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Montreal reporters chased Airbnb regional policy director Nathan Rotman into an elevator in March when he declined to answer questions about a fire that killed seven people in a building with illegal rental units. Two weeks earlier, the Alberta NDP had quietly confirmed Rotman would be taking a leave from his corporate gig to manage the party’s 2023 election campaign.

Rotman, a registered federal lobbyist, served as Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley’s chief of staff during the party’s last term in office, and previously as national director for the federal NDP. His return raises questions about the party’s housing policy in a time of crisis when rental prices are spiking alongside inflation, particularly in the province’s biggest city.

There is nothing to indicate he is leading the Alberta NDP’s campaign on his Twitter or LinkedIn pages.

The Alberta NDP did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Ricochet. Rotman also could not be reached for comment.

Even volunteers at campaign headquarters said they didn’t know who is running the campaign.

Notley and the party’s housing critic Lori Sigurdson, meanwhile, are among several NDP MLAs who are also landlords, earning money from their own rental properties as of March 31, 2022, according to public disclosures from the Office of the Ethics Commissioner. Members of the governing United Conservative Party also profit from rental properties.

“Absolutely that will influence housing policies if we have members in political parties that are benefiting off of renters’ backs,” says Krislyn Jagt, a renter who lives in Calgary and had her monthly rent raised by $230 in March.

Calls for rent control are growing in the lead-up to the May 29 election, but both major parties are pushing more landlord-friendly solutions like subsidies and additional housing. The UCP opposes rent control, while the NDP has said it will review renter’s legislation and policy if elected. Notley argued in favour of rent control before her 2015 election, but abandoned the idea after becoming premier.

Jagt, a union member with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), lives in a building owned by Avenue Living Asset Management, the company that raised the monthly rent of her two-bedroom unit in March from $1,350 to $1,580. She says some of her Wyldewood Estates neighbours had their rents hiked by as much as $800, including seniors on fixed incomes and families that are now priced out of the building.

She decided to stay in her apartment despite the increase, after finding similar properties in Calgary had gone up in price even more than hers. Jagt says it’s frustrating to not see rent control in either major party’s platform, calling it a “cop out” for parties to exclude it from their affordable housing plans, especially the NDP.

“People just can't afford to be choosing between groceries and rent. It's not a choice that they should ever have to make as a Canadian,” Jagt says.

“Absolutely that will influence housing policies if we have members in political parties that are benefiting off of renters’ backs.”

Calgary’s vacancy rate for multi-family rental buildings fell below one per cent in the first quarter of 2023, according to Altus Group data. The average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Calgary was more than $1,500 in March, marking a 23-per cent increase over 12 months, according to a Rentals.ca study. Two-bedroom units jumped 25 per cent, to an average price of $1,920, in the same time frame.

Alberta allows landlords to increase rent once a year, with no limits on how much they can raise it. ACORN is calling for a two per cent cap on increases, which is in line with British Columbia, as well as the creation of a provincial rental registry to track rent changes and help governments improve policies and regulations.

Before this year’s rental price spike, a 2021 Angus Reid poll suggested Albertans were already more miserable with their housing than people in any other province. A Statistics Canada report using 2021 data found 10 per cent of Albertans “live in an unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable dwelling and cannot afford alternative housing in their community.”

The Alberta NDP made a campaign promise to provide more than 8,500 affordable housing units, increase rental assistance to 11,000 more households, and establish “rent banks” like B.C. introduced in 2021, to provide financial assistance to people in emergency circumstances like job loss or family breakdown.

Screenshot of Nathan Rotman's LinkedIn page as of May 24.

Maggy Wlodarczyk, a single mom who works two jobs and lives in a one-bedroom apartment, says she is “surprised and disappointed” to see neither major party advocating for rent control.

“It doesn't seem like politicians, in either party, seem to understand that renters are voters,” she says.

A founding member of ACORN’s Calgary city centre chapter, Wlodarczyk has twice had to deal with the Landlord and Tenant Board after disputes with landlords. When she lived in a basement suite, her landlord raised the rent several times over a few years, eventually going from $500 up to $1,000. After she moved out, the landlord at her next place refused to fix serious problems with the house until it was condemned and she was given 14 days to vacate.

“I ended up moving into a one-bedroom apartment. My teenage son has a bedroom and the rest of the apartment is set up like a bachelor pad,” Wlodarczyk says. “That's the way that I'm able to afford rent living downtown. I'm working two jobs to afford a place where I don't even have my own bedroom.”

Airbnb and other short-term rental websites have contributed to the decline of rental availability in Canadian cities. The “Airbnb effect” has seen house and rental prices increase, and housing dry up, in cities where short-term rentals proliferate.

“It doesn't seem like politicians, in either party, seem to understand that renters are voters.”

Ricochet’s recently launched nationwide investigative project aims to examine the impact of short-term rentals on Canada’s housing market, and why short-term rentals have mostly evaded legislative scrutiny during an ever-worsening housing crisis.

In the case of the Montreal apartment fire, Ricochet’s reporting revealed that the building’s owner allegedly forced out long-term tenants through harassment and rent increases so he could sign new leases with Airbnb hosts. The ensuing illegal Airbnb hotel did not have fire exits or alarms, and even had some windows nailed shut, making it a death trap when fire broke out.

Last month, the father of one of the victims that died in the fire launched a $22-million class-action lawsuit against the building's owner, the man believed to have rented out several units in the building, as well as Airbnb, alleging negligence played a role.

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