Opinion: The business of housing and helium balloons

Laine Jackart is a Ph.D. student in UBC's School and Applied Child Psychology program. His research interests include the psychoeducational assessment of linguistically diverse Canadians, as well as the social-emotional effects of strength training interventions for adolescents. Outside of academics, he is a proud dog owner, elite powerlifter and enjoys a good croissant.

When I was five years old, I cried as I watched my helium-filled balloon float from my hand and morph into a speck amongst the clouds. My father told me that it would eventually come back down to earth and that someone else would find it and take care of it for me. For days after, I pictured it landing in Abbotsford, Trail, Sparwood, and Alberta, rolling across pastures and finding itself in a safe new home.

Rising Rent

As federal interest rates and inflation have risen, so has the average rent price in Vancouver. Many landlords feel the pressure of increases in their mortgage payments, as well as increases in maintenance, utilities, and insurance costs. These increases in costs might partially account for the fact that asking rents for vacant units were an average of 43 per cent higher than those of already occupied units based upon the 2023 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) annual rental market report.

Inflation and interest rates can’t be the whole story here. According to the Bank of Canada, the average inflation from 2020-2023 was 4.87 per cent per year, so what rent control policy–or lack thereof–might affect the average price of rent in Vancouver? What policies can renters advocate for to protect access to housing for people who might not be wealthy enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment for $2500 or more per month?

Let’s look at the last few years before looking forward: In 2023, BC landlords were allowed to increase rental prices for pre-existing tenants by 2.0 percent, which is a reasonable increase for tenants and falls below the rate of inflation. 

All good, right? Wrong. 

Despite the Residential Tenancy Act governing rent increases in already occupied units, landlords can increase rent however much they want to whichever price they might desire once a unit is vacant. With regulations protecting tenants in occupied units and the absence of legislated rent control for vacant units, it is no surprise that BC continues to be the eviction capital of Canada — with Statistics Canada reporting BC’s average rate of eviction as being almost double the national eviction average from 2016 to 2021. Furthermore, between 2016 and 2021, 9 per cent of renters in BC were evicted with no-fault — either for renovation, sale, demolition, or the moving of a family member into the unit — compared to the national average of 4 percent. 

CMHC data also shows that eviction disproportionately affects marginalized groups, with 13 percent of Indigenous respondents and 12 percent of Black respondents reporting that they had experienced eviction, compared to 7 percent of respondents who are not a visible minority.

BC has a vacancy tax, which should help to increase the supply of rentals within the market, but in Vancouver, it’s just not enough. Rentals that do exist just don’t remain vacant for long enough for this to de-incentivize aggressive increases in rent prices. 

People are renting these units despite significant average asking rent increases price increases in vacant units] due to a general shortage of housing in Vancouver that a history of restrictive zoning has perpetuated. Regardless of policy already in place, the supply of rentals is just not enough to significantly drive market prices down.

Rent can be tied down like a balloon

In BC, we tax owners of vacant homes to incentivize rental, we protect tenants against unreasonable rent increases, but we do not regulate the rental price of units once a tenant has been evicted or has ended their tenancy. The bottom line is, without vacancy control from tenant to tenant, landlords can set rental prices at whatever they want. This gap incentivizes eviction by giving landlords the opportunity to raise rents to whichever number our supply-hungry market might allow for.

If you think your average tenant, or average UBC student, can afford to pay 43 per cent more rent in one of the world’s most expensive cities, you’re either more optimistic—or more delusional—than the average bear.

As rental prices continue to soar into the stratosphere, like that helium balloon we all fumbled as children, I remember the advice of my father: “Tie it to your wrist.” 

Such advice applies to vacancy control policies. By tying rental rates to units, not allowing them to vary significantly between renters, and capping rent increases on these units, we protect the average price of rent in our communities and foster a more diverse community. 

This is a model that is already in place in provinces such as Prince Edward Island, and one that our province could easily build off of. Given this, it is one that our province maybe should not entirely mimic, as tensions have nevertheless continued between PEI tenants and landlords.

As incentives rise for BC landlords to issue no-fault evictions to tenants, such as challenging economic circumstances, lack of protection provided to renters, extreme demand for rental units, and lack of vacancy control and average rent in Vancouver, like a helium balloon, will continue to soar.

The only difference is, that without some form of vacancy control, it will be a long time before this balloon returns to earth. Changes in zoning and increases in the supply of rental units are slow; eviction of tenants and the rent-gouging is fast.

This is an opinion article. It reflects only the author's views and may not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response, or your own submission at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.