Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/1/2021 (205 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This year, Ron Lovett got a tour of a pair of apartment blocks in the Spence neighbourhood — at 677 Maryland St. and 626 Ellice Ave. — without setting foot in them, or even in Winnipeg. Seeing the buildings over Zoom, he liked what he saw, and bought them.
The Halifax-based entrepreneur got his start in the housing world in 2017 after selling Source Security & Investigations, his private security company, to a multinational corporation, using that deal to fund his next venture, Vida Living.
The company started off in Halifax, purchasing rental properties in that city’s north end that had been rundown or mismanaged, Lovett said. The company takes stock of the building, upgrading security and lighting and renovating the units as needed: some were crawling with insects and in need of serious repairs.
"You wouldn’t want to live there until we came in," he said.
But unlike "renovicters," who buy low-cost buildings only to raise rents to finance those repairs, Lovett insists that’s not his company’s modus operandi. "We buy a building based on current rents and those are the rents we keep," he said.
In about three years, the company has expanded to managing more than 300 units in Halifax and Dartmouth, with a "unique" approach to renting, including offering incentives to tenants who start a business, paying movers or breaking leases without penalty if renters buy a home, and giving skilled tenants right of refusal for paid work in company-owned buildings. Vida also strikes deals with employers to give workers initial discounts on rents.
The results, he said, have been strong: very little turnover in tenants, aside from those buying condos or houses, better relationships between renters and "building ambassadors" (Lovett-speak for building managers), and during the pandemic, no evictions related to rent payments. "Delinquency" has actually decreased, he said.
Lovett’s concept is idealistic, but with such lofty goals, skepticism is only natural, especially in a neighbourhood where prior buyers have vowed to change renter experience, security and cleanliness to little avail.
With the downtown Winnipeg purchases, as well as several in New Brunswick, which closed this winter, Lovett will see whether his company’s methods will work here.
"We’ve definitely had landlords or prospective landlords looking to purchase property who have those kinds of enthusiastic ideals," said Benjamin Simcoe, the housing co-ordinator for the Spence Neighbourhood Association. "Sometimes it’s more flash than substance."
Simcoe said affordable housing in the area has been under a squeeze in recent years. One prong of that squeeze is rising rents as the housing stock ages, while at the same time, hundreds of units have been lost through fire or other damage, decreasing available housing stock, thereby raising demand and rent further. He said there’s a skepticism as to whether anyone can truly renovate and revitalize effectively without raising rent.
But Lovett says his company’s goals are to keep rents the same as they are at the time of purchase (between $800 and $1,000) while securing the buildings and preventing those types of events from happening. That’s partly done through security upgrades, tenant ratings of building managers, and through extensive screening for tenants, constructed along the lines of a job application.
Simcoe said 677 Maryland St., which Lovett’s company purchased for $2.2 million, hasn’t been a major concern in the neighbourhood in recent years, but the building at 626 Ellice Ave., a 39-unit property that Vida acquired through foreclosure, was suffering from a combination of poor management and recent issues including fires and lack of security.
To Lovett, the buildings were appealing from the get-go precisely because there was so much room for improvement and added value for tenants. The building on Maryland has already had upgraded security doors and lighting on order, and similar moves and renovations are about to get underway on Ellice, he said.
"If you look at affordable housing in Canada, for many it’s an asset cost, where people have to live but might not feel proud to live," he said. "We take this very seriously, and in our structure, tenants are at the top of the organization and I’m at the bottom."
"People treat these people as tenants, not customers," he added. "We might be in the real estate business, but my view is: what else can we do for the customer?"
Lovett said the two apartment blocks in Winnipeg are just the start: Vida is looking into purchasing other buildings in the city, with eyes on Saskatoon and Edmonton to expand their model further.
But Simcoe, who said he’d be happy to discuss housing and the neighbourhood with Lovett, said something that’s caused issues for rental companies is growing too quickly, spreading their priorities too thinly and struggling to sustain their ambitious goals.
"We’ve seen what can happen when companies take on too much too fast, could not maintain their goals or good relationships with tenants," he said.
Lovett is familiar with that skepticism, and said it’s understandable, given the reputation of predatory landlords or "renovicters."
Still, he’s confident opinions will change once the work gets started in Winnipeg and elsewhere. "We’re planning for everything, and we plan on hitting the ground running," he said. "We’re up for the challenge."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.