Renting in the Comox Valley: Low vacancy, high rents, no ease to the squeeze in sight

Renting in the Comox Valley: Low vacancy, high rents, no ease to the squeeze in sight
Madeline Dunnett/The Discourse
Courtenay, B.C., is pictured.

Many Comox Valley renters are feeling the effects from British Columbia’s overall volatile housing crisis.

Julia Forbes, a woman in her fifties who was born in the Comox Valley, said that she was provided $550 monthly for rent while on income assistance when she was 19. As a single mom, she could find rentals that fit her family for that price.

“Now 30 years later the same properties are renting for more than $2,300.”

Due to her current family composition, Forbes now requires a four-bedroom home. And that makes the situation even tougher.

For suitable and available rentals, rates “are now $3,500-plus,” she said.

Forbes is one of dozens of community members who responded to a Facebook post asking about people’s experiences of the housing crisis in the Comox Valley.

The region is facing a massive spike in rental rates and home prices, and fierce competition for the limited housing that’s available. Across the spectrum of housing needs and economic realities, people are feeling the pinch.

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The last few years have been particularly brutal for renters. In October 2018, the average rent for an apartment or townhouse in Courtenay, Comox and surrounding areas was $877, according to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) data. By October 2022, that had risen to $1,308, an increase of 50 per cent in just four years. That’s an increase of more than $5,000 in annual rent for the average renter in the region.

These average rent rates include long-term tenancies, where annual rent increases are capped. That means that the rent increases for available units has increased even more dramatically than this chart shows.

The CMHC reported that, across Canada, rents increased 18.2 per cent, year over year, for two-bedroom units that turned over to a new tenant in 2022, compared with an increase of 2.8 per cent in similar units that maintained an existing tenancy. People who have recently moved, are now seeking housing or may need to find housing in the future carry a disproportionate share of the burden.

And the trend does not appear to be slowing. The asking prices for rentals across Canada jumped another 10 per cent from October 2022 to October 2023, according to, an aggregator of rental listings.

Home ownership costs soar, too

The price to buy a home in the region has also ballooned in recent years. This impacts the rental market, too, because fewer renters can move out of the rental market and into home ownership. The CMHC noted the impact of high home prices and interest rates on rental demand in its most recent Rental Market Report.

In 1996, Karen Tierney bought a duplex in Courtenay for $97,000. She said it wasn’t in the greatest condition, but it worked well for her first time home.

“We found out later the foundation was sinking,” she said. “Glad we got out.”

The same duplex was assessed at a value of $513,000 in 2023.

She’s now in her late 50s and is worried about her current housing situation, and even more worried about the younger generation.

“It’s brutal. I am 58 and fear that I will need to work until I’m 80,” she said.

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In 2016, the average selling price for a single-detached dwelling in the Comox Valley was $446,000. In 2021, the price was $757,000.

Interest rates have also risen sharply over the last two years. This raises the cost to buy a home, and it also raises costs for homeowners seeking a mortgage renewal. Some private landlords are facing mortgage costs they may not have anticipated, and the tight rental market offers an opportunity to pass those costs on to tenants by increasing the rent.

The Discourse heard from two landlords who expressed concern over the impacts of higher interest rates on their own financial situation and ability to offer affordable rents.

Inadequate housing, increased homelessness

2023 point-in-time count identified 272 people experiencing homelessness in the Comox Valley. That more than doubled the 132 people counted in the previous survey in 2020. Point-in-time counts seek to identify as many individuals without access to housing as possible in a 24-hour period. They are assumed to be an undercount, since many people without housing don’t regularly access spaces and services where they can be identified and counted.

Fifty-six per cent of those surveyed in 2023 said they lost their housing because they didn’t have enough income to pay for it. They face significant additional barriers, too. Eighty-four percent reported having at least two health concerns, and 44 per cent reported an acquired brain injury.

Many more people are struggling on the edge of homelessness, in housing that is unaffordable, inadequate or both. As of 2021 there were 2,715 households, or about 10 per cent, in core housing need in the region, according to Statistics Canada. Core housing need means that the current housing is unaffordable or inadequate, and that the household could not afford alternative housing in the community.

There are also many renters who currently have housing, but are forced into dealing with difficult rental situations in order to live in an affordable place.

“Luckily I have found units in the past that I could afford yet I never have enough income to save for a down payment or a vehicle,” said Nina Elizabeth Thomas, who was born and raised in the Comox Valley.

Thomas had previously rented a place for $900 a month, but she lost it in a house fire two years ago.

After a short time renting hotel rooms followed by another shared living situation, she found a small suite for $1,800. The suite was furnished with everything included, so it worked for her after her loss of belongings in the house fire.

“However it was one bedroom, only a hot plate and toaster oven, cement floors, basically a converted garage” she said.

She doesn’t think the housing meets the requirements of a legal suite.

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Secondary suites are legal if they meet all the requirements under the applicable building codes, zoning bylaws and permitting processes. Unauthorized suites are common in British Columbia, and they can come with increased risks to the health and safety of tenants.

Thomas said that she’s seen a range of situations in her time as a renter.

“I’ve seen horrible living conditions for outrageous prices, I’ve had landlords try to screw me around, I’ve had kind roommates open their doors at good rates, and landlords who wished they could offer a better rate.”

How did we get here? 

B.C.’s housing market has been crumbling for decades, said Alex Hemingway, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives.

“We saw investment in affordable housing from government drop off a cliff from the early 90s at a federal level, and then early 2000s at a provincial level here in B.C.,” he said.

“We have two or three decades of backlog.”

And the Comox Valley is in a particularly bad situation, with a vacancy rate that is lower than most other parts of the province.

The vacancy rate for Courtenay and surrounding areas in October 2022 was 0.6 per cent, according to CMHC data. This rate is even lower than Vancouver’s, which was listed at 0.9 per cent for the same time. The vacancy rate for B.C. overall was 1.3 per cent.

The Comox Valley is growing faster than both the national and provincial average, which may be a big contributor to the vacancy rate.

When the vacancy rates are so low, it gives landlords an opportunity to charge higher rates, because there are so many people who are more desperate to find any kind of housing, Hemingway said.

Even for tenants who are fully aware of their rights, it can still be extremely difficult.

“Sometimes your best option is to compromise with them, because there’s nothing else,” he said.

“And that’s just a terrible situation to put people in.”

What’s the solution? 

The Discourse asked community members what they thought could be potential solutions for the housing situations here. Forbes, the Comox Valley resident who recalls when $550 could cover rent for a whole family, said there should be licences and training courses for anyone who rents out a property. She also suggested putting a rental cap in place, which would vary depending on the amount of bedrooms in the suite.

Hemingway said there are ways that this can be implemented, but that housing caps can sometimes make the situation more difficult for renters.

“If [the houses] are even cheaper, then the competition is going to be even worse,” he said.

In regards to the point about the course offering, he said that could certainly be useful.

“I think there’s also something to be said for making sure … that the Residential Tenancy Branch is adequately resourced. So when renters do have problems with their landlords, they can get swift responses and action if landlords aren’t living up to their obligations,” he said.

He said making sure these resources are available will be helpful so renters can access information on their rights in certain situations.

Building more purpose-built and non-market rental housing is critical to easing the crunch, Hemingway says.

Purpose-built rentals, such as apartment complexes, are often less precarious than other kinds of rentals, such as a rented condominium or secondary suite, he says.

Non-market housing is generally supported by governments and non-profit groups to house people with lower incomes who can’t afford the for-profit market rates.

“Sometimes the idea of [tackling] a supply shortage and the idea of needing to invest in non-market housing are sort of seen as opposing ideas, but it’s actually both of them that need to be addressed together to get the crisis under control,” he said.

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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