VIDA Living, a Halifax-based company, dipped its toes into Winnipeg’s apartment rental world early in the pandemic, purchasing one complex on Maryland Street and one on Ellice Avenue in December 2020.
A year and a half later, the company is diving in head-first.
VIDA recently purchased eight apartment blocks spread across the city from Winnipeg-based Thorwin Properties, mostly in West Broadway and the Spence neighbourhood, for an investment of about $18 million.
The company now owns and manages 240 units in the city, with a total of $22 million invested already, says founder and CEO Ron Lovett.
Since its founding in Halifax in 2017, the company has focused its attention on purchasing property in what would generally be referred to as low-income neighbourhoods, with Lovett vowing to improve building security, desirability and tenant quality of life without raising pre-acquisition rents.
In the blink of an eye, the company has seized on the opportunity presented by large property corporations paring back their holdings, expanding its unit count from about 300 in December 2020 to over 2,100 today.
Outside of Atlantic Canada, Winnipeg has been one of the fastest-growing markets, Lovett said.
"We really like Winnipeg," he said in a phone call last week, as the newly acquired buildings have been emblazoned with bright VIDA Living signs.
The company, he says, takes an alternative approach to renting, offering some out-of-the-box ideas to enhance the tenant experience: they offer incentives to tenants who start businesses, including right of refusal for work they’re qualified to do in the properties; paying movers and breaking leases without penalty if tenants buy a home; and partnering with local firms in a mutually beneficial agreement wherein employees get discounted rents and the opportunity to do contracted work on Vida properties. All the while, they assess elements of the buildings such as security and lighting, and make external changes to improve the building as a whole, not just individual units, Lovett said.
In the two buildings acquired in 2020 — one at 677 Maryland St. and one at 626 Ellice Ave. — Lovett said there were some speed bumps and mixed results. In the building on Maryland Street, expensive, floor-specific entry fobs were given to tenants to increase security, a move which was met with antipathy by some tenants who felt somewhat constricted by the protective measures. Some tenants still haven’t come around to that change, he said, and there’s uncertainty whether similar measures will be rolled out elsewhere.
Still, that building is near full, he said.
On Ellice Avenue, in a 39-unit building that was previously plagued by fire and poor security, the tenancy rate is much lower, but rising, he said.
Other local property owners took note of the company’s endeavour in the early part of the pandemic, including Thorwin’s Kris Thorkelson, who approached Lovett with the eight-building package proposal, which includes three properties on Broadway and one each on Langside Street, Machray Avenue, Wellington Avenue, Spence Street and Midwinter Avenue.
The growth has been swift, says Lovett, who bankrolled his company with the proceeds of the sale of his former private security firm, but banks and investors, including Kingsett Capital, have been eager to back the venture as it expands.
An element of the company’s ideology that has attracted some criticism, but which has been defended by Lovett as a necessary decision, is to have rather detailed online application processes for buildings which generally would rent to low-income clientele. Some housing advocates say this has the potential to weed out residents without easy access to internet services, documentation and suitable accommodations.
In terms of physical upgrades, the company has not done a lot of work inside the individual suites, but has tried to "brighten up" shared spaces like hallways by painting doors and improving lighting both inside and outside.
Lovett said currently the company is looking at another 150 units in the city, and has aims of reaching 10,000 units across the country by 2027.