Tornadoes add to rental market woes in Gatineau, and probably in Ottawa, too

Almost a hundred Gatineau families are still homeless in the wake of a tornado that ripped through the Mont-Bleu neighbourhood on Sept. 21 — and a tightening rental market and higher prices is making it harder for them to find new apartments.

More than 215 buildings suffered damage or were destroyed in the tornado, affecting 1,686 housing units. In total, 2,112 people registered with the Quebec branch of the Canadian Red Cross and 250 families asked for help from Office habitation de l’Outaouais, an independent social and affordable housing agency funded by the province of Quebec.

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So far, about two-thirds of those have been relocated, said Karina Osiecka, a spokeswoman for the agency. But the sudden disappearance of dozens of rental units, many in the cheaper end of the rental market, has pushed up rental prices, particularly in the Hull sector.

“Prices are higher and higher. And there’s not a lot of choice,” said Osiecka. “We see that prices are changing already. There are fewer available apartments, and the prices are increasing. It’s a problem that can’t be solved quickly.”

To make things even more difficult, Gatineau has one of the lowest vacancy rates in Quebec — last year it stood at 3.8 per cent, and down to three per cent for units with three or more bedrooms.

The Gatineau rental market has traditionally been less expensive than Ottawa’s. Most of the people on Osiecka’s list are looking to pay between $600 and $800 for an apartment. But these have become hard to find in the Hull and Mont-Bleu sector — although prices have remained stable in the Gatineau sector, said Osiecka. Before the tornado hit, there were 130 families at risk of homelessness on the agency’s roster. That list had now almost doubled.

“It’s complicated. There are no hotels in the Mont-Bleu area. And most people want to stay in the neighbourhood because it’s close to their children’s schools and their work,” she said.

“It has been difficult to find places for December. Now, we’re looking at January, and it’s still difficult. People need solutions right now.”

“People need solutions right now.”

The Quebec Red Cross has offered financial assistance for residents who are not insured, including as much as $200 a month to reduce the gap between the cost of new accommodations and accommodations that have been lost or are temporarily uninhabitable. But Osiecka says that offer is available only for a limited time.

Across the river in Ottawa, it’s unclear whether the tornado has affected the price of rental housing in a market that was already tight and growing increasingly expensive.

There were upward pressures on the prices of both one- and two-bedroom apartments in Ottawa in September, according to PadMapper’s most recent report, which analyzes rental data from active listings across Canada.

“Ottawa is currently the sixth most expensive city with one bedroom rent up 2.4 per cent last month to $1,270, while two bedrooms grew 0.6 per cent to $1,570,” said Crystal Chen, a spokeswoman for PadMapper.

On a year-over-year basis, prices for both bedroom types are up more than 15 per cent, she said. “The growing monthly and year-over-year prices show a strong demand in Ottawa that has not yet been met with enough available supply.”

Last year, the vacancy rate for one-bedroom rental units in Ottawa was 1.4 per cent and 2.1 per cent for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the Canada Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. Vacancy rates of three or four per cent are considered healthy due to the amount of choice they give apartment-hunters.

CHMC is to release its rental market report on Nov. 28, and is expected to include information on the tornado’s impact on the rental market in both Gatineau and Ottawa. 

Vacancy rates in Ottawa will likely decline even more, predicts Kevin McMahon of Urban Logic, which provides research and analysis for stakeholders in the Ottawa’s residential investment and development market. But apartment-hunters who have been displaced by the tornado will be just one of many factors reflected in the vacancy rate, said McMahon, who points out that people living in 180 homes were displaced on the Ottawa side, while there are 65,000 purpose-built apartments in the city.

“That being said, we have a market with extremely low vacancy rate. So it doesn’t help matters.”

jlaucius@postmedia.com

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