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Record Ottawa Valley housing market may squeeze renters onto the streets

Some fear becoming homeless, to the point that they are swinging for the fences with large up-front cash offerings.
20210320 Real Estate sold sign RV
File photo.

Benita Deacon of Renfrew is feeling affects of the red-hot housing market that you rarely hear about.

Over the last year, hundreds of homeowners in Ottawa and the Valley have taken advantage of what seem like once-in-a-lifetime market conditions, and have been selling their homes.

The Renfrew County Real Estate Board’s March newsletter noted that 296 units were sold in March 2021, more than double the level from a year earlier, jumping 105.6% from March 2020. The average price of homes sold in March 2021 was a record $408,803, a gain of 35.2% from March 2020.

If you are selling, it can feels like a lottery win, but Benita Deacon is not one of those happy sellers.  

Unlike the lucky ones, who received tens-of-thousands of dollars (or more) above the asking prices for their properties, Deacon has invested countless hours scrambling to secure a rental unit in a market that has not seen any major affordable rental units built in decades.

RENTAL CRISIS IN THE VALLEY

Although Deacon has devoted months searching for a rental unit in and around Renfrew, she finds herself among facing the real possibility that she and her partner may be homeless once she leaves her current home.

Various social media pages designed to match property owners with people seeking accommodation are filled with postings from residents in various parts of the Ottawa Valley, looking to secure a rental. It is nearly impossible to find any happy endings in these pages.

Some tenants were notified they had to vacate due to a change of ownership, while others share their fear and frustration of not being able to find any housing for the simple fact they decided to move.

Regardless of the circumstances, they all share the frustration of too few units available for too many renters.

Deacon’s reasons for finding a new residence are different than most.

“I moved into my mother’s home last year after she became quite ill and I helped care for her until she died,” she said. “My sister and I realized we needed to sell the house in order to settle my mom’s estate and unfortunately I don’t qualify for a mortgage so I started to look around for a place in Renfrew to live. About five months ago I began to realize there is a shortage and that is when I began to really get worried about finding somewhere to rent.”

She has rented different properties in Renfrew over several years and she never had a problem securing a vacancy. Both she and her boyfriend have been gainfully employed and she is on good terms with past landlords.

“I have never seen anything like it in all my time in Renfrew. Even past landlords who had no issue with me have nothing open and they have placed us on a waiting list.”

She has used every resource, including several traditional websites and social media pages to try to apply for a unit. Her family and friends have notified her of openings and within minutes of a rental unit appearing on the market and by the time she sees it, it's filled with dozens, and in some cases over 100 inquiries from people desperate to secure housing.

“This is really scary,” she said. “I had no idea it was this bad and I chatted with many fellow renters all telling the same story: Some places are being sold with more and more people coming from Ottawa, and other places because they want to get out of the city and away from people jammed together, afraid to get COVID. Both my boyfriend and I work and have done everything right, and so many times we can’t even get inside to look at a place because it is rented by the time we show up to see it.”

In 2018, the County of Renfrew released a report on housing and homelessness and the underlying theme was that the area was nearing a crisis due to a lack of housing. Last week the members of county council received an update and were told the crisis is here.

One set of statistics highlight the problem: Between March 2019 and February 2020, which was roughly a year prior to the COVID pandemic, the county sponsored 133 hotel stays through its homelessness initiative. In contrast, from March 2020 to February 2021 the number more than doubled to 276.

When the COVID pandemic began to peak last April, Premier Ford’s government introduced a temporary moratorium on evictions. That moratorium just ended and local housing officials are preparing for a sudden wave of requests for help.

Deacon said she is doing everything she can think of to avoid becoming one of those statistics. Over the years she rented units belonging to McGrimmon Holdings in Renfrew. The property management company owns more than 380 rental units ranging from bachelor apartments to townhouses and is the largest landlord in Renfrew. She approached the company earlier this year to apply for a rental unit. Since she left on good terms and neither she nor the company ever had any contentious issues, she figured there might be an opening.

To her dismay she was informed there was a waiting list for all properties. Staff members at McGrimmon Holdings confirmed a growing waiting list and said they could not recall when the rental market was so tight.

OFFERS THREE MONTHS RENT IN ADVANCE

Not only is it challenging to track down a listing, it is often very hard for a renter to come up with the standard first and last month’s rent. The deposit can be an incredible financial barrier, and for many, it is just one more hurdle to jump in a competitive market.

It was a sense of desperation that led Brittany Crawford to offer a substantial amount of money in order to try and secure a three bedroom-unit anywhere in Renfrew or Cobden, or any place in between.

“I am desperate to find a suitable place for myself and my children,” she said. “Most places ask for first and last month’s rent so I decided to offer three month’s rent in order to try and finally find a place and stop worrying about finding somewhere to put a roof over my children’s heads. I know a lot of people out there in the same boat and maybe offering so much money up front might be what it takes to get this search over with.”

This is a new experience for Crawford. Instead of relaxing during her lunch-hour at work, she uses the time to feverishly scan newspapers or Kijiji or anything devoted to rentals. She has joined a few Facebook groups devoted to the local rental market.

Instead of virtually socializing with friends, she has developed a network of people who notify her when a listing comes up. She has been in contact with others finding themselves in the same boat and they share their experiences.

Although she is not alone in her goal and has been able to share her frustration with others in the Valley, she still goes to bed at night hoping tomorrow will be the day that her three-month deposit is accepted.

Many people looking for a rental in the Ottawa Valley also spend restless nights dreading their upcoming vacancy date.

In the worst-case scenario, Deacon says she has a backup plan.

“We purchased a second vehicle and right now we use the van so my boyfriend can drive to work in Ottawa every day,” she said. “It is sad to say it but there is a real chance we may be homeless. It is something we have to consider and we may be forced to live in our van. I just hope it doesn’t come to that.”

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