It's next to impossible to pay the rent working full time for minimum wage, new report calculates

The odds of a minimum wage worker being able to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment in just about every city in Canada are next to nil, a new report from an Ottawa-based think-tank says.

Report tabulates how possible it is to rent a 2-bedroom apartment across Canada

A woman walks past a 'For Rent' sign.
Minimum-wage workers in Vancouver and Toronto would need to clock about a 100-hour workweek just to pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, the CCPA has calculated. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

The odds of a minimum wage worker being able to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment in just about every city in Canada are next to nil, a new report from an Ottawa-based think-tank says.

Looking at Statistics Canada data on wages from last October, and rental information from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) that same month, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) crunched the numbers on the almost 800 neighbourhoods across Canada's three dozen largest cities to see how easy it is to find a place to live on the minimum wage.

The results were bleak.

By the CCPA's math, a minimum wage earner could afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment in just 24 neighbourhoods across the country, out of 795 analyzed. If the standard drops to a one-bedroom, the picture looks marginally better, as the report found 70 neighbourhoods affordable for minimum wage workers , but that's still less than one out of every 10 — and most are far from downtown cores where jobs are more plentiful and generally higher paying.

Concern over Canada's housing market tends to focus on homeowners, CCPA economist David MacDonald said, but almost five million Canadians  — about a third of all households — are renters, and they face affordability issues that are just as pressing.

"Many of these renters, particularly those working at or near minimum wage, on fixed incomes or single-income households, are at risk of being priced out of modest apartments no matter where they look," he said.

In its analysis, the CCPA calculated the income that a minimum-wage worker would earn over a standard 40-hour workweek, and then cross-referenced it against rental data from the CMHC. The report also assumes the rule of thumb that a person should spend no more than 30 per cent of income on housing to avoid having other financial issues. Theoretically, a minimum-wage worker could simply work more hours, or drastically cut back on other expenses somehow, but that isn't quite the same thing as making an apartment affordable.

Add it all up and the standards of affordability are looking increasingly out of reach.

Leading the way is Vancouver, where a theoretical minimum-wage worker would have to work 84 hours a week to afford the average-priced one-bedroom apartment, or 112 hours a week for a two-bedroom apartment.

Toronto was not far behind, where that same worker would have to work a 79-hour week for a one-bedroom, and a 96-hour week for a two-bedroom apartment.

"A sole income earner working full time should be able to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment for their family in a country as rich as Canada," MacDonald said. "But in most Canadian cities, including Canada's largest metropolitan areas of Toronto and Vancouver, there are no neighbourhoods where it is possible to afford a one- or two-bedroom unit on a single minimum wage."

Victoria, Calgary and Ottawa round out the top five. In all three places, that same worker would have to clock a 70-hour workweek at least just to pay the rent on a two-bedroom. In all three, you'd need to earn at least $26 an hour working 40 hours a week to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment.

'It becomes a struggle'

Norma Jean Quibell lives in Ottawa with her partner and their two children, aged four and 10.  As a stay-at-home mother, she says she's well aware how hard it is to make ends meet on a modest income. 

"It becomes a struggle where you have to kind of pick and choose which area is going to have to be left behind for a month because our rent is so high," she said. 

'In a country as Canada everyone deserves a reasonable place to live,' CCPA economist David Macdonald says. (

About 50 per cent of the couple's income goes toward the almost $1,500 rent on their two-bedroom apartment. While she knows that is on the high side, they are reluctant to move because their daughter has a disability that they get help for through a local program. If they move, they would lose access to that program.

"It makes it extremely difficult for us some months to be able to afford certain bills," she said. 

The CCPA only found three cities where the local minimum wage would be enough to comfortably afford a one-bedroom apartment and have enough left over, if working 40 hours a week. All are in Quebec: Sherbrooke, Saguenay and Trois-Rivières.

Ten more cities — Kingston, London, Windsor, St. Catharines and Sudbury (Ontario), Moncton and Saint John (N.B.), and Quebec City, Montreal and Gatineau (Quebec) — were found to be unaffordable on average, but had some neighbourhoods where a minimum wage worker could afford a one-bedroom. A two-bedroom is still out of reach in all of them, however, except for once again some neighbourhoods in St. Catharines and Sudbury.

Soaring rents in places like Toronto and Vancouver have been well documented, but the CCPA report suggests they aren't just a big-city problem. Indeed, even places that don't qualify as cities are impacted.

Meghan Mutrie, who lives in Canmore, Alta, says that town has the same rental problems as anywhere else. She said she's had to put up with all manner of poor housing options before landing her current suite, a garage unit in a new subdivision that suits her well.

She has managed to make ends meet by working more than one job at times, but she worries about those who have less than her. "Many people are being outpriced," she said. "I have friends who live in a trailer while they rent out their own place to make it work, and they own their own businesses."

"You can't have a town without all of the levels of jobs," she says.

Across the country, the CCPA tabulates that a worker putting in 40 hours a week would have to earn $22.40 an hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. It drops to $20.20 an hour for a one-bedroom unit. 

The highest minimum wage in the country is $15 an hour in Alberta, a highwater mark that is still well short of both of those levels. In some provinces, the minimum wage is barely $11 an hour — less than half what it takes for a two-bedroom, according to the CCPA. And roughly a quarter of Canadian workers within $3 of the local minimum wage, the CCPA says.

"Until those wages are pushing $20 an hour, and more of the available jobs are full time, rental costs will remain a significant burden on many workers," MacDonald said.

"Everyone deserves a decent place to live."