centre of downtown, UTSG is surrounded by some of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Toronto, such as Yorkville and the Entertainment District. Average rent in Yorkville, which surrounds most of the northeast corner of campus, was $3,468 a month.

However, escaping downtown isn’t a solution to the rising rents, as the top eight most expensive cities in the country are all part of the GTA, including Richmond Hill, Mississauga, and North York.

Rental prices are being pushed up by the unwillingness to buy, according to the website’s report. Toronto has experienced a housing bubble in the past year or so, therefore making people more hesitant to buy.

In addition, high mortgage credit requirements — along with the recently increased interest rate — is “reducing the credits available, reducing the ability for people to buy. So they’re choosing to rent for longer, so that’s certainly increasing demands in the rental market, which would have gone into the ownership market,” according to Ben Myers, who runs the consulting firm that analyzes the data for Rentals.ca’s housing report.

The problem of rising housing costs is compounded with the issue of minimal options for on-campus housing at UTSG. During the 2017–2018 school year, only 6,616 students were able to live on campus, spread out over 11 residences. U of T boasts a total enrolment of 90,077 students.

Most of the students living on campus are in first year, leaving a vast majority of St. George’s 43,820 undergraduate students to find housing elsewhere. However, it is difficult to pinpoint how many students are renters, since U of T does not release statistics on the number of commuters.

A plan to build a new residence at Sussex Avenue and Spadina Avenue was recently approved by the city, but it will not be completed until 2021.

A new residence is also in the works at Trinity College, tentatively located next to the Gerald Larkin Building. However, it is only in the earliest stages of planning and there is no set timeline yet.

Outside of U of T, the willingness of developers to build condominiums, which create more revenue, is not being met by the same demand. According to Rentals.ca, there simply isn’t enough rental housing being built.

Rentals.ca found that while condos comprised nearly 20 per cent of the listings on the site, they made up only six per cent of page views. Due in part to the prevalence of condos, Toronto is comprised of half owners and half renters, as opposed to the national average of two-thirds owners and one-third renters, said Professor David Hulchanski of the Department of Urban Studies.

Hulchanski also commented on the aging of Toronto’s rental buildings, noting that “existing rental stock is about 40 or 50 years old and getting older. In Toronto, almost half of rental stock is in the form of those clusters of 20-storey high rises that were built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.”

The most recent complication to the housing situation is the provincial government’s plan to end rent control for new buildings. Current rent-controlled apartments are safe, but there will be no new supply of them. This could cause rents to rise even further, as proprietors of new housing will have no obligation to provide rent-controlled housing.

The myriad of factors that contribute to Toronto’s rising rents, such as immigration and low unemployment, are not likely to dissipate while the city continues to prosper. Toronto is currently experiencing low unemployment at 5.6 per cent. “We’ve really grown dynamically and we are a very successful, desirable city to live in, but we haven’t maintained a fair housing system,” said Hulchanski.

The dwelling dilemma

A comfortable UTSC student experience requires better access to decent and affordable housing

The dwelling dilemma

Every year, one of the most significant challenges for first-year university students is stepping outside of their comfort zones and living with people they have never met on campus residences. This is especially true for international students, who also have to adjust to a different culture. For students to experience a smooth and comfortable postsecondary education, access to decent housing is crucial.

Indeed, when I started university at UTSC last year as a Malaysian student, I felt uncertain about my ability to adjust to this new lifestyle. However, living at a South Residence townhouse on campus helped me immerse myself into the university and Scarborough’s broader culture. This year, I was fortunate enough to live on residence again. Other students, however, did not share this luxury.

As the number of students attending UTSC and the commensurate demand for housing grows, the issue of insufficient space on residence intensifies. This forces many undergraduates to endure long commutes to school or to find landlords around campus who are willing to rent rooms to students.

These decisions are also informed by the cost of on-campus residence. At UTSC, there are currently two residence options for students: Joan Foley Hall, which is an apartment-style residence, costing $9,624 per year for a single bedroom; or townhouses, which cost as much as $8,560.

These unaffordable prices, coupled with inadequate housing for the student population, encourage many students to consider inexpensive but illegal rooming houses around Scarborough. In this scenario, a single person’s rent is split with other students who are willing to share the rent to live in the house.

In 2014, The Varsity reported on an incident of an illegal rooming house on Military Trail near UTSC that was shut down by authorities, as “11 students were found living in cramped and unsafe conditions.” Earlier this year, a UTSC student was killed in fire at an illegal rooming house on Haida Court. This phenomenon raises serious questions about the link between the lack of access to affordable housing and the exploitation of desperate student tenants.

It is therefore crucial that U of T does its part to improve access to housing for students. One hope is a planned residence project at UTSC, which intends to increase the number of beds from 765 to 1,261 by March 2020. The City of Toronto, more broadly, must also invest in affordable and decent off-campus housing. This way, more commuter students can choose to live closer to school and avoid the strain of long-distance travel, and fewer students will find themselves in unsafe housing circumstances.

As an international student still living in residence, I am aware of the privileges that come with not having to worry about long commutes or unsafe housing. Indeed, the housing issues I have had to deal with have been relatively insignificant — the heater breaking down, having to walk over a mile for food, or fending off raccoons.

For the most part, I have been able to remain focused on what I imagine student life to actually be: studying, experiencing campus life, and further familiarizing myself with local culture.

Speaking from personal experience, I sincerely hope that UTSC will become a comfortable and convenient learning and living space for all students. By eliminating the burdens that arise with a lack of access to livable and affordable housing near and on campus, we can take a major step in achieving that hope.

Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC. He is The Varsity’s UTSC Affairs Columnist.

Nearly abandoned building at College and Huron in midst of demolition

Building to be replaced with 17-storey residential building

Nearly abandoned building at College and Huron in midst of demolition

building on the corner of Huron Street and College Street is in the midst of demolition as Shiu Pong Group, a real estate developer, plans to replace the current low-slung, multi-purpose residential building with a new 17-storey residential building with retail space on the ground floor.

For this project, Shiu Pong’s plan will produce 142 dwelling units as well as retail space on the street level. The new building is replacing Tasty’s Caribbean Restaurant and Catering and the College Variety, among other restaurants and shops.

Prior to demolition, the Huron and College building housed 15 residential units. During the demolition and construction of the new building, the owners are required to assist the displaced tenants with appropriate living arrangements. Additionally, the tenants must be offered appropriate residence options in the new building at affordable rates.

Since the proposed number of units would exceed the density allowed for the area, the City of Toronto required a specific application to include the site in the “Mixed-Use” category rather than in “Neighbourhoods.”

In addition, the company’s plans put the 17-storey building at 52 metres in height, 36 metres higher than the maximum allowed in the city bylaws. The Staff Report nonetheless recommends that the demolition and construction of a new building be allowed.

Shiu Pong also had to go through a long process of assessing the building’s potential impact on the neighbourhood. A Committee Consultation meeting, held back in October 2013, brought up issues such as parking, and whether the initial building scheduled for demolition was a heritage site.

According to the heritage impact report, the building is not listed under the city’s inventory of heritage sites, nor will it have any impact on any surrounding heritage sites. However, the staff report suggested a design plan that would incorporate the current building into the design of the podium of the new building.

Following review from Shiu Pong, their solicitors agreed to work with Urban Design Staff and City Planning to “respect the heritage ‘look’ of the street” in the revised plans for the podium. The new, incorporated design will feature the terracotta panels from the original building in the three-storey podium base of the building.

While no specific timeline was included in the staff report, Shiu Pong would be required to erect a residential building within two years of the commencement of the project or face financial sanctions until construction was completed.

Shiu Pong has built other residential buildings in the past, including Six 8 Plus in Etobicoke and Design Haus, both of which are currently sold out.

 

Toronto universities team up for affordable student housing project

U of T, York, Ryerson, OCAD U research teams to build off earlier transport project

Toronto universities team up for affordable student housing project

Toronto’s four universities will work together on an upcoming joint research project named StudentDwellTO that will study affordable housing for post-secondary students in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The initiative builds off an earlier inter-institution collaboration on transportation and student transit.

StudentDwellTO will involve about 100 faculty and student researchers from the University of Toronto, York University, Ryerson University, and OCAD University, who will work together for the next 18 months and will partner with several public and private sector actors.

Those involved will be looking at existing data and trying to compile new information to address the existing housing affordability issue that many students face, and will draw from a variety of fields, such as urban studies, geography, psychology, environmental studies, and engineering. They will also be looking at other examples across the world to help in their study.

Professor Shauna Brail, Director of the Urban Studies Program at Innis College and Presidential Advisor on Urban Engagement at U of T, told The Varsity that “students in Toronto are challenged by fixed and low incomes and high and rising rents; by tradeoffs that they are often forced to make between proximity to school and housing affordability.”

Brail says that this impacts students both in their time spent commuting and in their campus engagement. This can cause students “to make choices for reasons of affordability that can have negative impacts on their health, well-being and safety.”

The project is led by the presidents of the four participating universities, and also involves a steering committee composed of representatives of the institutions designed to serve as a link between the leads and the research teams themselves.

Brail serves as U of T’s delegate to the steering committee. Within the research teams is a core group from each institution composed of one or two faculty professors and two university students.

The venture has raised over $70,000 in cash for the overall budget, up from the initial $40,000. It has also received $5,000 in in-kind contributions, and expects to raise even more funds as they leverage the existing commitments for outside donors.

The initiative builds off StudentMoveTO, an earlier collaboration between the four universities to study the needs, trends, and behaviour of post-secondary students in the GTA with regards to transportation and public transit. StudentDwellTO is the second research project to involve these institutions, and is part of a broader push for the universities to collaborate on urban and city-wide issues, with many more projects to come.

“This initiative is about developing a deep understanding of the impacts of a lack of affordable housing on university students, and importantly, it’s also about bringing people and ideas together to develop solutions,” Brail said. “Along the way, the project has already accomplished the goal of introducing lead and emerging housing researchers from across a wide spectrum of disciplines.”

Studio courses, focus groups, community events, research partnerships, and other activities are among the ways Brail hopes StudentDwellTO can provide meaningful and inspiring engagement opportunities for students, faculty, and community members.  “The potential to influence policy and public discourse in Toronto, particularly as it relates to identifying solutions, is also a hoped-for output,” she said.

“Student housing is directly connected to the lack of affordable housing for many communities,” Professor Min Sook Lee of OCAD U said in a press release. “We don’t just need research on student housing, we need to mobilize it.”

Rough rentals

Students face legal hurdles, lack of effective resources as Toronto tenants

Rough rentals

When I think about the various parts of my identity, the word tenant tends not to come to my mind first, however, as I continue to live on limited means, and as the price of housing in Toronto continues to soar, the title of ‘homeowner’ seems to drift further and further out of reach. Like many students, I find myself frequently navigating the murky world of city tenancy. 

The housing market is flush with demand and is increasing in supply. People who can afford to live here continue to flow in, while growing condominiums and building cranes seem to assert themselves as permanent fixtures on the city skyline. In 2015, the average home price in the Greater Toronto Area hit a record high of $622,217, which was an increase of nearly 10 per cent over the previous year.   

In many cases, renting is unremarkable: agreeable landlords meet responsible tenants, and a happy relationship ensues. In situations where this is not the case, however, tenants sometimes find themselves caught up in costly bureaucratic and legal dilemmas. This is, unfortunately, the truth for many U of T students, who often find themselves on the very margins of the housing market. 

Student struggles

Denis Suvorov is a U of T student, and formerly a fellow tenant of a building on Bloor Street West. We had the same landlord and the same problem with cockroaches.

I took my landlord to court when the issue went unaddressed and managed to get the city inspector to file a report. This was a year before Suvorov went to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) over his concerns. 

For Suvorov and his girlfriend, the landlord seemed off from the start. He reportedly “snatched” the deposit cheque from her hand on the day they signed the lease. Surovov gave the landlord written notice of leave in December when the cockroach problem didn’t get resolved. Suvorov told the landlord that he would be assigning his lease to someone else. The landlord reportedly replied that “he doesn’t do that” -— which is illegal. Suvorov told potential tenants about the roach problem, and nobody was willing to take over the lease.

From that point on, Suvorov says that the landlord used the terms “assignment” and “sublet” interchangeably, which is misleading. An assignment means that a new tenant signs an agreement to takeover a lease from the previous tenants. Subletting the apartment, however, leaves the initial lease agreement in place, and the primary tenant remains responsible while someone else lives on the rented premises.

Suvorov and his girlfriend paid rent for the months of January and February after giving verbal notice of their intention to leave in November. They slipped the keys under the door in January. Their next step was to go to the LTB. They couldn’t assign or sublet the unit to anyone themselves; they would have had to lie about their experience in order to get someone else to assume the responsibility or endure the cockroaches. 

After they left the apartment, the landlord filed a claim against them with the LTB. The maximum dollar amount that anyone can file for with the LTB is $25,000. This landlord was asking for $20,000, a number that seemed absurdly high to the couple. 

By February, they went into mediation, a process in which both parties present their case and try to resolve the dispute before appearing for a hearing. After appearing twice and seeing no progress, the disgruntled group booked a hearing in small claims court for a month later. Suvorov was concerned about the short time to prepare. 

In court, the landlord’s lawyer attempted to delegitimize Suvorov’s claims by denying the existence of an infestation, and saying that Suvorov was attempting to leave because he could no longer afford the rent. Meanwhile, Suvorov had moved to a new unit in January which was more expensive. At mediation, Suvorov settled for $5000.

Landlords and the law

Suvorov’s experience, like those of many students in conflict with their landlords, was aggravated by legislation. 

In 1998, Mike Harris’ Conservative provincial government established the Tenant Protection Act and the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, now known as the LTB, which was meant to settle disputes in accordance with the law. 

In 2006, after lobbying from landlord and tenant advocacy groups, the McGuinty government put forth the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) to replace the previous act. According to the views expressed by tenant and landlord associations during the review process, this process was far from groundbreaking. Ten years later, not much has changed.

According to Dan McIntyre, an experienced paralegal in Toronto who specializes in representing tenants, the McGuinty government made two promises when preparing the RTA: a focus on maintenance issues and the loosening of rent regulation. Surovov’s case shows that maintenance issues are still a challenge, and while rent deregulation benefits landlords who can raise prices in gentrifying areas, it can often hurt low income tenants who get priced out of their units.

To the chagrin of many students who have faced landlord and tenant issues in Toronto, this legislation has not been reviewed since 2006. Meanwhile, the housing market in Toronto is constantly changing. The increasing costs associated with these changes make the stakes high for students who enter into costly lease agreements with limited budgets. As it stands, the recourse available under the RTA threatens to be just as costly. 

Some students try to avoid legal matters by taking on informal lease agreements, often through personal connections. It can be a solution for students when money is tight. 

I connected with a fellow student through the U of T Reddit page, who used the name “Spuntop.” Spuntop was illegally renting an apartment 10 years ago on Queen Street West, after having been introduced to the landlord through mutual friends. Spuntop’s occupation of the apartment was based on a verbal agreement.

“It was a large, two-bedroom apartment that we couldn’t hope to afford at market value,” Spuntop explained. This is why the renters “work[ed] as a collective” when the apartment became infested with beetles. In Spuntop’s case, the landlord was out of the country when the beetle problem presented itself. They were unable to reach out to the landlord to fix the issue, and without a written lease they had no protection.

His low income tenants who are most frequently evicted by landlords using the LTB, even though they qualify for legal aid and representation offered by legal clinics throughout the city. While these clinics exist to protect the poorest people from losing their homes, they are backed up with people who need their services, which makes access difficult. Funding for these clinics, which comes from federal and provincial governments, has been at a bare minimum until recently. To deal with the volume, cases are organized in order of priority. Anything physically threatening, for example, would be considered a top concern. 

Downtown Legal Services, the law clinic operated by the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, recently received new funding following a 2015 referendum. This gave them the ability to hire full-time lawyer Benjamin Ries. In a phone interview with Ries, he spoke of “significant systemic problems” in the institutions mitigating the landlord-tenant relationship. 

According to Ries, the “shortage of rental housing” in Toronto is “at the advantage of the landlord” and that this gives them “little incentive to change.” Mr. Ries warns not to “rely on the investigation enforcement unit,” a group tasked with enforcing the RTA in landlord-tenant disputes, because they are understaffed. Meanwhile, these issues continue to appear in legal clinics and the court system. While this seems like a great way to keep the LTB in business, it is hardly the path of least resistance for students like Suvorov. 

Now that the funding to DLS has been released, the hope is that some pressure will be alleviated and cases will be addressed more promptly. Previously, Ries mentioned that even though DLS used to accept only cases that were going to the LTB, he hopes that the expansion of the overall capacity of DLS will allow the clinic to look at a broader range of cases. 

In a phone interview, Arlene Clement, Director of Housing Services at the university’s St. George campus, discussed the importance of rental literacy for tenants, especially when it comes to the responsibilities of landlords. More often than not, finding and navigating that information is left to the student alone. The informational services can help students prepare to be tenants, but it is the student’s responsibility to take it from there.  Housing Services will refer students to the Federation of Metro Tenants Association and local legal clinics if they are having issues with their landlord after they sign the lease. 

Jasmine Denike, vice president, external for the University of Toronto Students’ Union, is involved in organizing a seminar in collaboration with the DLS about landlord-tenant rights. Through promoting the event, she has received interesting responses from students about their tenancy experiences.

“The main concerns of students lie in what I believe is most important: students knowing what they’re deserved as tenants and not wanting to be given less than that by landlords,” she says. “Ensuring that students feel safe and comfortable in their homes is incredibly important — not only financially, but for their mental well-being. If there are students out there living in poor conditions and who don’t feel safe, that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.” 

Slipping through the cracks

Toronto is old. There are a lot of deteriorating buildings being bought up by companies or individuals that take on the role of landlord. One of the most famous cases in recent times came from a company named Akelius in Parkdale. They started renovations in the building without regard for the tenants and ignored the responsibilities outlined in the RTA. With the advice of the local legal clinic, the tenants filed a class action lawsuit against the company. These cases are few and far between because coordinating a large group of people with little in common other than their difficult predicament is the weakest of strong ties. 

Students face an uphill battle when faced with housing issues and helpful resources are limited. The best we can do is fight for change and rent with caution.