When Housing is a Commodity, Not a Right

I moved to the Czech Republic in 1996, seven years after the Velvet Revolution (and three after the Velvet divorce, which saw the former Czechoslovakia split into its constituent Czech and Slovak parts).

One of the favorite topics of conversation among ex-pats in those days was the quirkiness of Czech landlords, who were anxious to exploit the deep-pocketed (by Czech standards) foreigners but fuzzy on the whole “rental” concept. My favorite stories (which I suspect I’ve told you before) involved landlords moving in with their tenants after a fight with a spouse, dropping by (unannounced) on weekends to do laundry and make long-distance calls and (in one memorable case) evicting a tenant by piling his belongings in the hallway and bricking up the door to his apartment.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room, 2015.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room, 2015.

Everyone used to cut the Czechs slack because, after 40 years of Communism, their capitalist skills were a little rusty (for better or worse, it didn’t take them long to polish them up).

But that’s not an excuse available to Cape Breton landlords. So how to explain what’s happening to some of the CBU international students seeking local accommodations?

Take the story, recounted by Nikki Sullivan in the Post last week, of Md. Abdul Himel and Tahlil Akter, Bangladeshi students who found themselves living in a windowless garage on Castle Drive in Sydney.

I watched Room this weekend on Netflix and the shed in which the main character and her son were held captive was actually better in many ways than this Castle Drive rental unit: it had bathing and cooking facilities, it had a skylight, and mother and son were the only tenants — the Castle Drive landlord, besides expecting Himel and Akter to use the kitchen and bathroom in the main house, intended to house two additional people in the garage.

On the positive side: the Bangladeshi students were free to leave the Castle Drive garage, for which they were charged $350 each per month, and leave they did. Unfortunately their next rental, a bedroom in a Whitney Pier residence, doesn’t seem to have been much better. (The landlord expected them to share a bed and placed strict limits on their access to kitchen and laundry facilities.)

The third time proved a charm, and both men have now found adequate, off-campus accommodations. Akter posted the link to Sullivan’s story to the CBU Indian Community Facebook group where people post information about rentals (and tips for walking on ice) and was roundly applauded for speaking out.

There is a common thread linking my experience 20 years ago in the Czech Republic (where a landlord once wanted us to charge our guests for their use of hot water) to that of Himel and Akter: human greed, which clearly knows no borders.

 

Tuition & Fees

Doug Connors, director of housing, food and ancillary services at CBU, told me that 424 of the university’s roughly 5,500 students (8%) can be accommodated on the campus. Curious as to the type of accommodations available to CBU students, I checked the university website, where I discovered a variety of possibilities.

Single Room: $5,910

Double Room: $4,200

Apartment Style: $6,050

Semi-Private: $6,310

Private room: $7,040

On campus meal plans look like this:

5-Day Plan: $4744

7-Day Plan: $4924

Apartment Residence Students: $600

I used the handy Tuition and Fees Calculator to figure out what a foreign student, taking a full course load (four semesters, 30 credits), would pay in tuition, accommodation and other fees, for a year, assuming they lived on campus in a single dorm room with a 5-Day meal plan.

It came out to $56,977.40.

The calculation for the same student choosing to live off campus came to $35,045.40

I get that off-campus housing is not a direct responsibility of the university, but when you are taking over $35,000 a year from a student — and you list the opportunity to “live on one of the world’s most beautiful islands” as one of your selling points — wouldn’t it make sense to do all you could to ensure that off-campus experience is positive? Failing that, to ensure your students don’t end up lodging in windowless garages?

CBU’s Connors told Sullivan the university’s vetting process for landlords is “informal” and a look at the ads for off-campus accommodations on the university website suggests that’s true. There are houses for rent, apartments for rent, rooms for rent. Some are on bus lines. Some are nowhere near bus lines. Some include utilities. Some don’t. Some listings include photos. Some listings don’t. Some listings include photos of the landlords in their CBU graduation robes. (Most don’t.) Some listings show the location of the accommodations on a map. Most, as far as I can tell, don’t.

How difficult would it be to at least standardize the information would-be landlords are required to provide to advertise on the CBU site? How difficult to order the listings according to distance from campus or proximity to bus stops?

If nothing else, I personally think there should at least be a special category labeled: “Reluctant Landlords” for people who want the money a renter will bring in but are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of sharing their space. People offering deals like this:

The room is 500.00 per month (furnished) which includes heat-electricity-wifi-laundry and some lite [sic] kitchen privileges (cooking excluded).

If you’re not allowed to cook in the kitchen, what exactly are you allowed to do? Watch the landlord eat?

Or this:

Guests: are not permitted by the landlord, however if family is visiting and wants to stay in the property then it must be discussed and accepted by the landlord. An etra [sic]$150 charge will be added to rent that a guest that stays (sleep, shower, eats, and uses utilities).

I pay utility bills — a guest would have to do some serious showering and electricity-using to add $150 to the water and power bills. (And what is the extra charge for eating? This landlord is not providing meals — is she actually charging guests for the use of kitchen chairs?)

I get it: it’s not easy to share your space with strangers. That’s why I don’t do it. But if you’ve decided you want to take money from these students, then you need to give them something reasonable in return.

Because right now people, you are just embarrassing us.

 

GIC

To get a permit to study in Canada, international students (besides providing their fingerprints and photos) must prove they have enough money to pay for:

  • tuition fees
  • living expenses for themselves and any family members who come with them to Canada and
  • return transportation for themselves and any family members who come with them to Canada

Many students prove they have the money to pay for living expenses by opening a Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC) account, like the one offered by Scotiabank:

Source: Scotiabank https://startright.scotiabank.com/student-gic.html

Source: Scotiabank 

Knowing that many international students are receiving, on average, $667 per month to cover all living expenses puts the rents being charged locally for rooms in sharp perspective: that $500 room in a private home without cooking privileges would leave the average student with $167 a month ($42 a week) for food, travel and entertainment.

Which explains the conversation I had the other night with a student who was knocking on doors in my neighborhood, looking for lines on a room to rent. (He had a place but his Canadian roommate was “too messy.”) I told him the Harbourview Inn & Suites (formerly the Martin Arms) was renting to students, a fact I happened to know because I’d read about in the Post and on Facebook. But when I quoted him the price for a single-room ($850 per month) he looked alarmed. I said, “That’s expensive, isn’t it?” He agreed and said his limit was $350.

I later discovered the Travelodge on King’s Road is renting double rooms for $450 per person, which is better but would still leave that average student with about $54 a week for everything other than rent.

 

Rent poor

Let’s face it, though, this is not a new problem in the CBRM, it’s an old problem affecting new people. Paul Burt, the CBRM’s manager of building, planning and licensing laws told Sullivan as much, saying his department ” has had complaints regarding the condition of living units for many years.”

He then says:

It’s allowed people to exploit the market and try to cram 20 people into a single family unit, to make more money. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but some people don’t understand the laws and the liabilities (associated with providing rental units).

First, who could not at least suspect that cramming 20 people into a single-family unit might not be strictly legal? And second, Burt is suggesting the influx of students has “allowed” people to exploit the market when arguably, what is allowing people to exploit the market is the municipality’s failure to enforce its own bylaws:

Under the municipality’s minimum standards bylaw, landlords are expected to provide basic necessities, which include having a bathroom and kitchen in the rental unit or home, not in another building.

“That is absolutely illegal,” Burt said. “It should be reported (to us) and investigated.”

Like the university, the CBRM is benefiting from this increase in foreign students — its businesses are employing them, its landlords are housing them, its retail outlets and restaurants are serving them — would it kill us to look out for them? And while we’re at it, to look out for all renters — particularly those with low incomes?

I wrote about the CBRM’s lack of affordable accommodations for single, non-seniors (a category which likely claims most students) back in 2017, in a story based on a 2016 study conducted by the Cape Breton Community Housing Association in cooperation with organizations like Every Woman’s Centre, Public Health, Cape Breton Regional Police Service, Cape Breton University and the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness. Their research included three separate components: a Point in Time (PIT) homelessness count, a service-based analysis of homelessness and a rental housing stock survey.

 

 

The survey identified 304 people experiencing homelessness in the municipality. Their chief barrier to finding permanent housing? Poor housing options/low income.

As Lynn Rossiter, housing co-ordinator with Mental Health and Addiction Services in Cape Breton, told the CBC:

It’s “quite dire right now,” she said. “I think people would be challenged to find affordable housing to rent under $600 and the shelter allowance amount is $535.”

In fact, according to 2016 Census data, 53,000 Nova Scotians spend more than 30% of their annual income on housing and utilities, a number that includes 43% of Nova Scotians who rent. Worse, 24,000 Nova Scotians (one in five people who rent) spend more than 50% of their annual income on rent. (Mortgage holders, as Robert Devet pointed out in 2017, are “doing better” but 17% of them spend more than 30% of their annual income on shelter and 9,000 of them exceed 50%.)

Here’s a map from Census Mapper, an application that allows you to display census information on an interactive map. Any shade of purple represents an area where over 30% of renters spend over 30% of their income on rent and utilities. In the darkest purple areas, the percentage of renters considered “rent poor” is at least 50%. (Or higher — like, if your monthly income were $667 and you were paying $500 — or 75% of it — for a room.)

Generated by Census Mapper based on 2016 Canadian Census data.

Generated by Census Mapper based on 2016 Canadian Census data.

Here’s the map for the entire island:

Generated by Census Mapper based on 2016 Canadian Census data.

Generated by Census Mapper based on 2016 Canadian Census data.

So there is a housing problem in our municipality that goes well beyond the shortage of accommodations for international students.

 

Solutions?

The Nova Scotia chapter of ACORN has been calling for the reinstatement of rent control in Nova Scotia since at least 2013 and in 2017, the provincial NDP responded with a proposal that would see rent increases capped at 0.8% for the first year, becoming negotiable after that. It was “quickly shot down by the governing Liberals” according to The Coast.

But Dalhousie economics professor Talan Iscan, interviewed for that  Coast article, argued rent control is just “one piece of the puzzle” that is the attempt to help those Nova Scotians who fall into the “rent poor” category.

The NDP’s proposal, he said, would have helped individuals living long-term in a rental unit, but landlords would have been free to increase rents when tenants left. A real solution might require “directly putting cash into the pockets of people who are low-income and who are paying high rent.” (See: Dolores Campbell on guaranteed annual income.)

The Nova Scotia Advocate has written extensively on the subject including this October 2019 article by Kendall Worth, who met with the NDP MLA who had introduced the rent control legislation — Lisa Roberts — to discuss housing issues. Roberts told Worth her Halifax Needham constituency office is experiencing an increase in calls from people unable to pay their rent, including seniors and people with disabilities.

Roberts also called for regulation of short-term rentals, like Airbnb, which have the effect of removing housing stock from the long-term rental market. A recent study by David Wachsmuth, Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance at McGill, found that although the image cultivated by Airbnb is that of individuals renting out spare rooms in their homes, Airbnb revenue has “become even more concentrated among a small set of large-scale operators.” Hosts with more than one listing account for one-third of all platform revenue.

The McGill study focused on a handful of Canadian cities, including Halifax, but it included a map of Nova Scotia that gives you an idea of the extent of short-term rentals as a percentage of rental properties here in Cape Breton. The map jibes with what I’ve heard, anecdotally, about the difficulty of finding long-term accommodations in the Highlands:

Short-term Rentals Nova Scotia

Source: UpGo lab, McGill University https://upgo.lab.mcgill.ca/2019/11/12/short-term-rentals-in-halifax-report/

 

The McGill study concludes that cities should regulate short-term rentals according to three simple principles:

1) one host, one rental;

2) no full-time, entire-home rentals;

3) platforms responsible for enforcement. The City of Amsterdam provides an encouraging example of these principles in practice, while Fairbnb.ca’s recent regulatory proposals for Toronto offers a closer-to-home example.

For the United Nations, the answer is to stop treating housing as a commodity and start treating it as a human right. The UN’s special rapporteur for housing, Leilani Farha, identifies the problem as the “financializiation” of housing which, at its most extreme, leads to situations like that in Vancouver, where homes and condos are purchased as investments and sit empty, or that in London, England where, says Farha, “key workers, like teachers, firefighters and police officers” can’t afford to live in the city.

But it can also look like a CBRM landlord deciding to “financialize” a windowless garage by renting it to students.

This is the point where I have to admit I put that question mark after “solutions” because I’m not sure what they are. (What do I look like? The UN’s special rapportuer for housing?) I also realize this article has just scratched the surface of a huge subject. So expect a sequel.