Shortly after the hallways at a West Broadway apartment building got laminate flooring and a coat of grey paint, the tenants got a 14.3 per cent increase on their monthly rent.
Residents of 149 Langside St., overseen by Onyx Property Management, say those upgrades were not only unnecessary but wrong amid a pandemic which has significantly impacted the livelihood of the working-class residents who call the building home.
The increase in rent occurred June 1, despite the Residential Tenancies Branch’s recommendation of zero per cent rent increases for 2022 and 2023 — a policy informed by the labour precarity, economic inflation and financial strain associated with the pandemic, housing advocates say.
There are avenues for landlords to implement rent increases exceeding the recommended rate "if they can demonstrate that the guideline amount will not cover cost increases they have incurred."
In most cases when a landlord applies for what is called an above-guideline increase, they are granted approval, although tenants have the opportunity to voice their opposition with the RTB.
At 149 Langside St., the response has been clear: a tenant committee has been formed, a petition to eliminate the increase has garnered hundreds of signatures, and a third of the building’s tenants have submitted written objections to the tenancies branch for upgrades they feel did not need to be done, especially when they are left footing the bill.
"It’s all wildly unethical to me," said Rebecca Hume, a 149 Langside resident who saw her rent climb from $885 in the spring of 2021 to $1,115 as of June 1 (with a $120 discount), all owing to changes she says did nothing to increase quality of life for tenants. She said the hallway carpet was in fine condition, as was the paint.
"The guideline is zero for a reason, and they should need a damn good reason for why they’re increasing our rent," said Hume, a researcher at the University of Winnipeg. "(The one they’ve provided) is woefully inadequate."
The Free Press called Onyx Property Management to confirm which changes were made and to ask for more information about the rent increase. An employee declined comment and promptly hung up her phone.
Tenants first found out about the proposed change in February, when Hume said the property manager sent notice of what would have then been a 22 per cent increase. That led a few concerned residents to get in touch with the West Broadway Tenants Committee, a grassroots rental organization that supports renters in the neighbourhood.
Stefan Hodges, a volunteer with the tenants committee, said seeing a large rent-increase proposal that exceeds recommendations is always shocking and worrisome, because it will likely displace renters, either right away when they get scared off, or later on when they can no longer keep up with their bills. It leads to a cycle of short-term tenancy and instability for renters.
"Unfortunately, it’s not an abnormality," he said of above-guideline increases.
A letter sent from the tenancies branch to residents of 149 Langside, dated April 22 and obtained by the Free Press, notes that the building experienced more than $13,000 in increased operating costs, while the company spent $34,728.29 on capital expenses. (Only a portion of capital expenses can be claimed by the landlord, and about $5,583 of the claimed $9,594.42 was spent on the hallway flooring.) The combined expenses are then divided among the tenants.
The tenants committee helped residents at 149 Langside St., in starting the 149 Langside St. Tenants’ Association to form a collective response rather than many individual ones, Hodges said. Together, the groups are working to influence the property manager to do two things: end unwanted renovations while consulting with tenants on all future renovations to their homes, and dropping the above-guideline rent increases to adhere to the recommended zero per cent.
An online petition on change.org has garnered several hundred signatures.
Hume said the responses called for in the petition would show that the property managers respect tenants and understand the predicament such a large increase causes.
"This increase is not nothing to us," said Hume, who worries the raised rent is a precursor to "renoviction" practices. "Poor people need housing, and we’re just getting priced out of the area," she added.
It’s not limited to one building. According to rentals.ca, the average rent for all property types in Winnipeg increased by 2.5 per cent between February 2021 and February 2022, and four per cent when compared with January 2020. And as rents climb in extant buildings, new builds are also increasingly expensive: the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation’s most recent rental report states that the average rent of newly built units between July 2018 and June 2021 in Winnipeg was $1,541.
And while operational costs have undoubtedly increased for landlords throughout the pandemic, tenants have faced similar increases without a commensurate increase in wages.
Prices for the average Canadian consumer increased by nearly seven per cent in April 2022 compared with April 2021, per Statistics Canada. And Manitoba’s minimum wage — $11.95 — is set to increase on Oct. 1 to a meagre $12.35, which would give the province the lowest baseline pay rate in the country.
On Thursday, tenants on Langside got word from the tenancies branch that their rent would not in fact go up by 14.3 per cent.
Just 13.3 per cent.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.