Before we moved to the townhouse in Vancouver where we live now, we had a two bedroom apartment on the top (fourth) floor of a low-rise building in Kitsilano. We had fabulous neighbours in the building, and have remained close to at least a couple (knowing we were bike commuters, they all pitched in and bought us a chariot bike trailer after we had our first kid! Such a sweet gift!) My partner and I lived there together for about seven years. For about five of those years, we shared the place with at least one kid. For somewhere between three to four of those years, the apartment downstairs from us remained gloriously empty.
An unoccupied housing unit! Right below us! We weren’t going to question our good fortune too closely, but for the most part, we remained at a loss to explain why it remained unoccupied so long.
That said, we had at least some idea why it became unoccupied in the first place. We lived in a strata (condo) building. The strata association, after struggling to figure out how to deal with a couple of bad tenants living in the building, decided to pass a no-rental by-law.* The apartment downstairs from us had been rented out by its owner(s), and when the tenants left after their contract ended, they couldn’t be replaced. We figured it was only a matter of time until the landlord sold the place. But we had no idea just how MUCH time would pass.
Lots of things happened. To our knowledge, it seems the owner may have received the apartment as an inheritance. They tried to sell at some point after their tenants left, but the deal fell through. The owner may, it seems, have had some major medical issues that kept them from paying attention to the apartment. Then the building had a major repair scheduled, and everyone had a hard time selling until it was done. In fact, the place downstairs from us was never sold. Instead, the owner eventually managed to get a hardship exemption and rent to a new tenant.**
So there you have the messy story behind at least ONE of the empty apartments showing up in the City of Vancouver’s new report on unoccupied housing. An anecdote, to be sure, but possibly a helpful one. There are all kinds of reasons why housing units can remain empty. To be sure, these reasons no doubt include speculation, shoddy real estate practices, and also the second (or third, or fourth, etc.), but seldom visited home ownership practices of the ridiculously wealthy. But they also no doubt include things like inheritances (that may or may not be contested), landlords coping with (and/or contesting) no rental provisions newly imposed by their strata corporations, owners coping with illness (which can be quite long-term), plain inattentiveness, and a host of other reasons that might puzzle the neighbours without seeming especially nefarious.
To return to Vancouver’s new report on unoccupied housing, which I’ve been trying to puzzle out (just like everyone else, it seems!), the big finding is the stability we seem to be seeing in terms of a relatively large (but not outstanding) proportion of the City’s apartments left empty – especially, it seems, in my old neighbourhood of Kitsilano. Here’s where my anecdote (apparently drawn from the dataset under analysis!) may come in handy. The sheer diversity of reasons the apartment below us remained empty for three to four years may reflect a broader diversity of reasons properties across the city often remain empty. That diversity, in turn, may help explain the striking overall stability we seem to be seeing in occupancy.
*- I learned the other day, via a visiting scholar, that no rental provisions are apparently illegal for condominium associations in Australia. This was especially striking to me because we get our Strata legislation from Australia (they call their condos “strata” too!) Incidentally, we lost some good neighbours over that no rental provision…
**- The new tenant who moved in was awesome! The poor guy had moved hoping to get some peace and quiet after experiencing a noisy upstairs neighbour in his old apartment. But he was EXTREMELY good-natured about our kid(s). He attributed this to the fact that he could (almost) always count on everything quieting down around 8pm, when we put all the noisy folk to sleep.