Vancouver renters struggle to navigate through cutthroat housing crisis


Reported by Alyse Kotyk, Bonnie Lee La Madeleine, Caitlin O’Flanagan, Emelie Peacock, Chelsea Powrie and Jessica Purver

Krysten Neeson and Graham Ockley had encountered problems in finding homes to rent. Photo by Jessica Purver.

A Vancouver couple found themselves in a rental nightmare this fall, as they struggled to navigate a market that has become notoriously difficult for middle-income households.

In August, Graham Ockley and Krysten Neeson sensed they would soon be on the hunt for a new place to live when their roommate announced he had lost his job. Ockley and Neeson are both theatre technicians in their late twenties, and they knew they couldn’t afford to stay put without their roommate.

They are not alone in their search for a place to live. To understand the challenges facing renters in Vancouver, The Voice conducted an investigation into the tight market. On Nov. 2, reporters called 100 landlords and property managers with vacancies. The listings, mostly found on Craigslist, were available immediately or by Dec. 1.

Showcased units fleeting

Of these, 14 units were already rented and the landlords said interest was high as soon as the listings went live. The other two-thirds of the apartments were still available, but were expected to go fast. Despite Vancouver’s close to zero vacancy rate, about 10 per cent of the prospective landlords were motivated and eager to close a deal.

For most renter-hopefuls, the search begins by determining where to live and what they want in a new home. Most people look at listings in local papers, online, or hunt for signs posted outside of available apartments.

Ockley walked through their ideal neighbourhoods looking for vacancy signs but ultimately relied on Craigslist to find available apartments with amenities they desired. The couple’s main priorities were finding a pet-friendly building with a dishwasher, in-suite laundry and enough space for two — all for less than $1600 per month.

“We’d find places, we’d go look at them and they are either small or they are basically a hole, or just not right,” Neeson said.

They started viewing four to five apartments a week and checking Craigslist daily. Finding a pet-friendly apartment proved difficult, as Ockley estimated only about 10 per cent of available apartments would accept their cat. The Voice’s investigation found the same trend.

Battle royale among renters

The next issue was how crowded the market is. Neeson was shocked at how quickly some of the listings were rented out. One suite they looked at was off the market in under 40 minutes.

“[Ockley] called them at 2 p.m., and they said [to] call back at 5 p.m. I called back at 5:40 p.m., and it was gone,” said Neeson.

The pair also had a viewing cancelled when they were already in the car on the way there. They were told the suite was no longer available.

“One of the first showings we went to […] they post it on Thursday and showing is Saturday from noon to 2 p.m.,” Ockley said. “There were probably 15 other people in the apartment with us in the five minutes we were looking at the place.”

Neeson also remembered that crowded showing, and the sheer number of other renters they were competing with for every listing.

“There’s so many people looking and not enough apartments for them,” Neeson said.

Belinda Flynn and Trevor Farrell were also apartment hunting this fall. They had just moved to Vancouver from Ireland, and were looking for a furnished one-bedroom apartment for no more than $1,600 a month. Flynn and Farrell were able to find a place quickly and felt the process was easier than anticipated. However, they feel their success was partly due to their availability to search for homes full time. This is often not the case for Vancouverites.

Ockley and Neeson also have flexible schedules and were able visit plenty of showings, but they became frustrated with the competition they had with services such as Airbnb.

“Basically one of the hardest things is just the lack of apartments and knowing that there’s so many that could be available, that aren’t,” Neeson said. “That are sitting there as assets, not houses.”

Raising concerns and awareness

Speaking at a Renters’ Town Hall in Kitsilano in October, City Councillor Geoff Meggs outlined the measures the city has taken to increase the available market rental stock, namely by imposing an empty homes tax and reducing the number of short-term only rentals.

“We have taken the position that a first home is a right, but a second home is a privilege,” Meggs said before a packed house.

Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs addresses the audience during a town hall meeting at St James Community Square. Photo by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine.

Meggs expects 2,000 homes to become available once these measures take effect, which will offer some relief to frustrated renters like Ockley and Neeson.

Ockley and Neeson began their search with specific goals about space and location. As their Nov. 1 deadline approached and the rejections piled up, they became more open to compromise.

“When we first started, dishwasher and in-suite laundry were a must, and now it’s not,” Neeson said. “I’ll take anything that my cat can live in at this point.”

For them, one of the most frustrating things about the application process has been waiting to hear back from landlords.

“I get [they] are getting 40 applications, but that means 39 people want to know whether they got the place,” Ockley said. “[It’s] the least they could do, even if they copied and pasted ‘The apartment is rented’ to send to everyone.”

At the same time, landlords also struggle with finding a tenant that meets their requirements. During The Voice’s investigation, which only included ads that listed a contact phone number, one reporter received numerous follow up calls from an eager landlord who felt she had found a good fit.

This landlord not only heavily promoted the apartment’s location and features over the phone, but repeatedly contacted the reporter throughout the following week to schedule a viewing.

Some landlords also offered to bend the rules on pet allowances for the right person, while others indicated their decisions would be based on credit checks or income. Ockley also noticed some bias in one bedroom listings toward two tenants.

“I’ve seen a couple postings that have said ‘Couples preferred,’” Ockley said.

He and Neeson also wish landlords looked at more than the basic information on a rental application, because it’s hard to swallow being rejected based on a page of data.

“How do you know who you want your tenant to be off of this piece of paper?” said Neeson. “The only way I can think of to [up your chances] is to have a bigger number in your income box, which would be a lie.”

The Voice contacted the landlord of a West End apartment who had just rented out an advertised suite, and was sympathetic toward renters.

“I think it’s a really tight market right now,” she said. “Good luck with your search.”

A happy ending at last

After several tense weeks of searches and rejections, Ockley and Neeson eventually found a unit they were interested in near Commercial Drive and were thrilled when their application was accepted. Then, disappointment struck again — when they sat down to sign the lease, they noticed a “no pets” clause.

“I respond with, ‘It said on my application that I have a cat. She’s not leaving so I can’t stay if I can’t have pets,’” Ockley said.

They applied to have the cat exempted, then spent three long days waiting. At last, they got the good news that their cat was allowed, and the place was theirs.

Ockley and Neeson’s experience is not unique in Vancouver. Renters all over the city face the same stresses every month. In fact, had they not secured a suite in time, the couple’s backup plan was to move in with Ockley’s parents. Though they got lucky in the end, Neeson has had her fill of apartment hunting.

“I want off of this housing rollercoaster, please.”

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