Saskatchewan's two major cities have hundreds of renters behind on their rent during the pandemic, according to a new survey.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) released new annual data on apartment, condo and townhouse rents, vacancies and arrears on Thursday. The data was collected in an October 2020 survey of landlords and property managers.
CMHC found drastic differences in the number of arrears in Saskatoon and Regina.
In Saskatoon, 445 renters were behind in payments, but in Regina, there were 983.
"The pandemic has put a lot of pressure on both landlords and tenants, and it really required a lot of collaboration over the past almost year as we've navigated an eviction moratorium, job losses and, of course, enhanced cleaning measures, physical distancing and a variety of other restrictions that have impacted both landlords and tenants," said Cameron Choquette, CEO of the Saskatchewan Landlord Association.
The association represents more than 50,000 rental units across the province and has approximatelm 550 members, Choquette said.
"What we're hearing from our small and medium size members is that arrears really hit them hard and that even if a couple or half a dozen tenants don't pay their rent, it really hurts their bottom line and ultimately hurts their ability to invest in the property, to conduct preventative maintenance and to ensure that all of the systems are working well."
Regina's total arrears (6.6 per cent) are slightly higher than the national rate, which is 6.1 per cent. Meanwhile, Saskatoon sits at less than half the national rate.
Choquette said employment is probably the biggest factor contributing to arrears, and that there were most likely more job losses in Regina in 2020, compared to Saskatoon.
"It's important for landlords and tenants to continue to communicate on those rent arrears to sign payment plans or deferral agreements so that those arrears can be paid over a longer period of time," said Choquette.
"Absent that, we encourage the government to continue offering COVID relief benefits for those individuals and families who aren't able to work so that those arrears can be minimised into the 2021 year."
Concerns for low-income individuals, families
The rental turnover rate decreased across the province, according to the survey. CMHC found that the apartment vacancy rate in Regina was unchanged from 2019 — sitting at 7.5 per cent.
There was also a growth in rent, Choquette said.
The Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry is not as happy about that rent increase.
"Over the course of this past year, we're still continuing to see rents go up and at the same time we're not seeing incomes matching for people living in poverty. We continue to have the lowest minimum wage in the country," said Peter Gilmer, advocate for the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry.
Gilmer said those with disabilities and those in low-income families are hit the hardest.
"We've seen a big pickup recently in terms of the number of evictions," Gilmer said.
He said many of his agency's clients are having to choose between rent and necessities like food and medicine.
Gilmer says CMHC's findings on arrears in Regina come as no surprise.
"It relates to what we're seeing on a day-to-day basis. The number one reason why people have been calling us over the course of the last 15 years has been in relation to having difficulties covering the cost of the rent and dealing with rental arrears."
Gilmer said the new Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program lumps the cost of rent and the cost of basic utilities like energy, power and water into one lump sum payment for shelter, amounting to only $575 for rent.
"So looking at the average rent now for a one bedroom apartment in Regina, which I believe is now $949, you can see that we're looking at a huge gap for people who are on income assistance programs," said Gilmer.
"We don't see government moving on any of the key areas that would mitigate hardship for low income people."
Gilmer said the provincial government needs to enact rent controls, expand social housing and ensue that people have the income support necessary to meet their rents.