British Columbia

Struggling with the cost of rent? It's not just Vancouver

Vancouver's rental housing crisis has been well-documented, but the latest census figures reveal there are dozens of B.C. cities where higher proportions of tenants live in unaffordable housing.

Of the 10 B.C. cities where majority of tenants face unaffordable housing, two are in Lower Mainland

More than half of tenants on Salt Spring Island struggle to afford rent, census data shows. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Vancouver's rental housing crisis has been well-documented, but the latest census figures reveal there are dozens of B.C. cities where higher proportions of tenants live in unaffordable housing.

Just two of the 10 B.C. cities where more than half of renters live in unaffordable housing were in Metro Vancouver.

In the City of Vancouver, 44 per cent of tenants do not have affordable rent.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines affordable housing as shelter that costs less than 30 per cent of before-tax household income.

This is also the metric used by Statistics Canada to measure the burden housing costs impose on households in different parts of the country. 

Highest rents near UBC 

The University of British Columbia neighbourhood, known as Electoral Area A, tops the list. Two-thirds of tenants there were struggling with the cost of rent last year, census data shows. 

West Vancouver tenants also face high housing costs. There, the median rent — meaning half of households pay more and half pay less — is more than $3,000 per month in some places.

Map shows median rents in Metro Vancouver neighbourhoods in 2016. Darker purple means more expensive. Click on an area for details.

Source: Statistics Canada 2016 Census

Less well documented, however, is the plight of renters in places such as Creston, Salt Spring Island, and the mid-Island Parksville/Qualicum/Port Alberni area.

Housing in these areas is generally less expensive than in Metro Vancouver, but incomes are also lower.

High rents in Port Alberni

Ariel Spalding, who works for a flooring company in Port Alberni, said she was terrified when she learned she and her two daughters would have to move because her landlords wanted to reclaim the house.

She knew it would be a difficult search because rental housing is scarce.

"Everything that was in my price range was kind of dumpy and just not suitable for my daughters and I."

Ariel Spalding and her daughters Hailee (left) and Chanel struggled to find an affordable rental in Port Alberni. (Ariel Spalding)

Through work connections, Spalding was able to find a three-bedroom house for $1,300 a month. Even though this is less than what she was paying before, she says rent still eats up about three-quarters of her monthly income.

Slightly more than half of Port Alberni renters are in unaffordable situations.

"In the last four years I've noticed the prices go up quite a bit. I think it probably has to do with people selling from the mainland and moving here to live or to create more vacation rentals on Sproat Lake."

'Pretty dire' on Salt Spring

Elizabeth FitzZaland, a planner on Salt Spring Island who works with community groups to create more rental and multi-family housing, refers to the rental situation there as "pretty dire."

Fifty-four per cent of renters on Salt Spring do not have affordable housing.

Salt Spring has limited land and only a small portion of it is zoned for multi-family housing, FitzZaland said. 

The view of Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island, were more than half of tenants struggle to afford rent. (Google Streetview)

There is also the fact that the biggest economic driver on the island, tourism, is buoyed by the vacation rental industry, which takes up housing that could be used by longer-term tenants.

"There's historically been a pattern on Salt Spring where folks are … looking for month-to-month renters from October through the end of April, but then telling those folks they need to move on come May," FitzZaland said. 

"So there's a big shift that happens in the spring of people scrambling for housing at a time where there's the most pressure."

This means that if renters are able to find stable, secure housing, they generally pay a lot for it,  FitzZaland said, adding that the island has lost families due to the lack of affordable rentals. 

Owners feel pinch

Conversely, the 10 cities where the most owners experience unaffordable housing are all in Metro Vancouver, with the exception of Whistler.

However, in all of these cities, there are still more renters than owners living in unaffordable situations.

Karen Sawatzky, a researcher who has studied the effects of short-term rental properties in Vancouver, said the census data shows cities throughout B.C. have been too reliant on housing such as secondary suites to fill the rental stock.

"We really need to put a lot more emphasis and reorient our thinking towards secure, long-term rental housing in these smaller communities as well as in the larger communities like Vancouver."


Tara Carman

Senior Reporter, Data Journalist

Tara Carman is a senior reporter and data journalist with CBC’s national investigative unit. She has been a journalist in Vancouver since 2007 and previously worked in Victoria, Ottawa and Geneva. You can reach her at or on Twitter @tarajcarman.