Retiree’s fight against 30% rent hike points to ‘broken rent-control system’: Manitoba NDP

Deborah Kunkel doesn’t want to move amid a pandemic, but she says it may come to that after rent for her Winnipeg apartment suite went up nearly $300 a month.

“It’s a one-bedroom and it was a very good price for what … was all included, but now that it’s been raised 30 per cent, it’s harder to afford it,” said Kunkel, a former government administrative assistant, just inside the front doors of the Manitoba Legislature.

The retiree is one of thousands of Manitobans on a fixed income who saw their rents rise on Oct. 1, when a provincial rent freeze imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was lifted.

She is appealing the increase through the Residential Tenancies Branch, which approved the increase above the maximum 2.4 per cent earlier this year.

Members of Manitoba’s Opposition NDP flanked Kunkel at the legislature on Tuesday morning, where they pointed to her experience to illustrate how life has become less affordable.

Hydro rate hike

They made the announcement the same day that a 2.9 per cent Manitoba Hydro electricity rate hike took effect, and one month after natural gas rates increased by about 22 per cent, or $122 per year, for the average ratepayer.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew pointed to documents obtained through a previous freedom of information act request that suggested 100 per cent of above-guideline rent increase applications for 2019-2020 were approved by the Residential Tenancy Branch. It suggests some renters saw increases of between 30 and 50 per cent.

A provincial spokesperson said generally, all above-guidelines increases are approved, but they aren’t necessarily approved at the rates requested by landlords.

But Kinew said it’s evidence of a broken system that doesn’t give renters a fair chance to fight rising rent costs.

He called electricity and rent increases a “double whammy of an affordability hit on people’s pocketbooks” and implored the province to do more to help those who are struggling.

“We need to make sure that people have more money to try and weather the storm of this pandemic,” said Kinew.

“That means fixing a broken rent-control system so that seniors like Deborah and others who rent have the ability to stay in their places, that they don’t have to move just because the rent gets too high, that they don’t have to become full-time activists just to be able to fight a rent increase.”

‘Generous’ government supports

Kunkel’s hydro rates are part of her monthly rent fees, she said.

Her rent was supposed to go up in May, but the pandemic freeze kept that from happening until this fall. As of October, her rent is now $1,238, up from from $950.

The government sets the rent increase guidelines annually and considers the rate of inflation when doing so. Landlords can apply for increases above what is set if they can prove their expenses exceed that. By law, landlords must give tenants three-months notice of any rent increase.

In the past decade, about 350 landlords have applied for above guideline rent increases, with the requested average around 12.31 per cent, and the Residential Tenancies Branch has granted an average increase of 9.89 per cent, said a spokesperson for the Progressive Conservative government.

“Our government has cut taxes across the board, making like more affordable for Manitobans,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“We also recognize the impact that COVID-19 is having on Manitobans, which is why we’ve brought in very generous business and wage support programs to help keep more Manitobans working, and why we had the longest rent freeze and eviction moratorium in Canada.”

Some call it ‘reno-viction’

Kunkel says a trip to the tenancy branch’s downtown headquarters revealed files showing the owners of her Grant Avenue apartment building had spent money painting the building, redoing the balconies and underground parking lot, and installing a new ventilation system.

“They did very little inside the building,” she said. “Some people call it a ‘reno-viction.’ A lot of tenants moved out.”

She filed a complaint with the RTB earlier this year about the planned rent increase. Building management offered her incentives to drop it, including one month of free rent and a few months of free parking, but Kunkel said that won’t make a big difference to her living situation long-term.

Kunkel makes about half as much from her pension and old age security as she made when she was still working. She’ll have to move come spring when her lease is up if her complaint fails to bring rent back down, she said.

“It makes things tighter.… It costs money to move, and during a pandemic, I’m not so sure that I want to go around looking at apartments,” she said.

“I plan to stay as long as I can. My lease runs out at the end of April, and then I’ll have to decide whether it’s time to go.”

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