After a January trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Laura Cappell knew she wanted to move there, but she also knew if she gave up her rented midtown Toronto apartment she might not be able to come back.
“I felt like I was being held hostage by the city of Toronto,” said Cappell, who pays $1,694 a month for a 1-bedroom unit near Yonge and Davisville, where she’s been living for the last year. Similar sized units in her building are now renting for $1,855 monthly, according to the building’s website.
“I knew that I just could not financially walk away from a lease in Toronto.”
Knowing she was protected from major rent increases as an existing tenant, Cappell, 32, decided to sublet her apartment for a year to a new tenant despite not knowing exactly when she’ll she come back.
With Toronto’s heated rental market and lack of affordable housing, tenants increasingly fear being priced out of their neighbourhoods. People who are compelled to leave the city are increasingly hanging onto their apartments, subletting in order to remain locked into the price they’re paying.
Dania Majid, a staff lawyer for Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), told the Star that sublets have always been common but in the past were done primarily by students to avoid the hassle of moving ahead of each new school year.
Now, the tenants who are subletting are those “afraid of being priced out of the market when they come back.”
Cappell, who works in communications with the option to work remotely, says she’s ditching the city for a place she described as “everything Toronto wasn’t.”
“I realized that the quality of life was better there. The cost of living was lower,” said Cappell, who is moving out of her apartment this week, in a phone interview with the Star.
She contacted her landlord who agreed to let her sublet.
In Toronto, a tenant can sublet with written approval from their landlord. Landlords can’t “unreasonably” refuse a request for a sublet or lease reassignment, according to the Residential Tenancies Act.
Legally, Cappell can’t make any additional income off of her sublease, and after an exhaustive search for a subtenant she found someone to cover her lease and utilities for the next year. She says she had contact with roughly 25 people, showing the apartment several times over a month-long period before finding someone she felt she could entrust with her furniture and space.
“If it wasn’t for subletting, I would be (in Toronto) and I would be screwed and I would be miserable,” she says, noting she has too many ties to the city to walk away completely — she grew up in Toronto, and it’s where her family lives. “I feel like I’m being priced out of and driven out of my home.”
Majid said the problem is largely “vacancy decontrol,” wherein landlords aren’t obligated to keep the cost of rent the same after a previous tenant vacates a unit.
In 2019, Ontario tenants will only see a rent increase of 1.8 per cent on units they’re occupying. But once a tenant leaves there’s no limit on the price a landlord can set for the next person.
“There’s been this pressure to get tenants out and increase the rent by a significant amount,” Majid said. “That’s what’s been driving the price of the cost of rent so high, is that ability to do that between tenants.”
As a result, renters “are doing what they can, they’re willing to undergo the inconvenience of finding a subletter or (a lease) assignor,” Majid said. Vacancy control, where rent is linked to a unit rather than a tenant, was removed by the Mike Harris government in 1991.
“If we want to control the rent then we really need to bring back a vacancy control, as well as increase the purpose-built rental stock for low- and moderate-income people in Ontario.”
Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, said rents started to rise dramatically in 2012 and are now in “hyperdrive.”
“People are just holding onto their apartment for dear life,” he said. “We’re seeing (sublets) more and more often, it’s a consequence of the rental housing crisis.”
But subletting isn’t always a given. Though they have the right to sublease under the RTA, tenants have to get a landlord’s approval. “There’s no way under God’s green earth that landlords want to consent to that,” Dent said, given the new rent price they could charge an incoming tenant.
A tenant can take a landlord to court for refusing, but Dent noted this can be a very lengthy process — one a tenant, if moving for work for school, likely doesn’t have time for.
“You might have the technical ability to take this to court, but if you’re working in Alberta or Nova Scotia when the court case is happening, you’re going to lose,” Dent said.
Jenna Moon is a digital producer and contributing writer based out of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon.