Gen Y struggles in expensive housing, rental market

Some of Generation Y is rebelling against an uphill battle in securing reasonable rentals or purchasing homes by moving into non-traditional alternatives like cars, boats and collective houses.
Since May, Danica Brown, 26, has been living on her boat, which she hopes to pay off in five years. (Danica Brown/Handout)

Some of Generation Y is rebelling against an uphill battle of purchasing affordable homes or securing reasonable rentals by moving into non-traditional alternatives like cars, boats and collective houses.

Steep prices and precarious employment can make it difficult for millenials to find suitable rentals or buy property.

"The housing market did not even feel like an option for me — not even remotely," says Danica Brown, a 26-year-old professional who makes $36,000 annually and has no student loans. She lives on a boat she went into debt to purchase and hopes to pay it off in five years, resell it and use the funds as a down payment on a house.

The average cost of a Canadian home has more than doubled since 2000, and youth underemployment is a growing problem.

To pay any less than $1,000 a month in the city would find you a bachelor basement in the middle of nowhere.- Danica Brown, 26

Post-graduate students face additional financial woes. Estimates suggest some 100,000 of them take on unpaid internships, with many paying university or college tuition while working for free. What's more, the average cost of tuition and compulsory fees at post-secondary institutions are expected to triple from 1990 to 2017. After graduation, average student debt hovers around $24,500, when debt-free students are removed from calculations.

Rental rates are high and inching upwards in many Canadian cities, with Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary topping the list of highest average fees.

Rats 'running through the walls at night'

Turning to any available inexpensive housing to cut costs doesn't always turn out well.

Jacqueline Ronson, 27, moved to Vancouver three years ago to pursue her master’s degree with only a friend’s couch to crash on while she urgently searched for more permanent accommodation.

Jacqueline Ronson, 27, shared a room with a friend in a rat- and bedbug-infested basement suite. (Jacqueline Ronson/Handout)

Ignoring some red flags, Ronson jumped on a cheap $425/month room in a basement apartment — even though the suite had no separate mailing address, lacked a common area other than the kitchen, and she had to venture through another tenant’s bedroom to use the bathroom.

She lived in what she now calls a “hellhole” from Sept. 2010 to Feb. 2011.

On her first day in her new home, Ronson found rat poison under her bed.

"I had to stop using the kitchen because the rats would leave droppings on the counter," she said. "I could hear them running through the walls at night."

Still, the low rent was alluring and Ronson managed to slash the expense in half when a friend moved in, sharing her room and bed.

When the pair started waking up covered in what looked like mosquito bites with small, puss-filled centres from bed bugs, Ronson had enough. She pitched a tent in the middle of the room to sleep in and quarantined any uncontaminated items inside.

In less than a week, the two moved out.

In their new, more expensive basement apartment, they still cut costs by sharing a room, but compared to her former home, Ronson says it was "paradise."

Collective houses focus on sharing, community

To avoid the pitfalls of signing a cheap lease for a lemon rental, some of Generation Y are seeking alternative solutions to renting in increasingly expensive markets.

Twenty-two-year-old Aleks Besan decided to join Vancouver’s burgeoning collective housing scene.

Collective living focuses on housing a community of people, usually a demographic mish-mash, who have some common values. Sharing is at the heart of most collective houses, which can range in size from two to more than a dozen people.

Besan's Vancouver-area collective house, Bicyclette Rouge, centres around food sharing. The house's six residents each contribute $150 a month to a group food fund, and each member is responsible for cooking dinner for everyone once a week.

Aleks Besan, 22, believes collective living may be one of the solutions to the housing problems faced by many people. (Aleks Besan/Handout)

The house members eagerly open their doors to visitors in need, says Besan, and they frequently host performances in their common space.

While Besan believes in the spirit of collective living, she admits it's also financially prudent for her. She pays less than $400 for her room in a city where an average one-bedroom apartment costs almost $1,100, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's most recent data. Rental fees are determined based on room size and the resident's income compared to others living in the house.

Her utilities bill is "fairly cheap" she says because the house's mandate includes being very environmentally friendly, including relying on individual space heaters only when it is absolutely necessary rather than heating the entire house.

Floating homes

Wanting a place to call her own, 26-year-old Danica Brown chose to live on the water.

"Rent was depressing," says Brown, who lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is just more than $1,000, according to CMHC's most recent data.

Danica Brown, 26, shares her boat home with two cats. (Danica Brown/Handout)

"To pay any less than $1,000 a month in the city would find you a bachelor basement in the middle of nowhere," says Brown, adding that a room in a downtown Toronto apartment can cost about $800/month.

Instead, Brown applied for a loan and purchased a $24,000 boat. Since May, she has been docking it at a Toronto Islands marina and is living on board with her two cats.

Her boat boasts a double bed, fully functioning kitchen and even extra storage for her record collection. Brown also loves the friendly marina community.

Still, "it has definitely not been all sunshine and roses," she laughs, explaining she needs to rely on the marina facilities to do her laundry, take a shower and even use the bathroom. Brown rarely uses her boat's washroom because she says it is a hassle to empty the sewage.

In the winter, Brown will have to prepare her boat for the cold and ice.

"I'm terrified," she says.

'Vandwellers' convert cars into homes

Instead of a choosing a floating home, at the start of 2013, a young graphic designer purchased a 1987 Dodge Ram van for $500 and revamped it into his living space in Vancouver.

Matthew Arthur parked his 40-square-foot home on wheels in an east Vancouver alley, relying on the generosity of others to provide him with showering and cooking facilities.

I go [to the gym] twice a day to shower and use the bathroom if needed.- Michigan-area student vandweller

"For a city that touts its planning culture and its sustainable initiatives, it's unaffordable and there's no communal space," says Arthur.

Arthur is not the only young person to turn to so-called "vandwelling." 

A popular Yahoo chat group of vandwellers boasts more than 9,000 members — many of whom seem to be young people seeking advice from seasoned campers.

"My budget is close to zero," writes one woman, saying she plans to live in her van for nine months while doing an internship in an undisclosed location.

A Michigan-area student writes that he's been living in his van for a month and uses free trial memberships at local gyms to have easy access to bathroom and showering facilities.

"I went to like five different gyms in two months," he writes. "I go there twice a day to shower and use the bathroom if needed."

Home ownership 'seems like a waste'

Many young people, like Brown, seem to feel home ownership is currently beyond their grasp.

Others say the desire to own a home is an antiquated concept and they don't aspire to purchase property.

"I live in a closet," says Jenna Materi, 28, who pays $200 a month to live in a space that fits a child-sized single bed and not much else.

But, the Vancouver resident says she is happy with her living arrangement, which is starting to turn into a collective house.

"The idea of working eight hours a day every day at a job you don’t necessarily like to afford the house that you don’t necessarily ever get to use because you don’t have the time … it just seems like a waste," she says.

With files from the Canadian Press


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