County to conduct its own study of rental vacancy rates

(Gazette file photo)




In response to higher-than-expected rental vacancy rates that could impact affordable housing funding, the municipality is conducting its own survey.

Director of community development and strategic initiatives Neil Carbone gave councillors an update on the municipality’s affordable housing task team during last week’s committee-of-the-whole meeting. He told the committee the next project on the task team’s agenda will be a rental vacancy survey, which the community development department will be conducting over the next few weeks.

“The vacancy rate is more than just a number; it has a real impact on funding decisions,” Carbone said in a news release from the municipality. “Potential funders of affordable housing use the vacancy rate as one of the determining factors when considering requests.”

He said developers are finding it challenging to access seed funding, rebates, and financing through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) because the official vacancy rate indicates the situation isn’t as dire in the county as in other municipalities.

“We are asking property managers and owners to work with us as we attempt to correct the inaccurate information,” he said.

Each October CMHC conducts a rental market survey of municipalities with populations of 10,000 and greater. The study is done on a sample basis and is meant to estimate the relative strengths in the rental market. The survey only includes privately initiated structures with three or more rental units and tracks vacancy rates, rents, availability, and unit types.

The issue arose because that survey is used as the basis for funding allocation under an affordable housing development charge rebate program, CMHC seed funding, and the CMHC Rental Construction Financing Initiative. Those programs only apply to municipalities with rental vacancy rates of less than three per cent. In 2017, the County’s vacancy rate was assessed at 4.8 per cent.

However, Carbone told councillors last Thursday that figure seems to conflict with local experience.

“When we saw this number as a task team and when a number of housing developers in the county saw this number, we were astonished,” he said. “The experience on the ground is that our rental vacancy rate is probably closer to zero.”

The discrepancy has already caused some issues. Carbone said at least one local developer has been rejected access to funding through CMHC and the municipality didn’t have an opportunity to apply to the development charge rebate program.

“Just the year before the rate was 2.7 per cent,” he said. “This raised a lot of red flags for us and a lot of questions.”

In an effort to make sure the figures are correct, the community development department will be conducting their own survey.

“There is a history of CMHC recognizing that there may be different situations on the ground in various jurisdictions and they will accept independent studies that may contradict or provide different information as the basis for applying for funds,” Carbone said.

The survey uses the CMHC’s methodology, is being conducted over the phone with property owners or managers, and takes about 10 minutes. Calls began last week. The survey only includes rental properties with three or more units and does not include short-term rentals of single family dwellings.

Carbone said the municipality will take all steps necessary to protect privacy and personal information and will adhere to all relevant provincial legislation throughout the survey process. Once complete, the County will be collating the data and a report on the findings will presented to council and made available to the public. The results will be reported only in aggregate without information about specific properties.

In an effort to make the survey as accurate as possible, Carbone said the department will be reaching out to all properties that meet the criteria in the county. He said there could be 100 to 120 in the county in total.

Councillor Treat Hull said he feels the survey will have a significant impact.

“It sounds like if we don’t get this right, all kinds of funding is unavailable, not only to us as a municipal government, but to the private sector or community groups,” he said. “It sounds like an appropriate first step.”

He noted that, while the focus is on affordable housing, in his experience the issue spans across all housing in the county.

Carbone said Thursday’s was the first of several affordable housing presentations and recommendations that will coming forward to councillors over the coming weeks.