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Household Finances Canadians are clinging to affordable rent as long as they can

Amy Vujanich along with her husband Brian Eyre and three-year-old daughter Audrey on the Murphy bed in their small one bedroom apartment in Vancouver, Aug. 21, 2019.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Amy Vujanich considers herself fortunate to be living in a 1940s walk-up building in the heart of Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, near cafés, shops, bike paths, parks and the beach.

She moved into the one-bedroom apartment in 2003, well before the city’s real estate market took off. Now, she shares the space with her partner and three-year-old daughter. The family’s rent comes to $1,240 a month, including a detached garage, an amount Ms. Vujanich describes as cheap. As a result, the three are staying put for the foreseeable future, having come up with inventive ways to manage the space crunch.

“Two years ago, we decided to purchase a Murphy bed and find a cabinet-maker who could essentially turn our living room into a multifunctional bedroom, office, TV room, and dining room,” Ms. Vujanich says. “It has worked splendidly. Our daughter sleeps in the bedroom. We are happy with this arrangement and cherish living within walking distance to everything.

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“Any time we’ve looked at moving into a two-bedroom unit, we can’t justify the tripling of our rent,” she says. “In our neighbourhood, rents for a place suitable for a family are around $2,800 to $3,500 month.”

Long rental tenures are nothing new in pricey places such as Vancouver and Toronto. What has changed recently is that tenures appear to be getting longer right across the country, with people like Ms. Vujanich holding on tight to cheap rent.

The tenant turnover rate – meaning the proportion of units where new tenants moved in during the past year – dropped to 19 per cent last year from 20.2 per cent in 2016, according to Rental Market Reports conducted by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). Turnover rates from last year were below the national average in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island.

Other research suggests that there has been a shift to longer-lasting tenures. According to the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Ryerson University, between 2006 and 2016, total residential mobility (the percentage of population, including homeowners and renters, that moved from one location to another in the previous five years) declined in all six of Canada’s largest census metro areas. While the mobility rate fell across both tenures, that of renters specifically fell by 0.8 per cent.

The mobility rate of renters specifically showed the most significant decline in Toronto (down 3.9 per cent) and Calgary (down 3.6 per cent), with smaller decreases in Vancouver and Edmonton.

The overall vacancy rate for rental apartments in Canada, meanwhile, fell to 2.4 per cent in 2018 from 3 per cent the year before, the CMHC found. With this dip, the vacancy rate for apartments on the purpose-built rental market fell below the 3-per-cent average of the past decade.

People’s reasons for holding onto rented homes vary. Some feel stuck: With real estate prices and rental rates having shot up since they moved in, certain tenants say that finding a bigger or better home simply isn’t feasible financially. Other renters feel that they’ve lucked out with a monthly cost of living that’s a relative bargain compared to what’s out there and are hanging on as long as they can. Cheap rent feeds into some people’s overall financial plan, allowing them to save for goals such as owning their own home, paying down debt, or investing and saving for retirement.

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Whatever the case, longer tenures present a shift that certified financial planner Kelly Ho is seeing in her practice in Vancouver as partner at DLD Financial Group Ltd.

Ms. Ho says that one reason people hold on to cheap rent is that incomes and cost of living are not growing at the same rate, especially in centres such as Vancouver and Toronto. Someone who makes $80,000 annually may have been comfortable a decade ago, but may now be having trouble making ends meet.

On the other hand, some people cling to low rent, even if their accommodation isn’t ideal, so that they can travel and eat out, the two biggest money-draining culprits, says Ms. Ho, who’s also a certified cash-flow specialist.

“Some people want cheap rent because it gives them freedom to do more,” Ms. Ho says. “Some will set money aside for a nest egg. One option is to keep renting then take whatever leftover proceeds and invest that for a bigger nest egg.

“What’s the reasoning behind it?” she says of holding on to low rent. “It usually comes down to one of two things: they’re trying to save for a down payment for a residence or they can’t afford to move in order to live and that’s what they have to do. You need to find out the ‘why.’ ”

Toronto resident Denise Dee falls in the “feeling trapped” camp when it comes to cheap rent. She has a one-bedroom “damp” basement apartment in the Upper Beaches area with a backyard for $880 a month.

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Living with arthritis and fibromyalgia, Ms. Dee gets by through the Ontario Disability Support Program. Although she would love to move out of the place that she says is only making her health worse, she has little money leftover at the end of each month as it is, and rents have gone up dramatically since she moved in five years ago.

“I want to move, but I can’t afford the rent if I do,” Ms. Dee says. “I see basements going for $1,500.

“Right now, I have a hole in my kitchen ceiling because the pipe was leaking. It’s fixed with duct tape. There have been many water issues. The landlord will fix issues but uses the cheapest route possible. I am afraid to say anything in fear he will just sell the house and I will have to move. I will be paying over $1,000 anywhere I go, and I can in no way afford that. So, I just stay where I am.”

Those who feel they have nowhere to turn may want to consider applying for private co-op housing, even though it can be a difficult and lengthy process to be accepted, Ms. Ho says. For those who want to move, either to an improved rental or to their own home, but who don’t have a clear sense of what they can actually afford, Ms. Ho suggests a comprehensive financial analysis.

“I have 50-something-year-olds come to me or people who are newly divorced or who don’t have much of a nest egg who are wondering if they should buy or continue renting,” she says. “I run a full analysis and show them the numbers. What income, debts, monthly expenditures and must-haves are there? After the numbers, which usually tell 90 per cent of the story, we talk subjectively. We’ll work out two or three scenarios to see what makes the most sense. People who don’t look at the numbers are sabotaging themselves.”

For Ms. Vujanich and her family, staying put in their small space means they can put money aside for what may lie ahead. They try to save as much money as possible each month for emergencies such as a job loss, a trip for her mother-in-law’s forthcoming milestone birthday, or a down payment on a home of their own.

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“The changes we see coming are that eventually our landlord will retire and the owners will likely sell,” Ms. Vujanich says. “The building will either be renovated with everyone evicted or torn down to be replaced with luxury condos, as the story goes.”

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