Can housing be affordable and accountable?

On Monday, April 2nd, 2012, my community editorial appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on the Rental Housing By-law within the City of Waterloo, Ontario. The article is intended to insight thoughts on how the bylaw in the City of Waterloo is intended to ensure all rental housing is safe and accountable, yet balance affordability of housing within the community. This bylaw has sparked debates between property owners, landlords, Council, and other interested parties – not to mention Kitchener residents (adjacent to Waterloo and their staff have begun gathering details on possible implementation of a rental bylaw within the city).

Here’s the article as it appeared:

An impending rental housing bylaw is set to take hold of rental properties in the City of Waterloo. The City of Kitchener, not wanting rental housing issues of its own, has begun the process of collecting information on the potential implementation of a similar bylaw within its boundaries.

The intention of the bylaw is to improve the level of safety for renters, increase accountability for rental providers, and reduce the conflict between neighbours throughout the community. It’s nearly impossible to argue against the value of these intentions, since all address quality of life issues.

However, arguments against this bylaw center on affordability, restrictive barriers placed on housing choices, and declining property values. Details of the bylaw have adjusted since its first proposal – easing some aggravated groups – but many still feel the bylaw is ill fated.

I don’t blame landlords and property owners for being frustrated with this bylaw. The City of Waterloo changed the rules that they need to abide by and this could affect their investments.  However, being a landlord or property owner is not merely an investment; it’s a business and a responsibility.

There is minimal difference between someone renting out an apartment in their basement and someone owning four rental houses within the City of Waterloo – after all, they are both landlords.  They provide accommodations, sometimes to marginalized groups, and must be accountable to provide quality living conditions.

Some fought to limit this bylaw to neighbourhoods near the universities, since they consider rental issues to be a student-housing issue. However, focusing the bylaw to near-campus neighbourhoods assumes this bylaw will solve student-housing issues. Other regulations, zoning requirements, and incentive programs are all better suited to improve student-housing issues.  After all, people still park on the streets despite parking bylaws.

The City of Kitchener, staking part of their future growth on the education sector, is concerned about challenges associated with housing students. Applying a cookie-cutter version of this rental bylaw will not save Kitchener from potential housing pitfalls. Waterloo applied this rental housing bylaw after the damage was done to the student-centric rental housing market.  Kitchener has the opportunity to implement proactive measures and apply standards for property maintenance and negligent landlords, but their challenge is no less easy compared to Waterloo.

Under the Waterloo bylaw, landlords would pay fees up to $800 for licensing.  Property owners will determine if these costs will be absorbed or passed along to tenants, but massive rental increases seem exaggerated based on licensing costs.

Housing costs have skyrocketed and the need for affordable housing is probably greater than it has ever been. The proportion of an individuals’ income needed to cover housing costs is astounding.  An example of this are some new apartment buildings in Waterloo geared towards student tenants and not affected by the new rental bylaw. These are renting for $500 to$650 per bedroom within a five-bedroom unit. Yes, housing supply and demand does help to dictate rental prices in the community, but is $3,000 per month to rent a unit affordable for tenants?

According to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), housing costs should not exceed 30% of household income. That means the appropriate tenants for a $3,000 per month unit would have an annual household income of at least $120,000 – seems unrealistic for a group of students.

Recently, the Ontario Human Rights Commission launched a public inquiry claiming the bylaw may decimate against groups by placing restrictive barriers on housing choices. I am not convinced that this bylaw places any additional restrictive barriers on housing options; what the impending bylaw does represent is the cost of safe and accountable housing.

What is certain is that investors resent Big Brother for meddling in their business and tenants do not want increased rental fees.  The reality is this bylaw represents the cost of accountability, hopefully not at the full expense of a tenant and housing affordability.

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