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When Calgary's double-digit vacancy rate created 'a tenant's dream'

Renters had the upper hand when seeking apartments in Calgary in 1983.

In 1983, landlords were dropping rents and dangling deals to get tenants to sign leases

Double-digit vacancy rate in Calgary

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38 years ago
2:01
In the spring of 1983, renters had the upper hand in Calgary. 2:01

The National's Eve Savory called it "a tenant's dream."

That's because double-digit vacancy rates in Calgary were giving renters the upper hand with lots to choose from and lots of deals being dangled.

In 1983, apartments in Calgary were fighting for customers in a market where consumers had a lot of choice amid a high vacancy rate. (The National/CBC Archives)

"Rents have been cut," Savory reported on The National on April 29, 1983.

"They'll even pay for your move, buy you gifts or a free vacation. It's name your gimmick."

And it wasn't just Calgary where apartment renters had a lot to choose from, as it was the same story in Edmonton back then.

"Two years ago, there was a zero vacancy rate in town and people would clamour — they would line up outside with their chequebook in hand to get in," said Lois Doig, a property manager with an Edmonton building that was 30 per cent vacant at that time.

"And now you have to do everything you can to get them excited and come up to see your place, rather than go to your next-door neighbour's," she added. "It's a totally different market."

'One extreme to the other'

The Globe and Mail reported that same month that Alberta had seen 41,000 job losses over the previous year, amid a broader recession that had pushed unemployment to record levels in Canada.

Apartments were pulling out all the stops to land rental clients in Calgary and Edmonton in the spring of 1983. (The National/CBC Archives)

As that recession unfolded, the vacancy rate had soared in Calgary, after sitting near zero as of October 1981. A year later, it was at 8.1 per cent. Six months after that, it had basically doubled.

"We seem to go from one extreme to the other," said economist Orland Nelson.

"I think that for a number of years, we had the lowest vacancy rate of any city in Canada and we now probably have the dubious distinction of being very close to the other end."

Deals, deals, deals

With Calgary and Edmonton landlords and their agents competing hard for business, their prospective tenants were quickly catching on to what they could get if they held out for the best deal.

In April 1983, Tracey Scott, a restaurant server, talked to The National about the many deals she was seeing being offered by apartment landlords and their agents. (The National/CBC Archives)

"There are so many places to look at, you can take what you want," said Tracey Scott, a Calgary restaurant server who had scouted out 25 apartments in a bid to get the best deal she could.

"You walk in and you sort of look like you're not interested and all of a sudden, they're dropping the rent for you and everything — it's great."

Savory reported the supply-side of the rental apartments wasn't looking like it would get much better in the short term.

"With 3,500 units still under construction in Calgary, even if everything turned around tomorrow, there would still be a two-year supply of empty apartments," said Savory.

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