One month after the provincial moratorium on rent increases during the pandemic was lifted, Lindsey Mazur is scrambling to deal with a massive 30 per cent rate spike.
If that weren’t enough, the registered dietitian and graduate student has also lost her job amidst the fallout of COVID-19.
"It’s hard to maintain hope and optimism when all this is happening," said Mazur, who lives in a building owned by My Place Realty, in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Wolseley.
The rent for her one-bedroom apartment increased by more than $300 as of Nov. 1, to $1,193/month from $883/month. The increase means she will have to pull from student loans and her line of credit to afford to stay in the space.
"I’m not working, (I’m) doing graduate studies, and the rent increase as it is would be difficult, but as a direct result of the pandemic — it’s completely shocking that such a high rent increase would be considered by our government, never mind approved," she said in a recent interview.
The maximum rent increase allowed in Manitoba is calculated yearly, based on the average annual change in the consumer price index. By law, it must be within the inflation-control target range, which is currently from one to three per cent.
Landlords, however, are allowed to apply for a rent increase above the maximum.
Mazur complained about the increase when it was proposed by building management at the end of February.
She attempted to appeal to the Residential Tenancies Branch in August — before the six-month ban on rent increases was set to expire Oct. 1 — and said she was given a Sept. 24-Oct. 13 window in which she would be allowed to file an objection.
In a letter from the Residential Tenancies Branch in September, My Place Realty pointed to increased operating expenses, including realty taxes, as the reason for the rate spike.
Mazur had to sign a new lease before that time, however — and did so thinking there would be a response to her objection before the Nov. 1 rent payment.
Mazur received a message from the Residential Tenancies Branch on Oct. 29, explaining why landlords could apply for rent increases over the base rent guideline. Asking for clarity, she received another email confirming her rent would increase. It did not state if the amount of increase had changed due to her objection.
"I felt it was very confusing and inaccessible. There didn’t seem to be good follow through or transparency, or even clear or timely communication… and with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, it has added even more stress to the issue," she said.
It’s not the first rent increase she’s had to pay since she moved in to the apartment in 2019, but it is the largest by far.
She received a notice for a proposed 10 per cent increase in July 2019, but the RTB ruled only a seven per cent increase was justified. It took effect in November 2019.
"It’s an extremely confusing back and forth — I don’t know what’s what, what’s my rent today? What will it be tomorrow, what will it be in a couple months? What are my rights? And then trying to advocate for myself and having such difficulty," she said.
The Residential Tenancies Branch and My Place Realty did not respond to requests for comment.
Winnipeg NDP MLA Adrien Sala has been pushing back against massive rent increases in his St. James constituency. He said COVID-19 has highlighted a systemic issue with provincial legislation and housing affordability.
"These above-guideline rent increases are a silent driver of our housing affordability crisis in Manitoba," he said.
Sala’s office filed a freedom of information request to the province in the summer, after learning of large rent increases in his constituency. He wanted more information about the issue province-wide.
The documents obtained show the Residential Tenancies Branch approved all 310 applications for rent increases higher than Manitoba’s allowed guidelines, which were submitted in the 2019-20 fiscal year, Sala said.
More than 20,000 Manitoba apartment units had above-guideline rent increases, and nearly 25 per cent had increases higher than 10 per cent.
"The tenant is supposed to shoulder all of the risk that’s being created by that process that’s not functioning properly. (The tenant) is being asked to pay money up front that they’re promised they’ll get paid back if the rent increase is denied," he said.
"But that fixed-income Manitoban or low-income Manitoban is out of pocket maybe $300 on a $1,000 apartment, and they’re expected to carry those costs. It’s completely unfair to the everyday Manitoban."
Kirsten Bernas, chairwoman of the Winnipeg-based Right to Housing Coalition, suggests tenants contact housing advocacy groups.
"It could be useful to go to one of the many community organizations out there that have staff on site who can help navigate issues with the Residential Tenancies Branch," she said. "Because they might have been working with lots of other people who may have experienced something like this."
Mazur said she hopes her story brings to light a wider issue of exploitative rent increases.
"We are not protecting our most vulnerable people in Manitoba, and hadn’t been prior to the pandemic… and now it’s unfortunately even worse," she said.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.