Renters collateral damage as real estate prices soar

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MANITOULIN – The housing market is on fire right now, from coast to coast, and Manitoulin is no exception. Houses are selling fast, and at top dollar, which is great news for those looking to sell, but the market is having an adverse effect on those Islanders who rely on rental units with an increased number of people struggling to find a place to live.

Linda Varga and her husband have called Manitowaning home for the past 11 years, living in two different rentals in that period of time. The owner of their current home recently sold the house and the couple has until May 1 to find a new place to live. This, Ms. Varga says, is proving difficult.

“I’m hoping they’ll give us another month to keep looking,” she adds. “We’re hoping to stay in Manitowaning, but there’s not much available; it’s pretty rough.”

Ms. Varga said she recently came across a lead, a house owned by a southern Ontario couple, but the property is in need of renovations before she and her husband can move in. Due to COVID-19 restrictions and the distance involved, they aren’t sure when that work can be done.

“It’s been pretty hard,” Ms. Varga shares, noting that she’s heard of other people in even more worrisome situations, such as an elderly woman in her community, who lives alone, who has also seen her rental home sold and is left with nowhere to go.

“I checked everywhere, even Tehkummah, Mindemoya, Little Current, even Elliot Lake, Espanola, Webbwood, Massey and Thunder Bay as a last resort. I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Dianne Constantineau of Little Current was also looking for a place to live after the condominium she rented for the past 12 years was sold. Ms. Constantineau said she completely understands selling in this market and doesn’t fault the owner for wanting to take advantage of the top rates.

“There’s a lot of people, including myself, that it’s tough for right now,” she told The Expositor. “You’re in a corner. It can be scary.”

Since The Expositor’s initial interview with Ms. Constantineau, she has since found an apartment to rent in Little Current. “I like Little Current and I’ve made lots of friends here.”

Dawn Wall and her husband Bill operate the Water Street Apartments in downtown Little Current, which offer some of the most affordable rents on all of Manitoulin ranging from $520 for a one-bedroom to $800 for a two-bedroom for their eight units.

Ms. Wall said they have seen an increase in the calls they are receiving since the housing market began to skyrocket. There waitlist is already at seven, but she expects that to grow.

Peter Gandhi of the Hawberry Motel in Little Current said that instead of the usual two or three calls a month he would get asking about long-term rentals of his motel units, that number is now between 10 and 15 calls since the start of 2021.

“When I get calls like that, I’d like to rent, but it’s a lot of wear and tear on the units,” Mr. Gandhi says, adding that he will try and work with the clients depending on their situation, but that he does not do monthly rentals.

The Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre does not do long-term rentals either due to the fact that the hotel can be booked for top dollar between the months of May and September. Corey Stacinski, general manager of the Manitoulin Hotel, says he’s currently receiving two to three calls a week for long-term rentals.

“Our lowest is rate is $79 a night (over $2,300 a month), and not a lot of people have that in their budget,” he explained. Mr. Stacinski said he’s been directing a lot of people to Espanola.

Mr. Stacinski said he understands the worry people are facing. He is in the market to buy a house, but the last two houses he’s gone to look at have sold before he was able to set foot inside for a viewing. The rental market also affects his capacity for staff. He is set to employ a staff of 90 this summer, some of whom will be seeking housing.

Fern Dominelli, CAO of the Manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board (DSB), explained that more is added to the direct shelter subsidy every year. It currently sits around $700,000 and is shared between the member municipalities and government funds.

The direct shelter subsidy works like this: based one one’s income level, up to $300 is provided so that those needing assistance in paying their rent can ‘shelter in place.’ This means that a) rental units in the community can be utilized rather than the DSB building more social housing, which is costly, especially in light of the huge increase in cost for construction materials and b) it keeps people off the already lengthy wait list for the DSB’s social housing units.

Currently, there are over 225 people utilizing the direct shelter subsidy. If units were built for each of those people, Mr. Dominelli estimates the cost equivalent would fall in the range of $56 million.

The CAO admits an increase in demand for both the direct shelter subsidy and social housing wait lists. He says the DSB can adjust the direct shelter subsidy cap (now at $300) as they see fit, but “we’ll hit a wall eventually, for sure.”

Other than these two options, the DSB has money for hotel rooms for those in dire straits, but it’s one-time funding.

“There isn’t the money where we can make substantive change,” Mr. Dominelli admits.

There are currently 228 people on the joint subsidy/social housing wait list, but Mr. Dominelli acknowledges that this doesn’t help when there’s no housing to be had. “And that’s becoming more of an issue.”