The Fight for Affordable Canadian Housing

Urchin Property Management Incorporated (UPMI)
Written by David Caldwell

Housing in Canada remains a hot issue, with a growing population continuing to grapple with rising prices, inflation, and diminished capacity coming on the heels of the pandemic.

A respected local industry player that’s close to this problem is Urchin Property Management Incorporated (UPMI), a member of the strong local industry body, Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia (IPOANS), and one of the voices bringing clarity to the issue.

Nova Scotia is still among the country’s hottest markets, with its capital Halifax now the country’s fastest-growing city. Growth in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), comprising Halifax and its surrounding communities, has been steadily accelerating for over six years despite the pandemic, with the province celebrating its one millionth resident in December 2021.

Yet this rapid growth has outpaced capacity, which is further stretched by the rising costs of energy, building materials and labour. With inflation simultaneously on the rise at generation-high levels, costs are going up for everyone.

To compensate, the provincial government has launched an ambitious campaign to ensure steady growth and prevent a recession.

Raising the industry’s voice

According to property owners, however, the government is attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all fix across all communities, large and small. They claim such a strategy is short-sighted at best and draconian at worst.

As a result and concerned that rental property businesses are not being consulted, a group of property owners is working through IPOANS to ensure their voices are heard.

Since 1978, IPOANS has been representing the interests of these member businesses. One such is UPMI.

From UPMI’s headquarters in Dartmouth, just across the harbour from Halifax, Ursula Prossegger now owns and manages the company her father Roger, who emigrated from Germany in the late 60s, started in the 1980s. “It’s rooted in our ancestry,” she says, and she hopes that her own daughter, who works alongside her, will too someday run the family business.

From humble beginnings, UPMI now boasts a portfolio of 480 apartments, 66,000 square feet of office and retail space, and over 150 parking spaces in the HRM. The company manages both family properties and those of other clients, just as founder Roger did decades before.

UPMI – locally rooted

Like many IPOANS members, UPMI is much smaller than national giants such as Killam REIT. With this smaller size comes better personal local knowledge for Prossegger and her colleagues and a close association with their tenants.

Prossegger argues that the generational ownership also enhances relationships. “This enables reliability, consistency and high level of trust with our clients and tenants because there’s no real change in the point of contact.”

Thanks to UPMI’s profile as both a property owner and manager, she says, it is uniquely qualified to gauge the market. “Being property owners on one hand and managers on the other, I feel like we’re really aware of all the challenges that come with running properties.”

Further, she points out that the company’s medium size allows it the flexibility to react fluidly to challenges, while still addressing administration, maintenance, and leasing. “My clients can be as hands-on or hands-off as they choose.”

Yet in recent years, UPMI and its peers in rental property management have become targets of what Prossegger and her colleagues see as misguided abuse. With the double hit of rising living costs coupled with inflation, she, and the other members of IPOANS feel they’ve had no choice but to raise their own rates to stay afloat.

She argues that, contrary to popular sentiment, rental property owners are not responsible for rising rents. “Actually, property owners cannot influence or control, or minimally control, most of the costs that impact rental properties”.

As Prossegger points out, most of the costs associated with maintaining rental properties – utilities, insurance, interest rates, taxes – are externally controlled and imposed. The notion that rental housing providers “can do whatever they please, whenever they please,” is simply a myth.

The public, she argues, has no idea of the breadth and depth of codes, regulations, and bylaws that must be followed. “It’s not as easy to do whatever you please as media and government and tenant-based organizations think,” she says.

Bearing the brunt

Prossegger recalls how, in the darkest days of the pandemic and even now, she and her colleagues bore the brunt of societal frustration. “Every other night, we were getting slammed in the media as ‘slumlords,’” she says. She recalls how her colleagues originally balked at a public response. “Our industry is not a glamorous one, and most of us do not relish the spotlight for the fear of more negative publicity or aggression.”

In her real day-to-day life, in the place of this insulting ‘slumlord’ label, Prossegger sees herself as a ‘parent’ – perhaps an oversimplified metaphor, she admits.

“We just want to apply landlord rules consistently and fairly to all tenants. As a rental housing provider, I’m responsible for more than just myself and my micro-environment. I make difficult decisions every day, where I must consider the consequences of the decisions and how they’ll affect the property, the building, and all the residents,” she says.

This, in her view, is quite like parenting: A property owner is responsible for the welfare of their tenants and integrity of the infrastructure, levels of responsibility the public cannot possibly understand.

“When you’re a parent, what kind of decisions you make changes from when you were in a household without children,” she says. “You have to make decisions for your entire household, not just ‘what’s good for me’ or ‘what’s good for the other person.’ You’re constantly making decisions that are not popular, but the best decisions for the household as a whole.”

It is this disconnect with the public, and the years of being vilified on popular platforms, that has sparked Prossegger and others to put their case. While UPMI has traditionally relied on word-of-mouth for its marketing, Prossegger is now speaking out about IPOANS and UPMI’s role within it.

“We are working with IPOANS to educate the government, non-profit organizations, tenant organizations and related stakeholders on what our industry really represents, who we are, and what challenges we face,” she says. “We believe we can all work together to develop and promote a healthy, cooperative relationship between property owners, rental housing providers and tenants by installing regulations and guidelines that are fair and just for both parties.”

Harnessing IPOANS

As an advocacy agency, IPOANS also not only represents property owners’ interests but also assembles feedback from members and presents the current views and information to external stakeholders.

In the view of Prossegger and her colleagues, IPOANS is the natural private sector group to help form a public-private coalition to address Nova Scotia’s housing crisis. “No one understands the problems and challenges better than the people who house thousands of Nova Scotians each month,” she says. “IPOANS speaks for our members and can be a force for good, if the government will ask and if they will listen.”

Further, IPOANS represents all areas of Nova Scotia, not just the Halifax area. Therefore, Prossegger argues, it is ideally placed to help the provincial government craft a strategy that can be suited to communities both large and small.

“By being closest to the market, the property owners are ideally situated to provide the recommendations that will make a difference with the shortest delay,” she says. “IPOANS represents property owners all over NS, and with their cooperation, can help end this crisis.”

Only through cooperation, she says, can the government hope to craft a strategy to satisfy both tenants and property owners. As she puts it, IPOANS simply wants its voice to be heard moving forward. “All we are asking for is to be a part of the solution by being asked to the table to help forge solutions that will work.”

The solution is in supply

Yet this solution will take more than cooperation. From an economic perspective, she argues, the only factor that will solve the housing crisis is an increase in supply.

Pandemic-induced rent caps are not alleviating the shortage, and IPOANS argues that these are in fact diminishing their ability to maintain their properties. Only if the economic cooperation works in favour of rental housing providers and builders can the supply increase, she says. “IPOANS can help the government ensure more units are built by setting the climate for property investment.”

As Halifax, Nova Scotia and Canada continue to struggle with a constantly changing economic landscape, a cooperative public-private coalition is essential to addressing the housing shortfall and rising costs.

Through the actions of IPOANS, and members such as UPMI, property owners can make their voices heard and contribute to the discussion and ensure every resident has a safe place to live, securing a stable housing future as we move into the post-pandemic era.

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