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Seniors suffer over high rents in Burlington

Hamilton Spectator - September 9, 2002
by Joan Little

A week ago a Spectator headline proclaimed 'Rent hikes limited to 2.9% next year'. But many Burlington seniors who are tenants know it's the fine print that kills you.

Some Burlington landlords have applied for huge capital increases in recent years. Rents in the building on the northeast corner of Maple and Lakeshore rose 9.91 per cent in 2002, and will rise 8.91 in 2003 -- 19.7 per cent compounded in two years. Earlier applications had resulted in substantial hikes, too. One tenant who paid under $500 in 1991 will pay over $1,000 per month in 2003 for a two-bedroom unit. During those 12 years, the allowable guideline increase was 49.43 per cent, but the tenant's rent rose 105 per cent.

Sure, landlords can only increase rents by 2003's 2.9-per-cent guideline without applying to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal.. Some applications are virtually assured of approval, though, even without a hearing. These include extraordinary hikes in taxes, heat or utilities.

A landlord is entitled to recoup inordinate increases. But spikes are often short-lived. In 2000-2001, natural gas costs jumped about 70 per cent, then dropped to 1999 levels. The 1997 Tenant Protection Act allows rent increases to go on top of this inflated amount, but the "one-time" hike never comes off. It becomes part of the base on which annual increases are calculated.

More worrisome are applications for capital costs. Landlords can do renovations, improvements, even cosmetic enhancements, and apply to recoup costs from tenants. The legislation defines a capital expenditure as one that provides benefit for at least one year. Tenants argue some capital costs being claimed constitute routine maintenance, and maintenance is covered in the annual guideline increase. If a landlord refinances at a lower interest rate, tenants do not reap the benefit.

Moving is expensive. Affordable apartments are rare for cash-strapped seniors because vacant units can be rented for whatever the market will bear. If tenants stay they face a 2.9 per cent hike in 2003, but the landlord could also apply for a much bigger increase.

Every October the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation issues a report on rents and vacancy rates. In the 2001 report, Burlington had the highest apartment rents, and lowest vacancy rate in the Hamilton census area, which includes Hamilton, Dundas, Stoney Creek and Glanbrook. Its vacancy rate was 0.3 per cent, compared to 1.3 per cent area-wide. The average two-bedroom rent in Burlington was $878, compared to a $740 average in the area, one-bedroom was $791 versus $608, and a three-bedroom $1,052 versus $913.

Rents are so high today that young Toronto tenants are buying condos for comparable monthly costs. High-end vacancies take longer to fill, so Toronto landlords are offering incentives to new tenants. But that does not help Burlington tenants.

Seniors with limited pensions find it particularly difficult when a spouse dies and they face the hardship of a reduced Canada pension and old age security income.

Next month's 2002 release of rent statistics by CMHC will likely show a higher Burlington vacancy rate, only because high-end units sit vacant longer. Meantime, some seniors and lower income-earners are being squeezed out, and are leaving the community because of steep rents.

{The remaining two paragraphs of this article are about cottages and a highway and not relevant to tenants and so have been snipped}

Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little is a freelance columnist. She does not identify with any political party. Her views are her own.

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