Winnipeg's overall apartment vacancy rate has climbed to its highest level in seven years, but still remains one of the lowest in the country, according to a new market survey by Canada's national housing agency.
The latest Fall Rental Market Survey by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) shows Winnipeg's overall vacancy rate rose to 1.7 per cent in October from 1.1 per cent a year earlier.
That's the highest it's been since 2005, and is nearly a full percentage point higher than it was in October 2010, when it was a mere 0.8 per cent.
It's a similar story with Manitoba's overall rate. It rose to 1.6 per cent from 1.0 per cent, and the last time it was that high was 2006.
But despite the improvement, CMHC said Winnipeg still has one of the lowest vacancy rates among the 35 Canadian cities it surveyed. The only ones with lower rates are Regina (1.0 per cent), Thunder Bay (1.1 per cent), Calgary (1.3 per cent) and Guelph (1.4 per cent. Three others -- Toronto, Kingston and Edmonton -- have the same rate as Winnipeg.
Officials with two local student groups said while the improvement is welcome, many students and low-income earners are still having a hard time finding suitable accommodations in Winnipeg.
"It's a consistent battle they face," said Zach Fleisher, vice-president advocate for the University of Winnipeg Students Association.
And if they do find an apartment, Fleisher said it's often either more costly than they had hoped, or it's in a less desirable area.
"I think the city and the province still need to come up with a strategy for creating more affordable rental units for students and lower-income earners," he added.
University of Manitoba Student Union president Bilan Arte said there's also a severe shortage of rental units within a reasonable distance of the U of M's Fort Garry campus.
Arte said the university has a golden opportunity to address this long-standing crisis by ensuring a large number of affordable housing units are included in the redevelopment plans for its Southwood golf course land.
CMHC's senior market analyst for Winnipeg said there has been an increase this year in the number of new rental units under construction in the city -- 844 in the first 11 months of the year versus 812 in all of 2011.
Dianne Himbeault said there's also been an increase in the number of rental condominiums -- units purchased by investors and then rented out to other parties. She said 14.5 per cent of 13,863 condos in the city as of October were rental units, versus 13.8 per cent a year earlier.
Himbeault said the net gain of 250 more rental units in Winnipeg in the past year, combined with a slight moderation in net migration to the province, is what helped to boost the overall vacancy rate.
She agreed the improvements were most noticeable at the higher end of the rental market. She said the vacancy rate for units with monthly rental rates of $1,095 or higher was 4.5 per cent, versus 0.9 per cent for those in the $600 to $695 range.
The survey found in the past year, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Winnipeg increased by 3.6 per cent to $911 from $875. For all of Manitoba's major urban centres combined, it rose by 3.7 per cent to $887 from $850.
That compared to a national average increase of 2.2 per cent to $901 from $883.
Although the provincial rent-increase guideline for this year was one per cent, Himbeault noted newly built and recently refurbished units are exempt from the guideline. And landlords facing rising maintenance and energy costs also can apply for rent increases above the guideline, she added.