In 1959, Calgary was a thriving city establishing itself as an oil and gas centre. The city boasted a growing population of more than 250,000, and opportunities abounded. It was then that a group of real estate business people met to discuss creating an association that would bring together landlords to improve the image of the industry. In October 1959, the government approved the formation of the Calgary Apartment Rental Association.
“It was all volunteers and the executives would meet in restaurants and community centres to figure out how they could grow the association,” says Gerry Baxter, executive director of the Calgary Residential Rental Association (CRRA). “They put together bylaws, and the objects of the association were basically the same as they are today—to provide education, networking opportunities, and advocacy on behalf of the industry with municipal, provincial and federal governments.”
The association was founded by some of the most prominent business professionals of the time including Sam Switzer, the owner of the Elbow River Casino, to help Calgary landlords grow their businesses. As association president in 1963, Switzer hired its first employee, a secretary treasurer that was on staff for about four years to handle the administrative aspects as the association surged forward.
While it was challenging to operate strictly with volunteers, the dedicated board of directors and members worked diligently to serve the city’s landlords. The name changed to the Calgary Apartment Association in 1968, and within five years those operational challenges made it necessary for the association to become part of the Multi-Family Council (which belonged to the Housing and Urban Development Association of Canada – HUDAC).
“By 1973 it was becoming more difficult for the small group of volunteers as they tried to grow the association. The more work they wanted to take on, the more advocacy they wanted to provide, the education they wanted to impart to grow the membership, it became too much for the four or five of them,” says Baxter.
The association, although remaining intact, suspended operations and encouraged its membership to join the Council – an organization that was doing much of what the association wanted to do but with the benefit of ready resources and paid staff. The merger wasn’t all positive. Many smaller landlords were intimidated by the larger Council structure and membership fees became prohibitive for the mom-and-pop operations.
In 1976, the Calgary Apartment Association reactivated and became a member of the Multi-Family Council rather than working within it, allowing its members to enjoy the benefits of both. The Association later became a member of the Calgary Home Builders Association but by 1989, the high dues caused the Calgary Apartment Association to come off the sidelines and become an independent association once again.
Throughout the early 1990s, the association grew exponentially. The board hired its first executive director in 1995, and then an office administrator two years later to facilitate the organization’s dedication to growth and service. It has since grown to a four-person office and was rebranded to the Calgary Residential Rental Association in 2010.
“We wanted to be more inclusive,” says Baxter. “People who had rental properties felt excluded because they weren’t an apartment. People with one to 10 units make up over half of our owner/manager membership. The new name was part of the complete evolution for the association.”
The CRRA’s membership has grown from about 100 in the early days to over 1,000 at its peak. The diverse membership covers the gamut of the residential rental industry, including owners/managers of rental properties, service providers, business trade associations representing segments such as roofing and siding, and not-for-profit organizations providing affordable housing solutions.
Of the CRRA’s current membership of around 800 across the province, 142 of them are service members. The association has a multi-faceted service member directory made up of everything from plumbers and electricians to painters and home exteriors, roofing companies and insurance providers to restoration companies and bailiffs. Choosing vendors from the directory means owner/managers know they are working with reliable, quality professionals that meet the association’s strict ethical guidelines, and they enjoy the perk of a great rate as well.
“Service members are typically companies that provide services that a landlord would be interested in and they often provide an exclusive discount to our members,” says Sarah Harrison, financial administrator and event coordinator for CRRA. “They have opportunities to network and promote their business at our events.”
Members are supportive of one another and even though they may compete for tenants in the market, they are eager to share information at Association events as the larger players help smaller, newer ones learn the business. After all, CRRA memberships are held by some of the biggest landlords in the city as well as many small mom-and-pop landlords who rent out a single unit, and everything in between.
The only criteria for owner/manager memberships are operating at least one rental unit in Alberta and meeting the code of ethical principles laid out in the Association’s mandate. That mandate is to enhance the rental experience while running a profitable business. It is fitting that the Association’s motto is “Helping our members succeed in their business,” and it applies equally well regardless of whether that member’s business is a plumbing outfit hoping to generate more business, a non-profit business looking to promote its organization, or landlords seeking tools and resources to make them better at their job to attract better tenants.
The Association, in turn, aims to attract members in order to improve the industry as a whole and it strives to engage members throughout the year.
“We need to have the membership because we’re working on behalf of the landlords, so that’s the focus. But once you have members, what are you going to do for them?” says Baxter.
What the CRRA does is host three major events per year: a Trade Show in March, an awards gala in June that recognizes industry excellence, and its Golf Extravaganza tournament in September. Since the 1990s, these events have been a way for the Association to celebrate its members and enhance their membership experience. A group of dedicated member volunteers help these events to run smoothly and make them anticipated events in the Association calendar.
Besides the social events, the CRRA also hosts seminars and luncheons eight times per year that address important developments and issues in the industry. This gives members the opportunity to network with each other and to share information that can help them with their business. Over the years, these events have featured high-profile keynote speakers including Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Brian Burke from the Calgary Flames, and economist Todd Hirsch. While the recession has taken its toll on the Association and its members, the level of member involvement remains high. The social and business events are all well attended and members remain actively involved in the Association and its endeavours.
SUPPORT, GUIDANCE AND ASSISTANCE
One reason for this involvement is a recognition of how valuable a resource the other members are, as they share experiences to help others in their journey. The knowledgeable staff at the CRRA is an amazing resource as well. In many cases, one phone call is all that is needed to resolve a problem or provide an answer to a question. The Association helps members with every imaginable rental-related scenario, ranging from who is responsible for window cleaning to what to do if a tenant isn’t paying rent or has become violent. All four are well versed in the legislation and can assist members in navigating their business within it. If a query falls outside their qualifications, however, the staff has a comprehensive network of outside experts that members can call upon to find the answers they need. The goal is to ensure members have their questions answered so they can resolve issues and get back to work.
In many cases, members look to the Association to make sure they are on the right track when addressing an issue, and staff are happy to talk things over and guide them through to a resolution.
“We are often a sounding board for members. They may be going through a situation and they think what they are doing is right, but they just need that confirmation, that validation, that ‘yes, this is an issue and yes, you’re handling it correctly,’” says Nikki Petrowitz, administrator at the CRRA.
Many members view the CRRA like an insurance policy; they don’t use the available resources regularly but if a need arises, they are grateful to find reliable advice quickly. The CRRA makes it easy for large and small landlords to get everything they need, all in one place. Members can purchase professionally developed forms and notices that cover all aspects of the business and that will stand up in court should there be a conflict. The staff is on hand to demystify the language of the legislation and help members apply it, so they have the tools they need to be effective and successful in their business.
THE BUSINESS OF RENTING
Whether members own or manage dozens of properties or are renting out one unit, being a landlord is a business and should be approached as one. One challenge for the Association is to convince the small-scale landlords that despite it being their part-time job, being a landlord is still very much a business.
“Contrary to what people think, this is a business and you need to know and understand the rules and laws that govern that business,” says Baxter.
Failing to understand and properly apply the rules can lead to dire mistakes. For many small-unit-holding members, they entered the business without first educating themselves about their rights and responsibilities or those of tenants. The CRRA is there to provide resources to help them learn both sides of the coin so they can avoid the missteps that will cost them money in the end.
One great way for members to sidestep issues is by attending the CRRA’s courses. The Association hosts a 4.5-day Real Estate Institute of Canada (REIC) course called Successful Site Management that teaches people every aspect of property management. Members can then take the REIC’s Ethics in Business Practice course to move toward the internationally recognized designation of an Accredited Residential Manager.
“We want to help our people to be better at what they do and really understand the rental industry and business,” says Baxter.
Many issues that members encounter in their business stem from confusion surrounding the legislation. The CRRA developed a course called “Residential Tenancies in Alberta,” and the two-day program walks members through the legislation and guides them through best practices and how to apply it in their business. Since it debuted in 2007, the CRRA has offered it five times a year and more than 1,500 owners and managers from across the province have taken the course.
Baxter and his team appreciate the importance of educating landlords, but they see the value in educating tenants too. Gerry Baxter presents to various community groups each year to help eliminate confusion about the legislation and to teach newcomers to Canada, as well as those new to renting, about their rights and responsibilities. By visiting groups, including the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, various First Nations groups, Bow Valley College and Chinook Learning Centre, the CRRA can provide people with accurate information to protect themselves and to make their rental relationships positive ones.
THE VOICE OF THE INDUSTRY
The Association has also created positive relationships with all levels of government in its role as advocate, sitting on committees like the Alberta Residential Tenancies Advisory Committee to shape the direction of the industry. As the Association grows the membership, it is better positioned to have its concerns heeded.
“Everyone should belong to a professional association. It gives you an opportunity to network with people, share and obtain information, rub shoulders with senior experienced people and it gives you professional resources like what we offer in the office,” says Baxter. “And the more members that you have in an association, the louder your voice.”
CRRA’s voice is clear and strong, and it has been since the early days of the Association. As far back as the 1970s, the Association consulted with the provincial government as it was forming the Landlord and Tenant Act to ensure the new legislation would protect both tenants and landlords. Over the years the government has made changes to the legislation and the CRRA team stays on top of the developments to ensure members are well informed.
The recent cannabis legislation led the CRRA to amend its lease agreements to incorporate the growing or smoking of cannabis (or any other product) in a rental to protect landlords’ property. The emergence of Airbnb also prompted the Association to change its leases to prohibit tenants from using their rental units as short-term vacation rentals. Whether the legislation amendments address the frequency of rent increases, the notice required before renovations or conversions, or multi-family recycling requirements, the CRRA keeps informed on everything impacting members and passes along that information via quarterly newsletters, emails and social media posts.
Since 1959, the CRRA has helped Alberta landlords be successful through supportive programs and resources, and its achievements have not gone unnoticed. It was recognized as the Association of the Year by the Real Estate Institute of Canada in 2017, was awarded a Crime Prevention award by Alberta Justice, and won the provincial government’s Consumer Champions Award of Merit in the Non-Profit category for its Residential Tenancies in Alberta course. While they are proud of the accolades, the CRRA’s focus is simply to serve its diverse membership so they can succeed. With everything else that has changed in the past 60 years, members can always rely on CRRA’s unchanging dedication and service to Alberta landlords.