Ultra-low rental vacancy rates highlight 'desperate' struggle to find affordable housing

The national rental vacancy rate has taken a dive and rental horror stories are growing, forcing renters to consider whether the payoffs of living in a big city are worth the cost, both financially and in terms of quality of life.

'I don't want to go home because I'm homeless': The plight of big city renters

Rental nightmare

6 years ago
Duration 6:10
Jacqueline Hansen reports on the difficulties people are facing in hot and high-price rental markets

People paying a mortgage in Canada's major cities aren't the only ones feeling the heat from hot housing markets: many renters are struggling as well.

Data released yesterday by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation shows the national average cost of rent is up and the national vacancy rate has plummeted.

That's forcing some renters in cities with ultra-low vacancy rates to consider whether the payoffs of living in a big city are worth the cost, both financially and in terms of quality of life.

Sharna Ridge, 27, recently moved to Toronto from the United Kingdom on a two-year visa. She found a job within four days and a short-term sublet through a Facebook group.

Ridge describes the search for a longer-term rental as horrific.

Really what we are talking about today is people who are able to be fully employed, but are not able to afford housing. That is a whole new problem- Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto

"One room I looked at was covered in bird excrement," Ridge said. "That was $800 a month and she wanted a caretaker for her bird as well."

Ridge has gone through all the options in her head, calculating what she can live without, how much above her maximum budget of $850 she can go, and at what point would she call it quits.

"It would be devastating if I can't find a place," Ridge said. "I don't want to go home because I'm homeless due to a housing crisis."

It's getting worse

CMHC estimates the vacancy rate  — the number of rental options currently available on the market — in Toronto is 1.1 per cent this fall, the lowest in 16 years. In Vancouver, it's 0.9 per cent. 

Average costs for all types of rental housing that the CMHC examined (bachelor, one bedroom, two bedroom and three or more bedrooms) hit $1,296 per month in Toronto, an increase of 4.5 per cent from the previous year. In Vancouver, average rents were up 5.9 per cent at $1,297, though a vacant one-bedroom condo can rent for in excess of $1,700 a month.

Sharna Ridge describes her search for an apartment to rent in Toronto as 'horrific.' She's concerned that if she doesn't find a place soon she could end up homeless, or be forced to give up and go back to the UK. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

It's not only the droves of people who come to Toronto each year that are putting stress on the supply of rentals; households are getting smaller as more people choose to be single, according to Jim Murphy, president and CEO of the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario.

"It's going to get worse over time as the population increases, as demand increases…We need more supply," Murphy said. "We're worried about those in the middle. Those millennials making $50-, $60-, $70,000 a year. Where are they going to live?"

In some cases, the answer is in an entirely different city. 

Vancouver was home for 35-year-old Jessica Barrett for nearly 15 years, until she realized she couldn't live the life she wanted as real estate prices and rental costs climbed out of reach.

Jim Murphy advocates for the rental industry in Ontario and stresses that more purpose built rental buildings are needed to keep up with demand. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

"I honestly was so burned out on every level," said Barrett, "I would have [had] to keep freelancing, on the side, on top of a very demanding full-time job, just to make up the rent. And I was already at the end of my rope."

Barrett wrote columns about a city at risk of losing its young, vibrant professionals like her. 

"Are we really going to be OK with a city, or a society, in which anybody who has a young family, or is a teacher, or a social worker, or a journalist, or an artist, can't afford to live there?" said Barrett.

Barrett is moving to Calgary with her boyfriend in the coming weeks. 

Is Canada's prosperity at stake?

Columns such as Barrett's, as well as other housing market horror stories, have put the national spotlight on a lack of affordable housing.

The City of Toronto's former chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has urged governments to invest in affordable rentals.

"It used to be that when we talked about affordable housing we actually worried about social housing," said Keesmaat. "Really what we are talking about today is people who are able to be fully employed, but are not able to afford housing. That is a whole new problem."

Jessica Barrett lived in Vancouver for almost 15 years but recently decided to leave because she was too burned out by the stresses of living in the increasingly unaffordable city. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Keesmaat is optimistic the federal government's recently announced 10-year, $40-billion national housing strategy may help. In particular, she's hopeful the $15.9 billion co-investment fund could be used as a tool for building more affordable rentals.

"It's difficult to understate how significant it is that the federal government is recognizing there's a federal role in housing," Keesmaat said. "If there is an area where there needs to be more emphasis, it is on this question of how we expedite the provision of more affordable rental."

Otherwise, Keesmaat says, the situation could get even worse and threaten the stability of Canada's overall economy.

"I do not think it's too strong to say that we are at a fundamental crossroads. And the prosperity that we see as a country and in our cities is at risk if we do not address housing affordability, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto," Keesmaat said.

Sticking it out no matter what

Even in the face of tightening vacancy rates in Toronto, some renters, such as Bibin Joseph, 24, are still optimistic.

"I tell people the reason I want to move to Toronto [is] because it's the New York of Canada," Joseph said.

Jennifer Keesmaat is the former chief planner for Toronto. She says that housing is becoming unattainable in the city. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)

So far though, he hasn't been able to enjoy the city much. All he's been doing is working and trying to find a place to rent. Currently he shares a crowded house with about nine other people. He's a young professional in digital marketing, a skill that fits Toronto's economic future, but he's still struggling to find one of life's most basic needs.

"I miss Edmonton a lot more now, because I left a lot of comforts to come to a city where I'm struggling."

Still, Joseph is determined to stay. 

"I'll never say I'll move back to Edmonton because I feel like I lost in Toronto," said Joseph. "I have this attitude — to never give up."

Bibin Joseph recently moved from Edmonton to Toronto and he describes the house where he found a room to rent as 'chaos.' Still, Joseph is determined to find a new rental so he can stay in the city. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)


Jacqueline Hansen

Senior Business Reporter

Jacqueline Hansen is a senior business reporter for CBC News. Based in Toronto, she's been covering business and other news beats since 2010.