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Kassandra Gavin-Henry remembers friends couch-surfing at a friend’s apartments for months because they couldn’t find a place of their own.
Doing that can break a tenant-landlord agreement, said the vice-president of communications at Holland College Student Union.
“These situations alone are so concerning to hear about and put both themselves and their friends at risk of being without housing,” Gavin-Henry said. “There are two separate problems there that need to be addressed.”
There is a lot of anxiety felt by students around housing and rent, especially during COVID-19, she said.
So, when David McQuillan, a tenant support worker, offered to run a free housing workshop for students through the Community Legal Information, the union agreed.
“Having this information at hand for students will be really beneficial as they navigate tenant-landlord relationships and (for tenants to) continue to have housing here on P.E.I.,” Gavin-Henry said.
The workshop was held online Jan. 27. McQuillan said these workshops are important to inform tenants about their rights and responsibilities.
“At Community Legal Information, we believe in empowering people through knowledge,” he said. “They are a great way to engage with Island tenants and to pass the information along to them.”
For more information
To learn more about tenants' rights, contact tenant network co-ordinator with Housing P.E.I. Connor Kelly at [email protected] or by phone at 902-894-4573.
Students are an important demographic for the Tenant Support Centre, he said, as they are often in temporary living situations and are dealing with a lot of stress.
“Workshops like the one we did … are a good way to reach students who might otherwise not have the time to seek out this information.”
Issues covered included whether tenants can grow cannabis in their apartment, tenants and pets, the meaning of “regular wear and tear”, getting a security deposit back from their landlord and who has to pay for bedbug treatment.
Karla Cabrera, who works for the student union and helped McQuillan set up the webinar, was the co-host of the workshop. She called it “very helpful” and “complete”.
“(It) really touched on important points that students should be aware of when renting,” she said.
Raul Martinez, vice-president of finance at the union, agreed, noting that the webinar would be a helpful part of orientation week each year.
Cost too high
Rent is unaffordable for many P.E.I. residents, said Connor Kelly, Tenant Network co-ordinator.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s definition of affordable rent is less than 30 per cent of a tenant’s income, Kelly said. But here, rent is well above this.
“I don't think anyone can consider housing on P.E.I. to be affordable until rents fall in line with that under 30 per cent guideline when applied to a minimum-wage income.”
Many students, particularly international students, are rarely told what kind of rent to expect on P.E.I., he said.
“They can come here expecting a $400- to $500-a-month rent for a one-bedroom apartment. I've been told of that leading to situations like six to eight students living together in a single apartment in order to afford a $1,700 a month rent.”
McQuillan said for several years the P.E.I. rental market has had an extremely low vacancy rate.
“Low vacancy means that renters have fewer options, which makes many aspects of renting more difficult, especially for low-income renters and students,” he said.
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a healthy vacancy rate is somewhere between three and five per cent. In 2018, the vacancy rate on P.E.I. was 0.2 per cent. It was 1.2 per cent in 2019. Last October, it is was 2.6 per cent.
“As a province, then, we are in a better position than we have been for a while, but we are still dealing with a low vacancy rate,” said McQuillan.
“It means that if a tenant receives an eviction notice, they might have trouble finding a new affordable place to live or they might be less likely to exercise their rights because they don’t want to risk losing their housing.”
The Department of Social Development and Housing has put a lot of work into helping tenants over the past couple of years, McQuillan said.
“(They have created) new affordable housing units and funding projects like the Tenant Support Centre,” he said.
“We are happy to see the Island rental market starting to move in the right direction and we look forward to helping that trend continue.”
Kelly said to get housing issues addressed, tenants should organize and work towards solving their shared issues related to housing in their community.
“Sometimes, reporting violations to Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission or the Human Rights Commission can work, but the burden of proof falls on tenants, many of whom may not even realize when a landlord is violating their rights,” he said.
“On top of that, the power dynamic between tenant and landlord almost always tilts in favour of the landlord, even in supposedly neutral spaces like hearings and courts.
“Organizing is the only way to balance things out.”
McQuillan, who began his role as tenant support worker with the Community Legal Information in October, said the recent workshop with the Holland College student union was the first one delivered to students.
Since he started, he has delivered four similar presentations with different groups, including HCSU, P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada, EXIT Realty P.E.I., and P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing. In March, he is planning to do a workshop with the Native Council of P.E.I.
He and Cabrera have discussed offering more workshops in collaboration with the HCSU in the near future but haven't set any dates yet.