Nightmare tales of Toronto's rent hell

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Sun, 6 Jun 1999 11:49:57 -0400


This article isn't even referring to low-income people, but those who are
making a pretty decent wage. One can just imagine how the situation is for
poor folk.

And Mike Harris thinks the 'solution' to the housing crisis lies in the
private sector... NOT!!! - Graeme
-------------------------------------------------
June 6, 1999

Nightmare tales of Toronto's rent hell
Frustration boils over as apartment vacancy rate plummets

By ROB GRANATSTEIN -- Toronto Sun

  Stephanie Conn is packing up her downtown apartment this week and moving
out.

 After an exhausting eight-week search for somewhere to rent -- a hunt that
started so optimistically -- she finally found a new place to call home.

 Actually, it's an old place to call home.

 At age 32, with a steady job and income, Conn has cleared the teddy bears
off the bed and the shelves in her old room. She's moving back home to mom
and dad in Thornhill.

 "I'm now a boomerang kid," said the freelance music producer, clearly
defeated.

 Conn, like so many other renters, found downtown Toronto's housing market
to be pure torture -- too many people madly scrambling for far too few,
often over-priced, rental units.

 "It became clear from the beginning it was going to be a nightmare," she
said. "I felt pathetic. I felt like I was having to scramble for something I
really didn't want because I was so desperate."

 That's life in a city with a vacancy rate at a microscopic 0.9%. For
two-bedroom apartments, the rate's at a decade-low 0.7%. For desirable areas
like Riverdale, High Park, the Annex and the Beaches, the rate is too low to
even measure. Even Peel Region's facing a rental crisis, with a 0.6% rental
vacancy rate.

 BIDDING WARS

 What renters are encountering is a horror show. Bidding wars that drive
prices through the roof, lineups 30-people deep just to look at a lousy
suite, places snapped up before the ads even hit the classifieds. Would-be
tenants face misleading descriptions, landlords making insulting and
sometimes illegal requests of tenants, and, of course, asking exorbitant
prices and getting them -- gladly -- if you ever get that far.

 And don't forget the shady tactics like asking for a non-refundable deposit
just to apply, or telling someone they have a place, only to take them on an
emotional roller-coaster ride that ends in rejection.

 This isn't low-income housing, either. Conn was willing to spend up to $800
a month on a bachelor or one bedroom. Others, like Lisa Godfrey and Kirby
McBride, were willing to pay more than $1,300 a month for a two-bedroom
place.

 All three are ideal tenants with steady jobs and solid references. They
don't smoke, don't have pets and were flexible in their location.

 And all three found you have to check your pride and your preferences at
the door.
 Renters are powerless.

 "Not only do you have to dress up like it's a job interview but you already
have to have this great job to get this horrible, over-priced place," Conn
said.

 Conn started searching because she didn't want to live with a roomie
anymore and she wanted to live in a safer area.
 Now she regrets ever leaving.

 A landlord in Rosedale advertised his bachelor apartment as being in a nice
neighbourhood. Conn opened the door and scanned the layout. "It's just about
the smallest bachelor I've ever seen," she said later. There wasn't even a
real fridge, just a bar fridge, and a rusted-out old tub. All for $760 a
month.

 The landlord then hit her with the sales pitch. "You can see how the rich
people live," he said, pointing to the window overlooking the backyards of
some of Toronto's nicest homes.

 And that gem was rented almost immediately after she left.

 Lisa Godfrey laughs uncomfortably when she recalls her two-month quest for
a new place.


 "We were just naive, I guess," she said. "We thought, why do you move? To
improve your circumstances."
 Godfrey and her husband, Justin, seemed to have all the ingredients of
great tenants. On top of not having pets or kids, her husband is a professor
at McMaster University, while she's a radio producer at CBC. What else could
any landlord ask for?

 They had two months to find a place. Godfrey made seven to 10 calls a day
with no results. She even resorted to putting up a poster at the CBC in
desperation.

 'FOOLING MYSELF'


 "For pity's sake, help us out in this vicious low-vacancy rate wasteland,"
it read. Their borders seemed generous -- between University Ave. and
Dovercourt Rd. and south of College. They were willing to pay up to $1,350 a
month.

 "I was fooling myself into thinking we'd get a semi-luxury apartment for my
price," said Godfrey, 36.

 Of the dozens she saw, one place stands out.

 "It was really nice, a Victorian two bedroom for $1,300," she said. Once
inside, her opinion changed. The bedrooms were tiny. The view from both
rooms was of a brick wall. But the kitchen capped it all off. It was a
converted bedroom with a tiny sink and no cupboards or counters. The
landlord said she bought a fridge and oven, but they didn't fit.

 "Only a bar fridge and a hot plate could fit in the door," Godfrey said. "I
left and thought 'Why didn't I tell her she's insane?' " The place was
rented by the weekend.

 For an open house in Little Italy, the couple went 20 minutes early, only
to find a line of 25 people waiting to see a house with no yard on a
less-than-desirable street. They left.

 "The whole process is so exhausting, debilitating and humiliating. It was
weeks of insomnia, fighting, loathing of landlords. It was a bad experience.

 "There are some really nasty, venal people renting homes out there," she
said. "But there are also a few pretty wonderful people.
 "Everybody is savvy. They know what their house or apartment is worth.
You're not going to get any deals unless you get Rip Van Winkle, so we just
went with the most decent apartment with seemingly nice landlords."

 They finally settled on a place near the High Park/Parkdale border --
beyond their desired area.

 "The semi-happy ending is we just compromised," Godfrey said.

 The landlord called and said she had 150 calls in one day and picked the
nicest sounding six people. Godfrey felt like she won the lottery. The
apartment is a little small and the second bedroom is more of an office, but
it's clean. And most importantly, it was available.

 They're paying $1,100 a month for the new place, $50 less than their High
Park address. "We have to start saving money to buy something," Godfrey
said. "I cannot handle this pressure anymore. We'll put the extra $50 into a
pathetic house account. It's got to help.

 "We're effectively being squeezed out of the market."

 High Pk area, 2 storey, 2 bdrm., lndry., front porch, back deck, f/p, stain
glass windows, close to TTC & hwy. $1200/mo. incl. Showing 2-4 p.m. Sunday.

 The ad sounded too good to be true. It was.

 The landlords at this house on Pearson Ave. had a pretty good place for
rent. Sure it was a main floor and basement. Yes, there were roach traps at
the top of the stairs, but it was spacious, classy and in good shape.

 When prospective tenants arrived they found a lineup stretching out behind
the house, 20 people deep. Applications were being handed out. On the
application, the landlords wrote: "Due to the overwhelming demand from the
ad, we've obviously priced this unit too low."

 It then instructed people to write an offer at the top of the application
form. A true-blue bidding war.

 "A bidding war supervised by the landlord, that's unbelievable," said a
shocked Howard Tessler, executive director of the Federation of Metro
Tenants' Association. "But without rent control you can have bidding wars."

 The removal of rent-control legislation is another major factor in the
frighteningly tight market.

 Under the new legislation, effective since June, 1998, once an apartment is
vacated, there are no restrictions on how high the rent can go. It's allowed
to be set at "market value."

 If the rental market wasn't so tight, these rent-control rules wouldn't be
so problematic. But with so few units on the market, it's all demand and
miniscule supply. A 3% vacancy rate is the minimum point where there is a
competitive rental market. Below 3%, as it is now, makes it a landlords'
market.

 "The landlord holds up the hula hoop and your question is how much,"
Tessler said.

 "What you have is landlords taking advantage of the situation and gouging
tenants," he said. "Landlords are doing nothing extra to the apartment for
the extra $500 a month.

 "And I don't see the situation improving," he said.

 "I see it getting worse."

 A recent study of housing in Ontario, called Where's Home? also had bad
news for tenants.

 It found the strong economy has led to the rental market squeeze because
more young people are moving out.

 The report also found that without the current condo-buying boom, the
situation would be like it was in the '80s, where vacancy rates were at
0.1%.

 The study also found rents for most apartments have increased between 35%
and 39% between 1989 and 1998. Inflation over the same period is 21%.

 The rent hikes are expected to soar in '99, the first year of statistics
after rent control is removed.

 Kirby McBride went looking for an apartment in High Park. He ended up with
Lawrence Park.

 "We had to bail on that area," said McBride, 34, who runs his own company.
"The competition down there is extremely fierce and the value is not good."

 What irked McBride most was the process.

 "There has to be a better way. It's so time-consuming and no two landlords
select people the same way," he said.

 McBride showed up at a Bloor West Village open house one weekend to find 40
people inside filling out applications. "They were everywhere, writing on
the walls, on their pants, on the backs of friends. It was an absolute zoo.
The lady taking the applications must have had 50 in her hand."

 McBride walked out.

 "It's a roller-coaster ride," he said of the search. "It's a rat race, it's
frustrating and it's definitely a game."

 The process isn't a walk in the park for landlords either.

 "There were so many people calling, it was constant," said Jason Gorda, who
owns a house on Queen St. E. in the Beaches. "Even after I took the ad out
of the paper, people called for a week."

 After being besieged by more than 50 phone calls the first night, he just
let all calls go straight to his answering machine. The day he held the open
house was just as wild.

 "It was nuts," he said. "People were lined up to get in."

 Gorda saw 45 people in the first hour, 15 filled out applications
immediately, a couple took them home and six left cheques for first and last
month's rent on the spot.

 "I sat down and tried to talk to them and get a feel for the people," he
said of the decision-making process. He wanted someone with a good job, he
checked references and made sure the cheques would clear. "I had quite a few
people who wanted it and who would have been good tenants. I guess it's
luck."

 FLOOD OF RENTERS

 Another landlord said she found herself overwhelmed with the flood of
renters and had trouble deciding. She settled on two male roommates she
thought were gay, and assumed because of that would be neat. Turned out the
guys were neither gay nor neat.
 "You have tens of thousands of individuals doing so many different things,"
said Philip Dewan, president of the Fair Rental Policy Organization of
Ontario, which represents and advises 950 landlords, most of whom are
professionals.

 He said there are up to 130,000 landlords in the province.

 "You'll get all extremes. Some with knowledge, some without the faintest
idea. They buy a house and rent out a floor until they can pay for it."

 After living through the nightmare, those who have survived -- and even
those who didn't make it -- had advice and warnings for people who want to
find a new home.

 "It's a full-time job," said Lisa Godfrey. "I can't believe anyone who had
a full-time job could find a place. It would just be sheer luck if you
couldn't devote yourself and make yourself totally free."

 Buying in this market may not be such a bad idea, she said.

 Kirby McBride said looking at places during the week increases your chances
of success.

 "Work on your strategy," he said. "Make it a two-month campaign."

 Stephanie Conn's advice is more direct: "Don't move!"