Third in a series about renting in Nelson.
Trevor Jenkinson thinks the main reason for the the city’s zero rental vacancy rate is the “toxic environment that landlords are operating in these days.”
He is the president of the West Kootenay Landlord’s Society, as well as being a realtor and a property manager with about 100 tenants on many properties.
He hastens to say that only a few tenants are bad. But bad ones are so hard to evict, he says, that it’s hardly worth being a landlord.
“A lot of landlords have packed it in,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m selling my rental property. I’m not renting out my suite in my house any more. I’m just going to keep it for myself and have family visit and things like that.’ Our private market rental stock is decreasing.’”
Why does he think tenants are hard to evict?
It takes too long to get a hearing if there is a dispute, he says. Disputes about evictions, rent payments, and other issues are handled by arbitrators at the provincial Residential Tenancy Branch.
Also, there were no evictions allowed during COVID-19 for a period of time until June 24 and Jenkinson says some tenants took advantage of this.
“There were a surprising number of tenants that simply quit paying rent and started misbehaving,” he says.
Landlords need help
Jenkinson also thinks landlords should be allowed to rent for a trial period of a few months. He calls this a fixed-term tenancy, and he says the province outlawed this a few years ago, ostensibly because some landlords were using it as an excuse to raise rents beyond the allowed limit, a problem that could be solved without banning this type of tenancy, he says.
A fixed-term tenancy would be a kind of probation period, after which the tenancy ends but could be resumed if both landlord and tenant wish.
Also, Jenkinson says rent restriction rules are too limiting. It used to be that an annual increase could not exceed the cost of living index plus two per cent, but the provincial government has removed the two per cent.
“That makes it harder and harder for landlords to maintain their properties,” Jenkinson says. “Insurance rates have shot up in the last year 20-to-30 per cent … property taxes go up, that kind of thing. And yet the landlords are still expected to maintain their properties.”
Tenants need help
Mike McGaw thinks many tenants need help being tenants, especially when there are virtually no rentals to be had.
In his job as homelessness prevention co-ordinator at Nelson Community Services, he supports low-income people who are facing extra challenges with housing. He has a rent subsidy program for people who are in transition, such as leaving the hospital, leaving prison or some other facility, youth who are aging out of the foster care system, and women who are leaving violence, as well as Indigenous people.
He says many of his clients are employed.
McGaw understands Jenkinson’s perspective that the law is weighted in favour of tenants, but he says tenants often tell him the opposite. He says the most persistent example is damage deposits.
“You get a lot of people who pay a damage deposit, they don’t do any damage, and they don’t get a damage deposit back at the end. That’s such a common thing.”
But McGaw has an even-handed approach to his work in what he calls a flawed system.
“I’ve known some landlords who work the system,” he says. “And I’ve known some tenants who work the system.”
He says high purchase prices, high rental prices, low incomes, and lack of tenancy literacy all inspire both landlords and tenants to seek him out.
“I’ll talk them through the landlord-tenancy process. I do that for landlords as well as tenants – the rights and responsibilities of both parties.”
He says those rights and responsibilities are not a mystery. They are all there in black and white in the Residential Tenancy Act, in online government fact sheets, and on a government hotline. But some people need help finding these and interpreting them, and he does a lot of that.
McGaw has a core group of 15-to-30 tenant clients at any given time, whom he works with sometimes for months, checking in on them, discussing issues with them and their landlord.
“Some people don’t need that,” he says. “But some people really do. I mentor tenants in how to be a tenant, and teach them how to market themselves as a tenant.”
He says some landlords are willing to take a chance on a high-needs person if they know they have McGaw backing them up.
“They want to know that there’s a support person in place, someone who will check in on them.”
How to market yourself
McGaw says the method of finding a rental has changed over time from classified ads, then to sites like Kijiji and Craigslist, and now almost exclusively to a variety of local Facebook groups where landlords and tenants advertise themselves.
“I saw a rental on Facebook today, $1,200 dollars, just out of town,” McGaw says, “and it had been up for half an hour and already had 26 comments on it, people inquiring, that’s one per minute. It would be nothing for someone to get 100 applicants.”
For tenants, advertising on one of those pages is a good opportunity to attract the attention of a landlord, he says. And for landlords looking for tenants, the Facebook groups are a great way to shop for a tenant.
“[The landlord] can click on their Facebook page. Are the first three pictures of them partying? Or are the first three pictures of them hiking in the mountains with their dog?”
He says for landlords this is a good alternative to advertising a rental because then the landlord “doesn’t get 100 phone calls.”
The Facebook group Nelson BC Canada Homes and Rooms to Rent has 13,500 members. West Kootenay Available Rentals has 3,900, with 500 new members in the last two months, according to McGaw. The group For Rent in the Kootenays, which McGaw administers, has gone from 1,300-to-5,000 members in the past year.
More renters, fewer units
Although many of his clients are not on social assistance, McGaw reminds that people who are on it get $375 per month for shelter and utilities.
“Some people spend their whole income on rent and use soup kitchens and the food bank. Or they’ve got a little side hustle, whatever that may be, bottles and cans, but that leaves you no room for making mistakes.”
Asked if there are more renters or fewer rental spaces these days, or both, McGaw says, “I think it’s about more people wanting to be here. And I would say there’s fewer low income rentals. You know, gentrification. Nelson has gotten more affluent over the years. There’s fewer houses where young people can rent a room, there’s fewer basement suites that not are all turned into really nice basement suites.”
Jenkinson says there are fewer spaces and more people wanting to rent them.
“Nelson has managed to re-invent itself from the mill town it was in the 70s to a destination for people to move to,” he says. “In many ways, Nelson is a victim of its own success. This week alone, I have received five inquiries from people who are seeking to move to Nelson from elsewhere for a myriad of different reasons. As you might expect, I have no vacancies whatsoever.”
And there will continue to be fewer rental spaces unless the landscape becomes more accommodating to landlords, he says.
“We have lost something on the order of 30 private market rental units in the last couple of years, and there will be more being lost soon if some landlords I know follow through with what they have told me.”
Jenkinson says the new housing provided by BC Housing through Nelson CARES (on Front Street and on Nelson Avenue) will help seniors and people with disabilities. But the situation, he adds, will remain acute for everyone else, although those new properties might open up some long-term rentals for others.
As for whether short-term rentals (Airbnb and other platforms) are stealing long-term rental spaces, both agree that it’s hard to say because many existing short-term rentals may have never been rented long-term and many have been built specifically for use as short-term rentals.