Stuck between high rent & a hard place

Kingston has one of the priciest markets in Ontario, but it’s unclear what needs to be done to curb the costs

In the west end of the city, two-bedroom apartments are on average $71 less per month than downtown apartments.
In the west end of the city, two-bedroom apartments are on average $71 less per month than downtown apartments.

Rent prices in Kingston are among the highest in the province and Queen’s students are paying for it.

The Fall 2012 Rental Market Report from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) placed Kingston as the fourth most expensive rental market in the province.

Kingston tied with the district of Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo and the city of Hamilton.

The CMHC conducted the survey by cold calling landlords who oversaw a total of approximately 12,600 units in the City of Kingston. It maps the city into three zones, the priciest of which is the downtown core, including the areas around campus.

According to CMHC, rent prices are guided by factors such as vacancy rates — an indication of how competitive the market is. Although downtown Kingston’s vacancy rate rose significantly this year, the rate remains very low compared to most regions in the country.

“It’s a tight market. Supply seems to be limited,” said Andrew Scott, Market Analyst for Kingston at the CMHC.

In the west end of the city, prices for a 2-bedroom apartment are on average $71 cheaper each month. In the area north of the city, rent is on average $119 less, which Scott said is driven by longer commute times.

Kingston’s market is considered pricey compared to those of neighbouring towns. Belleville, for example, has an average monthly rent for an apartment of any size of $836, while Brockville’s is $731. Downtown Toronto’s average price is much steeper, at $1,353 per month.

Scott said this can be attributed to factors such as the city’s job opportunities and the increase in enrolment in post-secondary education institutions.

“Queen’s has been accepting a lot more students over the last few years and this has increased the number of people seeking rental situations,” he said. “The supply hasn’t been keeping up with this.”

Students looking to rent are often left with little choice than to look downtown, according to A.J. Keilty, owner of Varsity Properties.

He believes commuting by car isn’t a viable option for students, as the University has little room to develop more space for parking.

“The University is essentially landlocked, unlike other places like Western and Trent,” he said.

The CMHC report, which analyzed 15 major markets in Ontario, averaged the city’s rent price for an apartment, of any size, in the downtown core at $897 per month — a 3.1 per cent rise from last year. Other Ontario university cities such as Hamilton and London, averaged at lower rates of $818 and $843, respectively.

Keilty said Kingston’s transit system doesn’t reach all areas for much of the year.

“Car, transit, bike don’t work around this neighbourhood very well. That’s why people say ‘I can’t rely on that, I must walk,’” he said. “That’s why students rent places near campus even if they are in terrible condition.”

To address these issues, instead of continuing to expand out, Keilty has another plan: to build up. He believes more high-rises will lead to lower rent prices for students and more space downtown for families.

Although current city zoning laws don’t allow the building of more high-rises, Keilty said he’s actively lobbying the City to change the law to accommodate more students.

“All it takes is some political will on the municipal level,” he said. “It’s not just [Varsity] that’s going to benefit, it’s our customers.”

According to Marnie Venditti, manager of development with the City of Kingston, changing zoning laws to allow more high-rises isn’t a simple process.

The City hopes to change its zoning laws and is currently in Phase One of the process of doing so. It hopes to both update and amalgamate the 10 existing zoning bylaws in the city.

“It’s going to take some time,” Venditti said. “The timeline projected for that is about five years. It’s not a quick process ... there’s a lot of properties that could impacted by the change.” Any property owner has the right to appeal the change, a factor that could delay the process.

The current laws in the Queen’s area vary. Most houses north of Johnson St., considered “zone A”, allow for only one to two family homes. On University Ave., though, some properties are “zone B,” which means they can house three to six families.

Bill Glover, city councillor for the Sydenham district, isn’t so sure that high-rise development will equal lower rent prices for students.

He believes if the students demand is high within a five-minute walk from campus, high rents will remain in the area no matter what zoning change occurs.

Yet, like Keilty, Glover identifies transit as a major barrier to students commuting. Some of this has been relieved in recent years as the City has expanded its routes to places like the train station, but much work is to be done, he said.

“We as a city can’t expect students to live farther away from campus if they cannot get to campus.”

Legally in Ontario, each time a landlord signs with a new tenant, he or she has the right to raise the rent to any price.

The exception to rent rules are landlords who’re registered with the Queen’s Landlord Contract program, run through Queen’s Community Housing.

Membership means landlords must stay within government regulations for rent increases. This year, landlords who are in the program can raise rent prices a maximum of 2.5 per cent.

Dan McDonald of Panadew Property Management said the company’s rent prices are determined by how the market is looking during each particular year.

“We check the other ads on the Queen’s listings and just based on the area that ours is located in and based on similar house sizes and styles, we price it off that,” he said.

McDonald said students tend to look for properties in the same areas, which brings rent prices up.

Houses located closer to St. Lawrence College have estimated rent prices of being 10 to 15 per cent lower than those in the Queen’s area.

“If [students] lived the same distance west as some of them are living east ... I think it would be cheaper,” he said. “But everyone wants to be south of Princess, right downtown.”

How does Kingston fare nationally?

The average rent price for a two-bedroom apartment in Kingston is $1,005. Here’s how Kingston’s rent prices compare to those of other major Canadian cities:

Vancouver: $1,261 (+$256)
Calgary: $1,150 (+$145)
Edmonton: $1,071 (+$66)
Victoria: $1,059 (+$54)
Regina: $979 (-$26)
Halifax: $954 (-$51)
Winnipeg: $911 (-$94)
Charlottetown: $803 (-$202)
St. John’s (NL): $798 (-$207)

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