Lineups, upfront fees — a tight rental market amps up risk and anxiety in Calgary

In her rental hunt, Julia Buker says there were multiple people viewing the same home as her, making it difficult to get to know landlords or ask questions. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)
In her rental hunt, Julia Buker says there were multiple people viewing the same home as her, making it difficult to get to know landlords or ask questions. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)

It cost Sonal Gaonkar and her partner $50 just to apply for a two-bedroom apartment in September, but that wasn't the worst part.

She also had to agree to a $1,000 deposit before even getting a chance to view it. But she felt like there were no options.

"At this point, really, all the power was not in our hands. [The rental company] had the power," said Gaonkar. "This was scary for me."

In today's tight market, the pressure is intense. Renters say they must compete — pay fees, give away personal information and rush decisions — or go without a home.

They say it's worse than it's been in years. Some renters in CBC Calgary's text messaging community say they're being asked for social insurance numbers, a police background check or even their mother's maiden name. Some have been asked for five character references and credit scores of 600 or higher.

Plus, they're often standing in line just to see a place. Several said they're worried about scams and making a bad decision in haste, but also say they feel the low vacancy rates leave them with few options.

Gaonkar says she agreed to hand over the cash for her application and deposit only because it was for a reputable company she recognized. To her relief, they didn't take the $1,000 deposit from her account right away.

Once in the apartment, she found it stunk. But luckily a second unit was available and she argued her way in. That took confidence.

"I was able to safeguard myself," Gaonkar said. "If this was me six years ago — when I came to this country [from India] and I had no idea how anything worked — I would have been scared to do anything or even talk like that to the rental agency."

Lineups just for a viewing

Official data on the vacancy rate comes only once a year and is months out of date. The latest data for Calgary from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is from October 2021. The vacancy rate was 4.9 per cent.

But renters and industry experts say it feels like it's substantially lower.

Renters say they often contact landlords and hear nothing back, and the lineups make viewings feel more like an open house.

Robson Fletcher/CBC
Robson Fletcher/CBC

In May, Calgary musician Julia Buker wanted to leave her small downtown apartment for something bigger with her fiancé and their two cats. But the sense of competition — at multiple viewings — surprised her.

"There was somebody coming out right before we went in," said Buker. "Halfway through us looking, another young couple came in to look as well. And then there were people waiting outside."

"It didn't really feel like we could get to know the landlord very well or have any sort of privacy to ask our own questions," she said.

They searched for a month. Then as soon as they saw one that worked, they sent an application.

"We didn't hesitate at all because we knew it would go really, really quickly," she said. "[There's] a whole bunch of little things I feel could get missed just because … there's pressure to rent right away or send an application right away — or you're going to lose it."

Karina Zapata/CBC
Karina Zapata/CBC

And as for personal information, she was asked for her SIN and five character references during her search.

"There's this feeling like if you don't fill out the application in full, you'll get passed over and someone else will get it. But now there's some random person who has my information, which isn't awesome either," said Buker.

Other renters are concerned about the amount of personal information landlords request on rental applications, especially social insurance numbers. People worry about identity theft or fraud, and the Better Business Bureau has been warning people that scammers post fraudulent advertisements.

Landlords can't force a renter to give SIN

CBC Calgary reached out to several landlords to find out why this is happening. But since the rental market in Calgary has many small players, it's tough to say why individual landlords make such requests.

But it certainly feels like a landlord's market.

Shamon Kureshi, president of Hope Street Management, says the vacancy rate for his firm's properties is just 1.7 per cent. He says he hears from many renters who say every property they ask about has already been taken, or the landlord doesn't call them back.

"It's a huge, huge problem in our market right now. There just isn't the supply that we need to make it a fair, balanced and reasonably priced rental market," said Kureshi.

Mark Matulis/CBC
Mark Matulis/CBC

His company doesn't charge an application fee, but he says it's becoming more common with other companies and simply covers the cost of listing the place and screening tenants.

Gerry Baxter with the Calgary Residential Rental Association, which supports landlords, says social insurance numbers are used for credit checks. Since it's a unique number, it's more reliable than asking for a name and date of birth.

But under provincial law, tenants do not have to provide landlords with their social insurance number, he says.

"Landlords cannot demand it, and landlords cannot refuse to rent to somebody if a tenant fails to provide that social insurance number."

He says there isn't a set credit score that's accepted across the board; landlords look at full credit reports and history, not just scores.

As for Buker, who is now settled in her new home, she says just don't give up.

She advises renters to have all their documentation organized so they can apply quickly, and show up to their viewings on time to show that they're reliable.

"Just keep persevering," said Buker. "It's a really hard market."

Finding Home

How are you managing in this tight market? CBC Calgary is looking at housing for our next community-driven reporting project. We'd love to hear from you.

What's your situation? What changes have you seen? What do you want us to tackle next?

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