Michelle Рa young woman who works for a nonprofit agency in Toronto Рwas looking for an apartment last year. It was shortly before her marriage, and she was hard-put to find something central that she and her fianc̩ could afford. They found an ad about a one-bedroom apartment over a store for $1,100 per month. It seemed a little steep but it sounded nice.

The landlord set a showing time of 2 p.m. Four couples showed up at about the same time. All were interested. So the landlord held a bidding war and ended up getting $2,200 a month.

When Michelle confronted him, saying that the first couple who wanted it should have got it for the advertised price, he shrugged his shoulders. “So what. Now I’m getting double.”

Anna fled from the Pinochet regime in Chile twenty years ago and has lived in a cooperative housing unit with her family since then. She talks about immigrants having to pay “finders fees” of up to $5,000 to be put on a list for an apartment, and of how some are being asked to pay a full year’s rent in advance.

“It used to be nice where I am,” she said. “But now everyone is only interested in themselves. They don’t care about community and it’s just getting worse.”

And so it goes when there are no rent controls. There are myriad stories just like Michelle and Anna’s; when properties become vacant, owners can raise the price to whatever they can get for it. Doubling the price or more, bidding wars: these are common practices in Toronto since the introduction of the Tenant Protection Act of 1998. It’s the act that also streamlines a landlord’s ability to evict people.

In July, Toronto City Council passed a motion asking the province to roll back rents to 1998 levels. Few think Premier Mike Harris’s government will comply. A new study, “Where’s Home? 2000 Update,” notes a steady decrease in the number of rental units across Ontario, making apartments harder to find let alone afford.

Toronto has received most of the media attention surrounding homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, but these problems are growing across the country. There are several reasons for this trend, but it began in earnest with the federal government’s abandonment of housing programs in 1993. That decision made Canada the only industrialized country in the world without a national housing scheme. And, with subsequent cuts to provincial transfer payments, social housing at the provincial and local levels was often slashed as well; Ontario opted out of housing completely in 1997.

In Ontario and Alberta, where rent controls have been eliminated and with minimum wage levels as low as they are in those provinces – $5.50 in Alberta, $6.85 in Ontario – the dilemma of an affordable place to live is causing the numbers of families with children who populate shelters and subsidized motel rooms to steadily increase, even though the parents may have jobs.

“People can work all day for $5.50 an hour and still have no place to live,” says Pat Nixon, executive director of The Mustard Seed, a Christian ministry in downtown Calgary. “Everyone thinks that there’s oil wells everywhere and that everyone is wealthy in Alberta. But we’ve seen a 30 per cent increase per year over the past five years in people needing our help. We believe that the community as a whole needs to participate. Various levels of government need to reinvest in social housing, and provide support for the many homeless or under-housed people who have serious mental health or addiction issues.”

Subsidies for housing have eighteen-year-long waiting lists in Toronto and even market-rent cooperative units have long waiting lists, some up to ten years. In Vancouver, many fear a similar trend with the new Liberal regime in British Columbia.

“We’re not as bad off as Toronto in terms of people being on the street,” says Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East and a long-time housing advocate. “We don’t have the same numbers because the province has still been investing in social housing such as cooperatives and so on. But we have a rising number of at-risk people who pay more than 50 per cent of their income on rent, or they live in SRO’s (single room occupancy) in badly maintained hotels.”

Davies anticipates an Ontario-style shift with the new government in B.C., led by Premier Gordon Campbell.

“We are already seeing Campbell mimicking Harris with his tax rebates,” she said. “It’s part of the thinking of the global market agenda, that everything is a marketplace. We are facing an unnatural disaster in this country with affordable housing, which is interesting considering that (federal Finance Minister) Paul Martin is sitting on a $15-billion surplus. We need sustained investment in housing to help stop the grinding poverty that people are facing.”

Margaret Dinsdale is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author who lives by the skin of her teeth in downtown Toronto with her younger son and two cats. Her focus is mostly on finance, international trade, social justice and politics, as well as faith-centered issues, not to mention alternative health systems.

Tomorrow: Jaggi Singh reports on squatters in Montreal.