Rental Illness in Toronto

Illustrations: Robyn McCallum

_Thu Oct 6, 2011_Real Estate

Rental illness

When did finding a decent, affordable rental unit in this city become a competitive bloodsport?

On Wednesday, August 10, my boyfriend of six years proposed.

“Maybe we should get married so we can make money on the wedding,” he said. “Then we’ll have a down payment.”

This was Day 14 of our apartment search, and we were getting desperate. For the amount we’d be paying on a new place, we could carry a small mortgage, but we didn’t have a down payment saved. And even with a budget of $1,800 a month, we couldn’t find a place to live.

My fault. I was the one who insisted on moving. We had a decent one-bedroom in a three-storey building on Roehampton Avenue near Yonge and Eglinton. It didn’t have air conditioning or a balcony, and the elderly couple next to us argued day and night, but we lived there happily for four years. There was one problem: our superintendent, a surly, paranoid man who threatened to call the police on me for parking in the driveway to unpack after a week up north. When the toilet broke and he stuck us with the $250 plumbing bill, we decided we’d had it. We gave our 60 days’ notice.

I was excited. We both make more money than we did four years ago. Marco, who’s a teacher, had recently been hired by the York school board, and I was no longer making $500 a month as a magazine intern. Our combined income was just over $100,000, before tax. This was our opportunity to find a sick place, one with outdoor space, an office and a kitchen with more than one drawer. Easy peasy.

After six viewings, we found one that we loved, a two-bedroom on the southeast corner of High Park. Price: $1,725 a month, plus utilities. It was the first apartment I’d ever seen that felt like a home. Actually, it felt like a cottage. It had exposed ceiling beams, a bay window over the kitchen counter and a little yard. I dreamed of living there and writing in the front sunroom. I looked at the photos on Craigslist constantly. We filled out an application at the viewing, and I followed up with an email a couple of days later. But we didn’t get it. I wondered whether it was because Marco used the washroom without asking at the viewing.

A week and six more viewings later, we found the perfect place, a one-bedroom on the top two floors of a newly renovated home on De Grassi Street in Leslieville. Price: $1,680 a month, plus utilities. It was bright and airy with an open-concept living, dining and kitchen area and a third-floor deck. The location was perfect, too. Easy for both of us to get to work. We booked an appointment for a viewing the day before the open house, hoping we could charm the pants off the lesbian couple who owned it. We met their wolfhound, Ruckus, and discussed nearby cycling routes. We hit it off. I emailed the couple that evening, offering to stop by the next morning with a deposit and a year’s worth of post-dated rent cheques. It didn’t work—they still wanted to hold the Saturday open house, just to be fair.

I checked my email every five minutes over the next three days. On Monday evening, we heard back: “After much agonizing we have decided to go with another couple. The choice was quite hard as you and Marco seem like really nice people, but the couple we chose has a dog as we have found in the past that dog owners are a good fit for us given our dog can be quite noisy at times.” I cried. Uncontrollably. Over an apartment. Weren’t we the perfect tenants? A non-smoking, professional couple in our late 20s. We love dogs. Marco’s family runs a dog-grooming businesses. We could dog sit! I cried the next morning, too.


We weren’t the only ones having trouble. Last spring, the vacancy rate in Toronto dropped to 1.6 per cent; 3 per cent is considered healthy (an all-time low of 0.9 per cent was hit in 2001). Tellingly, the first sentence on the City of Toronto rental fact sheet is a warning. To paraphrase: The supply of rental housing in the city has not increased in recent years, because more rental units are being lost than are being built. And when you’re no longer a university student willing to live in a dank basement or with several roommates, the options for grownup living are even fewer. I emailed a realtor friend to appeal for help. He did a search of MLS in our price range and came up with nothing. “The rental market is really tough right now,” he explained. “There isn’t as much volume as we usually see in the summer, and people are fighting each other for units.”

Almost everyone I spoke to who’d recently looked for an apartment had upped their budget after their search began, and spent weeks, if not months, finding the right place. Noelle Engle-Hardy, a lawyer, and her husband, Ben Hardy, a sommelier, looked at 26 places before getting their two-floor apartment at Dundas and Ossington. “I truly thought we were the ideal tenants,” she said. But after they were turned down twice, her hunt for the urban gem became competitive. “I would be the first person to call when a new listing came up, I’d be the best candidate and I’d have an application in hand when I saw the place and fill it out on the spot.”

Part of the issue is that young professionals at a point in their lives and careers when, historically, they would be buying, are renting instead as downtown Toronto real estate becomes increasingly unaffordable. In the past decade, the average cost of a home in Toronto has risen by 77 per cent, while rents have increased by only six per cent. Canadian Business recently published an article arguing that renting is a smarter financial choice than owning, given the increasing housing prices, the additional costs of ownership (taxes, repairs, insurance) and the time required to maintain a household. In July, the average price of a resale home in Toronto was $459,122, up by almost 10 per cent from a year earlier. (The median household income in the city is $76,373.) Even if you’re lucky enough to find an “average-priced home” that isn’t falling over—and you have a down payment of 10 per cent—at a mortgage rate of 3 per cent, you’d end up with a monthly mortgage of roughly $1,800, not including taxes and insurance. Whereas the average two-bedroom apartment rental in Toronto is $1,135. Once you’ve moved in, your landlord can only increase the rent by 0.7 per cent a year, thanks to provincial controls.

Some landlords take advantage. During my search, I found a 400-square-foot studio apartment, the size of a hotel room, at Yonge and Bloor for $1,900 a month. Two-bedroom units in CityPlace condominiums at Spadina and Lake Shore, which I consider to be a soulless wasteland of towers, were going for over $2,500. The large number of basement units over $1,500 a month was troubling. The day Marco fake-proposed, we had just come from seeing a $1,550 apartment at St. Clair and Dufferin above a rowdy pub; it smelled like cat piss.

Bidding wars on rentals—the kind of thing you hear about happening in Manhattan—are also occurring here. Engle-Hardy won one in her search. “Granted, it did seem below-market, but this added a somewhat sordid level of sleaze to the process,” she said. Ultimately, they decided against the apartment.


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