Nic Skitt, the chief technology officer at Wise Publishing and a 43-year-old father of two, is in what he described as a “good, strong” salary bracket. And yet, the rent he’s paying for a detached house in Toronto’s coveted Yonge and Lawrence neighbourhood is eating up half of his income after tax.
The home is the family’s fourth in the area in just a few years, after a series of moves prompted by issues with previous rental properties. The current rent is “an extreme stretch” for the family’s finances, Mr. Skitt said, but he and his wife have decided to stick it out for the sake of not uprooting the kids again.
“We’ve moved them around so many times when they were a bit younger that we just can’t do it again. So we’re trapped in the area that we are,” he said. “The second they finish high school, our plan is to move north.”
Many renters across Canada are in similar situations. Amid rising housing costs and record-low vacancies, they say renting, which is typically imagined to be more flexible and affordable than owning a home, now provides neither of those advantages. Several told The Globe they feel stuck, not just because they can’t afford to buy, but also because rents in their areas have increased so sharply that they can’t afford to move.
Around 32 per cent of households in Canada rent. Toronto-based financial planner Shannon Lee Simmons said she often hears stories from parents who are living in expensive markets, receive eviction notices and suddenly find themselves paying much higher rents to stay in their neighbourhoods and prevent their children from needing to change schools.
“I’m not going to judge it. I totally get it,” Ms. Lee Simmons said.
The key, she added, is to understand and plan for the long-term financial effects of that decision. This could mean pushing back retirement by a few years, she said, or eventually moving to a place where housing costs are drastically lower, to beef up retirement savings later in life.
In general, Ms. Lee Simmons recommends that renters ensure their fixed expenses take up no more than 55 per cent of their after-tax income, a rule that holds for homeowners as well.
But making the math work seems poised to get harder for Canada’s renters. After slowing down early in the pandemic, rent inflation is bouncing back.
The pandemic produced an initial disconnect between home prices, which soared, and rents, which lagged because tenants were more likely to hold lower-income service-sector jobs that were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 restrictions, limiting their ability to shoulder higher costs, said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets. Now, the gap between home prices and rents is shrinking.
At $2,176 per month, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver in January was up more than 13 per cent year-over-year, according to Rentals.ca, whose data primarily reflects the asking rents on vacated units and includes both rental apartments and condos.
In Toronto, the average one-bedroom unit is going for just over $2,000, up more than 9 per cent from January, 2021, according to the Rentals.ca analysis. And in Montreal one-bedrooms are renting for roughly $1,500 on average, up more than 6 per cent from a year ago.
Adding to the pressure on rents is the resumption of both immigration and international student arrivals after a period of strict pandemic restrictions, Mr. Tal said.
If Canada wants to tackle its housing affordability crisis, rental housing must be part of the solution, Mr. Tal argued. And to become a broadly attractive alternative to homeownership, renting must come with security of tenure, he said.
That, he added, would require Canada to construct many more purpose-built rental units, which are created expressly as long-term accommodations.
Annual completions of new purpose-built rentals have been steadily growing over the past few years. They surpassed 60,000 in both 2020 and 2021, according to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. That’s more than twice the number of rental dwellings completed in 2015. But the recent ramp-up comes after decades during which Canada added very little to its purpose-built rental stock.
Julie Jones, a 45-year old librarian at Simon Fraser University, rents a home in Vancouver. She said she has put her three-year-old daughter on more than a dozen waiting lists for out-of-school care programs to avoid finding herself without childcare because of a change of address.
Needing childcare as a renter is an “extra layer of uncertainty,” she said.
Notably, happy renters’ stories often involve elements of luck.
Katherine Wong Too Yen, a 31-year-old marketing and operations professional in Toronto, said the only reason she was recently able to become a first-time homebuyer was the affordable rent she has been paying since 2013 on a 500-square-foot unit in a downtown purpose-built rental building, which enabled her to save for a down payment.
A year ago, after socking away half of her after-tax income for nearly a decade, she finally bought a home: a lakefront cottage in Magnetawan, Ont., three hours north of Toronto.
Ms. Wong Too Yen, whose work is fully remote, now spends 70 per cent of her time at her cottage and keeps her rental as a pied-à-terre.
“I’ve had the cottage now for almost a full year and it’s kind of nice to be able to escape,” she said, but she acknowledged that it was “pure luck” that she has been able to live in an affordable rental for years.
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