‘Do I start packing?’: Manitoba renters struggle to keep up, demand change

A woman living in Sage Creek, Man., was supposed to be retired and using her fixed income to travel. Now, she’s working hard to pay her rent each month, which increased by $200 in 2022.

Rent increases like this, which are generally above the guideline set by Manitoba’s Residential Tenancies Branch (RTB), have pushed some people into survival mode when they thought they had found a secure place to live.

Advocates and tenants are demanding action as they wait on the upcoming provincial election next month, saying Manitoba could fix this crisis, which is leaving many without a home.

“We know from the street census, the homelessness survey, the number two cause of people’s most recent entry into homelessness was conflict or eviction from a landlord, and sometimes renoviction,” said Yutaka Dirks, the chair of the Right to Housing Coalition.

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He said the number one cause was not having enough income to afford housing costs.

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Rental market report suggests increasing costs hitting Manitobans hard

Brendan Devlin has first-hand experience with the high cost of rising rent. In February 2022, he said tenants in his building received notice that his landlord would be applying for a 22-per rent increase after some renovations that left him and his neighbours suspicious.

“We woke up one Monday morning, at like 8 a.m., to very loud construction in our hallway, and there was no prior notification. They were redoing our floors, which to us felt kind of ominous,” he said.

“They weren’t great, but they were acceptable for sure. They did not need to be renovated.”

Devlin said the renos started after the RTB announced a zero-per cent guideline, meaning landlords of some units could not raise the rent without adequate reasoning — a measure taken earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I was pretty shocked,” he said. “I was not expecting a double-digit increase at all.”

Devlin said he and some of the other tenants came together to challenge the increase, in line with the RTB process.

“Lots of us were feeling angry, but ultimately scared because it was such a massive, massive increase that it just really changes the whole calculation as to whether it makes sense to stay here or relocate.”

During what Devlin said was a “discouraging and unresponsive” process, he said the group found out their landlord had actually only applied for a 14-per cent increase.

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“Enough people had already basically decided by that time, ‘OK, 22 per cent, I’m out of here.’”

Eventually, he and a few others also moved after over a year of fighting the increase, he said, but they got a disappointing confirmation letter just as he left.

“After everything, it was eventually dropped from 14 per cent to, I want to say, 12.3 per cent.”

He said that after all the work that was put into trying to lower the above-guideline request, it was defeating that nothing changed substantively.

In a statement to Global News, the RTB said it received 373 applications for above guideline rent increases. Of these, 24 were withdrawn by the landlord, and 252 were approved.

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The RTB said the average percentage increase it approved was 10.9 per cent.

Click to play video: 'As Manitoba’s rent increase guideline goes up, tenants and advocates call for action'

As Manitoba’s rent increase guideline goes up, tenants and advocates call for action

Avrom Charach, the spokesperson for the Professional Property Managers Association, said to get approved for an above-guideline rent increase, landlords need to supply evidence they need the funds.

“You have to have the receipts to claim it. The government will also do a reasonableness test. It’s very rare, because this is mostly administrative law, that they will deny you something you actually did.”

However, some landlords are not even required to apply for above-guideline increases.

The RTB exempts some units from the rent guideline, including:

  • rental units under 2o years old
  • units costing more than $1,615 per month
  • units owned by the federal, provincial or municipal government
  • caretaker and employee units
  • not-for-profit life lease units

The Sage Creek resident, who requested Global News keep her anonymous for fear of reprisal, said the province needs to take another look at this policy, which is supported by Section 116 in the Tenancy Act, and “put some kind of a cap on it so that people like myself, who thought they were in retirement, aren’t back out of retirement and having to work again.”

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She said when her building’s increase was announced, three other widowed women she knew were no longer there. The only reason she stayed was because she was not in the right headspace, she said.

“I was still like kind of in shock for my husband’s passing, and the shock of getting the $200 (increase). I really didn’t go back to the company and say, ‘Can you give me a reason why you’ve increased it this much?’ So, I just kind of went, ‘OK, well, this is the way it’s going to be, and I’ll just go back to work and manage it.’”

She said she has been left with a nerve-racking question: “Every time it comes up now, I’m nervous. Do I start packing? Or what’s the rent increase going to be?”

Dirks said to help soothe these concerns, the province needs to implement rent regulation.

“What we’re calling for is just to return to previous legislation, which was: after five years, the unit’s now covered by rent regulation,” he said, adding that this is key not just to affordability, but also security.

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Some landlords are also calling for more security in order to maintain affordable renting costs.

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Charach said costs are increasing under the pressure of inflation, subsequently raising the rent.

“Everything from utilities to supplies to the cost of labour are all increasing. Certainly, as those increase, the taxes on them increase as well, and they go up faster.”

Although things aren’t as bad as they used to be for landlords, “because now they tie the guideline to inflation,” he said there’s another problem. When landlords file for an above-guideline application, Charach said, “that is for expenses we already had.”

“We’re always playing catch-up.”

He said if the government found “a way to make the property manager not face the same increases, rents would not go up as fast.” His suggestion is to cut taxes, just as the federal government has by removing GST on the construction of new rental apartments.

“Can the provincial government look at that as an example for removing PST on certain items that property managers pay to fix buildings for tenants? That will take seven per cent off of our cost of repairs for those items, hence making the rent go up seven per cent slower.”

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Dirks said there should still be caps on what landlords can claim as increased expenses.

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“A lot of those expenses are covered by the cost-of-living increase in the guideline.”

He also said costs should be amortized over a long period.

He said the amortization, or payback, period is between three and eight years in Manitoba, whereas in other provinces, like Ontario, the period is between 10 and 25 years.

“So you take the same $20,000 capital cost for a landlord in Manitoba, you’re going to get a much higher (rent) increase because it’s divided by three years,” Dirks said.

“That’s one of the big changes we want to see,” he said, “because just by that design, we have a much higher rent increase here in Manitoba.”

When it comes to change, the parties running in Manitoba’s provincial election have made different promises about how they’ll fix the housing crisis.

The PCs have said they will reduce rent by 50 per cent for farmers renting Crown land.

The New Democrats have promised stronger rent control, a $700 tax credit and to lift the provincial sales tax from the construction of new rental units.

Liberal Party Leader Dougald Lamont said his party would bring in new rent increase and eviction protections for tenants and seniors, and would make a plan for same-day housing by 2025.

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The Green Party has not yet stated how it will address this issue.

Dirks said change needs to happen quickly.

“If this doesn’t happen, I think we are going to see average rent in Manitoba continue to go above the guideline. We’re going to continue to see thousands of tenants forced to scramble to find housing that they can afford in an increasingly tight rental market.”

— with files from Global’s Rosanna Hempel

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Non-profit housing, tightened rent control solutions to climbing rents in Winnipeg: advocates