Little — and expensive — house on the prairie
Rural Manitoba renters struggle with some of Canada's greatest housing challenges
Everything seems to be getting more expensive. Food, gas and housing prices are on the rise while paycheques are slow to keep pace. The CBC News series Priced Out explains why you're paying more at the register and how Canadians are coping with the high cost of everything.
Isaac Wall is making the most of the space he can afford.
With two bedrooms on his main floor and another in the basement, his rental home in Winkler, Man., is cramped for his family of 10, including eight children ranging in age from three to 14.
"It feels like you're in jail, but what could you do?" he said jokingly.
A Mennonite farmer from Paraguay, Wall moved his family to Manitoba last October, taking a job in a machine shop to be closer to family in Canada, where he hopes his children will have a better life.
"Of course, a big house would be better, but I can't afford it. They're too expensive," he said.
The rental house is in good shape, but for the size of his family, it's less than ideal. Wall's $1,300 monthly rent chews up more than the benchmark set by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) for what is considered to be affordable housing — less then 30 per cent of before-tax household income.
"You pay hydro bills, you pay phone bills and you pay your rent, that's pretty much asking me for all the money I make," he said.
Wall earns $2,500 a month, but even with an additional $740 he gets each month from the province's rental assistance program, there's little left over to make ends meet.
Core housing need
A CBC analysis of two Statistics Canada data sets released in 2020 found that 40 per cent of people renting in rural Manitoba are considered to be in "core housing need" — either they're paying too much based on their income, living in spaces that are too small for the number of residents or in housing that's in a poor state of repair.
Based on that criteria, rural Manitoba has the highest rate of people in core housing need anywhere in Canada. The same analysis found that 23 per cent of those renting in rural Manitoba are living in places that fail two or more housing standards, also the highest of any province.
The population of Winkler, located about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, has nearly doubled since 2001 and now sits at about 13,750, according to Statistics Canada's 2021 census. A CMHC report last year pegged its rental vacancy at 1.4 per cent, well below the benchmark of three per cent that Manitoba considers a "balanced" rental market.
"We've heard loud and clear from our mayors and reeves outside of the city of Winnipeg that they have significant housing demands," said Manitoba Families Minister Rochelle Squires.
She points to the province's Rent Assist program as a way for low-income renters to deal with rising costs. The benefit is geared to income and ranges between $423 and $1,379 per month.
Squires also concedes there is a lack of affordable housing. In 2019, the province and the federal government struck a $450-million deal to build more affordable housing over 10 years in several rural communities, including Winkler.
"Forty per cent of those new units are in municipalities outside the city of Winnipeg based on demand," she said. "We certainly recognize that all Manitobans need to have a place to live."
Much of the growth in rural Manitoba is coming from hiring booms in the agriculture and manufacturing industries, which are attracting newcomers to Canada.
Rhoda Maturan and her family moved from the Philippines to Russell, about 350 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, in 2019.
She, her husband and their two children share a small house advertised as a three-bedroom, although the third is just large enough for a single bed. The monthly rent is $800.
Maturan said she doesn't see it as a long-term solution.
"The kids are small right now, so we can squeeze them," she said.
Maturan's husband earns $2,000 a month working as a cook in a restaurant, where she picks up some hours as a server. Their hours were reduced by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
"We're just living off paycheque to paycheque," she said.
To pay the rent, they're making sacrifices in other areas, including what they spend on groceries.
"You know we don't have extras. It's kind of hard for now with our current finances."
Can't get a mortgage
Steve Reynolds hears stories like these everyday. He's executive director of Regional Connections Immigrant Services, which supports immigrants to Canada in south-central Manitoba, including Winkler.
"It remains a challenge — there's a bit of lag for newcomers arriving — to see the housing market respond to specific needs," he said.
In addition to wanting to see more rental accommodations built, he says some newcomers could avoid renting altogether if their credit ratings were recognized for mortgages in Canada.
"That would relieve some pressure off the rental market, for sure," Reynolds said.
"Even a family who financially, with a good job, might functionally be able to buy a house, they end up renting for a couple of years till they build their credit score."
Andrew Robinson, a newcomer from Jamaica, said he finds himself in that very situation.
It took weeks for him to find the three-bedroom house he's just started renting in Portage la Prairie with his wife, new born baby and 18-month-old son.
Robinson's rent is $1,300 a month — almost two-thirds of his income.
"It's a lot, but I have to make the sacrifice," he said. "My wife was like, 'Uh we're going to struggle,' but I'm like, 'Hey, we gotta make this move.'"
For that price, Robinson said he's certain he could afford to buy a home. He has a steady job at the city's recreation complex and work references, but the banks are telling him he needs another year's worth of employment history to qualify for a mortgage.
"Mortgage is the way that I want to go. But there are so many eligibility criteria that you have to go through that it just puts you right back into renting."
For now, Robinson said he's happy to just be in a home, even if it's expensive.
Back in Winkler, Isaac Wall shares that sentiment. With no cheaper alternatives available, he feels fortunate to have a roof over his family's head, despite the financial squeeze.
"I thank Winkler for the open arms," he said. "I am proud to live in Canada."
With files from Tara Carman and Marc Baby