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Bust, But Not For Us

Why a bad economy is good for Calgary’s renters

Why A Bad Economy is Good for Calgary’s Renters

Adrenaline pumping, hastily packed suitcase in hand, I scanned my one-bedroom, ground-floor apartment. This was June 20, 2013, the first day of the worst flood in Calgary’s history, and Sunnyside, my neighbourhood on the banks of the bursting Bow River, was being evacuated.

Second-hand Ikea couch, third-hand Ikea coffee table, and a no-name ottoman of so, so many hands. With my keepsakes far away in my mom’s condo in Niagara, I worried most about the books in piles on the floor, many of them expensive academic editions and property of the university library. I hauled them to the kitchen countertop.

The apartment itself was rented, of course. Could the landlords, with some nefarious fine print, hold me responsible for damage caused by a natural disaster? But even if they did, what could they get from me? I was a graduate student with no assets, no property, no car, only student debt. At that moment, I was more than grateful to be a renter.   

Lately Calgary’s greatest danger has not been rising waters, but waning oil. Its precipitous drop — from over $110 a barrel in mid-2014 to under $30 in early 2016 — has led to swaths of layoffs among petroleum producers, driving the city’s unemployment rate to over 10 percent in the final months of last year, significantly higher than the national average of 6.6 percent.

The slow oil sector and declining employment have also cooled the property market. City assessors report the median value of a Calgary home is now $460,000, down from $480,000 last year. According to the CMHC, the vacancy rate of Calgary rentals was seven percent in 2016, the highest in 25 years. Rent prices went down by 7.5 percent last year, with the average monthly cost of a bachelor apartment now $854.

The dominant narrative of the Calgary property market has been its negative impact on homeowners, landlords, and developers. As during the flood, owning property in this market can be a liability, especially for those who suddenly can’t make mortgage payments, or are forced to sell. Owners of rental or investment property may feel aggrieved right now to see their profits diminished.   

Unlike in Toronto and Vancouver, where the plight of renters in booming markets gets daily coverage, the story of renters in Calgary is rarely told. This is a significant omission, since 28% of Calgarians are renters. In downtown neighbourhoods, this number is as high as 70%.  

The truth is, Calgary is a great place to be a renter right now. Those on low-incomes — students, young professionals, artists, the unemployed — are negotiating cheaper rents, or moving to bigger, better places in more desirable neighbourhoods.

It feels like a small, if temporary victory for the have-nots.  

***

“Let’s talk about the fact that life might be easier for artists for a while,” says poet Nikki Reimer, who works in communications at the University of Calgary.

I used to be intimated by Nikki, not because she is anything but kind, but because I knew her first through her ruthless poetry. Here she ironically adopts the ‘common sense’ of a couple talking themselves into buying a condo:

Anyways we’re just paying somebody else’s

Mortgage think how good we’ll feel to be in our

Own place those prices will always go up & the

Figures don’t matter once we’re in the market

The poem’s skepticism seems justified. In Calgary prices have not gone up, and a recent study shows that 81 percent of Canadian millennials regret buying their homes because it has made them cash poor.

With her partner Jonathan, a contract professor, Nikki returned to her hometown of Calgary after eight years in Vancouver. That city’s famous cost of living was crushing, and since they both had precarious jobs, they lived below the poverty line. When Nikki’s brother, Chris, unexpectedly passed away, Nikki wanted to be near her family. “We didn’t have a plan. We packed up a U-Haul, we landed here. And then we were here.”

They thought they had struck gold in 2013 when they found a bungalow for just $1,100 a month, a cute ‘saltbox’ house in Killarney, a downtown-adjacent neighbourhood. “It suited my aesthetic,” Nikki laughs, “except it didn’t have heat.” When the landlord delayed repairs, Nikki and Jonathan moved out. The only suitable rental they could find in the still-high market was the first floor of a house with noisy neighbours. And at $1,600 a month, it was more than they wanted to pay.

Last year, Nikki and Jonathan took advantage of rising vacancy, finding a place in a quiet condominium downtown, across the street from the beautiful Carnegie library in Memorial Park. “We both really love living centrally,” she says. They pay a little less now, $1,400, and get a lot more: 1000 square feet, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a view of the park, AND I have covered parking! AND I have a fireplace!”

***

Enviably slim in a pearl snap western shirt, Ian Kinney keeps his wind-breaker unzipped even though it’s cold. Until recently Ian worked as a note-taker for the university’s accessibility services, but a repetitive strain injury forced him to stop.

“My housing situation has been pretty tumultuous,” he says. Personal and financial circumstances required him to move numerous times in the last several years.  

But two years ago, as the rental market opened up, Ian’s living situation began to stabilize. He found a two-bedroom apartment for $1,000 a month to split with a roommate. This is in Crescent Heights, a desirable neighbourhood which sits atop a bluff with an excellent view of the city and the river.  

Last year, when Ian told the owners he wanted to move, they dropped the rent to $850, which means Ian’s portion is now just $425. “Rent is more affordable than it has ever been,” he says.    

Ian’s low-cost lifestyle means he has time for meaningful volunteer work until he can find employment again. His latest project is the restoration of Leon the Frog, a fifty-year-old graffiti poem which was written on the steps of the university’s social sciences tower. Over the decades it had become a campus landmark, and when a maintenance crew accidentally painted over it, Ian organized a group of fifty volunteers to do the restoration.

***

I stand chatting with artists Natalie Maclean and Shawn Mankowske in their home studio, a cozy space directly off the living room in their Bridgeland bungalow.  

Bridgeland is a walkable downtown neighbourhood in where gentrification has slowed down since the bust. This has kept it affordable. At $850 for a 900-square-foot bungalow with a yard, this is the best deal I’ve encountered yet. Natalie and Shawn’s last place, a cramped one-bedroom they lived in for two years, cost just fifty dollars less per month.

“When I saw our place on Rent Faster,” Natalie recalls, “I actually thought it was a scam. So I contacted them with a fake email address, you know one I created just to use once.”  

Besides saving money on renting a workspace elsewhere, the home studio suits Shawn’s method. He sits on the living room couch looking at his paintings, considering what to add to the canvas next.

“I’m interested in bringing art into my life as much as possible,” Shawn explains. “You have to exist around [your art], and always be aware of it. Whereas with a studio, you leave. You might have pictures of it with you, but you’re not really with it all the time.”

Their yard is fenced and very long, running along the south side of the house. “It’s perfect for bocce ball,” adds Shawn. I am familiar with this Italian family past-time, and I agree.

A love seat on a swinging frame seems to await warmer weather, and there’s even an open brick fireplace for when, inevitably, it gets cold again.

***

My apartment did not flood. When I returned two days after the evacuation, I dropped to my hands and knees and palmed the carpet in every room. All dry!

In the following days, volunteers clad in rubber boots and face masks trudged house to house emptying basements of soggy junk. The city set up porta-potties and served hot breakfast in the street. Insurance companies who didn’t cover “overland flooding” were shamed by the media and paid claims anyway. The community, it seemed, had coalesced around its property owners.

For the renters, however, the true disaster arrived in the following months, as thousands of people with flood-damaged dwellings joined their ranks, driving Calgary’s vacancy rate down to one percent.

That fall a letter whooshed in under my door, like a wave breaking upon the beach. It was a notice from the landlord that my rent was increasing 25 percent the month after next. I would have to move. Renting might be a boon in a recession, but ultimately renters are vulnerable in a way property owners are not.

Calgary might have finally turned the corner on its recession. With the price of oil stabilizing, and controversial new pipelines in the works, the Conference Board of Canada recently projected a real GDP growth of 2.7 percent for Alberta, which would be the highest in the country this year. The latest jobs report shows Calgary’s unemployment rate has decreased from its 2016 high, and according to the CMHC, the rental market has stabilized in early 2017.

If Calgary booms again, don’t blame renters if they’re not happy about it.

M-F 7:30PM HBO