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Brad Langman, Fiorella Pinillos and baby Marcelo, nine months in their Vancouver laneway home rental.

Brad Langman, Fiorella Pinillos and nine-month-old baby Marcelo are shown in their rented Vancouver laneway home.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver has little room for renter families

In a city with among the lowest rental vacancy rates in Canada, families who are struggling to find large enough apartments fare even worse,
reports Andrea Woo

As Brad Langman manoeuvres around the kitchen of his cramped laneway home in Vancouver, his wife Fiorella Pinillos sits at their two-seater dining table, a small wooden structure typically meant for apartment balconies. A colourful activity centre sits nearby and a foam play mat covers most of the kitchen floor.

Steps away, baby Marcelo suddenly lets out a piercing scream. It was the nine-month-old's burgeoning vocal abilities that prompted the young family to move out of their last place, a one-bedroom suite in an older Mount Pleasant house.

NO VACANCY

The rapidly rising cost of rental units in Canada’s largest cities, along with vacancy rates near zero, mean it’s increasingly difficult for people who rely on rental units to find – and keep – their housing. Like the real estate market, rental prices have become detached from incomes and are forcing people to live in cramped apartments, find roommates well into adulthood or simply move away.

The Globe and Mail is spending the summer examining how those factors have shaped the lives of renters, landlords and their cities.

"We loved that apartment, but the structure provided close to zero soundproofing between our suite and the two others in the house," said Mr. Langman, 35, reaching for a box of cookies to calm the boy. But they quickly realized the new laneway home wouldn't work either. Limited floor space means Marcelo's toys have to be moved when they want to access doorways. A small balcony now functions as storage space, rendering it otherwise useless. And being located "30 blocks" from amenities such as coffee shops and grocery stores meant a car was required for just about any errand – a negative for a family that prefers walking.

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"We took this place because it was what was available and we had to get out of where we were," Mr. Langman said. "And, because with the way the rental market is here, there isn't time for sober second thoughts."

For many young families, finding a suitable rental home in Vancouver's tight rental market is a frustrating process. The City of Vancouver's overall rental vacancy rate is among the lowest in Canada, at just 0.6 per cent, while rental rates are among the most expensive – and the majority of apartments are one-bedroom units. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., two-bedroom units make up just 16 per cent of all purpose-built rental units in the city and three-bedroom units less than one per cent. In 2011, the most recent census year, about 16 per cent of households in the City of Vancouver that rent had children and 20 per cent of renter households had three or more people, according to data compiled by CMHC.

READ MORE: High rent and low vacancy squeezing renters in Canadian cities

In Toronto, by comparison, larger apartments make up a considerably larger proportion of the rental stock, with two-bedroom units making up 41 per cent of the total stock and three-bedrooms making up about 10 per cent.

A recent survey by the City of Vancouver found that an eyebrow-raising 58 per cent of families said they were likely to leave the city in the next three years. Mr. Langman and Ms. Pinillos figure they will probably be among them. "We're trying to make it work," said Ms. Pinillos, 34. "But I feel like eventually we're going to end up somewhere else."

Added her husband: "Living in an apartment wasn't something I had envisioned doing in my early 30s – and those are gone."

READ MORE: B.C. real estate reform: Everything you need to know

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Growing cities face the challenge of retaining young families in the face of rising real-estate costs. Vancouver resident Eveline Xia drew attention to the issue last year with her #DontHave1Million Twitter campaign, noting that even young professionals such as doctors and lawyers are moving out of the city because of affordability issues.

At the same time, vacancy rates for larger three-bedroom apartments in the City of Vancouver are even lower than the overall figure, at 0.5 per cent, with the average rent for such apartments topping $2,000 a month.

Renters with children are also at a higher risk of being considered in "core housing need," meaning they live in a space that is overcrowded, in disrepair or too expensive. About 33 per cent of renters with children in Vancouver were in core housing need in 2011, according to CMHC, compared with 28 per cent of households without kids. In Toronto, more than 40 per cent of renters with children were considered to be in core housing need.

The City of New Westminster recognized there was a problem when reviewing census data from 2006 to 2011. Despite the city's overall population having increased by 12.7 per cent, the number of children between the ages of six and 12 decreased by 4.3 per cent.

"That raised a lot of questions," said John Stark, the city's senior social planner. "We had won an award for childcare, we had created close to 600 childcare spaces, we were working on child-development hubs. If we're doing all this, why are we losing the six-to-12-year-olds?" To find the answer, city staff surveyed hundreds of parents at childcare centres and learning facilities, discovering that housing was the most common complaint. The city had a healthy stock of two-bedroom apartments and condos, but a very limited supply of three-bedroom units.

"We found that for young families, a two-bedroom unit was quite fine when they had one [preschool-aged] child," Mr. Stark said. "But when that child got a little older, or they had a second child, that two-bedroom apartment no longer met their needs. So then they would try to find a three-bedroom unit, and it just wasn't available."

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The city consulted with developers, city planners and real-estate companies and, on Jan. 1, adopted a new "family-friendly housing policy." It requires multi-unit strata projects to include a minimum of 30 per cent two- and three-bedroom units, with at least 10 per cent of the total project units to be three bedrooms or more; and multi-unit rental projects to include a minimum of 25 per cent two- or three-bedroom units, with at least 5 per cent of the total project units being three-bedrooms or more.

Brad Langman, Fiorella Pinillos and baby Marcelo.

Brad Langman, Fiorella Pinillos and baby Marcelo.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

New Westminster was the first city in British Columbia to require a minimum percentage of three-bedroom units in new multi-family projects. The City of Vancouver followed suit last month, approving a housing policy mix requiring multi-unit strata and rental housing projects to have 35 per cent two- or three-bedroom units, with at least 10 per cent of the total project being three or more bedrooms. At that council meeting, Jon Stovell, president of Reliance Properties, urged councillors to relax a rule requiring all bedrooms to have outside-facing windows, as New Westminster did for third bedrooms. Allowing "inboard rooms," with borrowed light via transom windows, for example, would save about 200 square feet and be more affordable, he explained.

"If we could do this, I think developers would build more of them, and lower down in the buildings where often they're closer to outdoor areas and roof-decks and things like that," Mr. Stovell said later in an interview.

"Right now, what developers are doing is, because a three-bedroom unit with all outside windows on the bedrooms can really only be on the corner, and because they get big as a consequence of that, developers tend to put them high in the building [for] luxury buyers [who] have sufficient funds to pay for them."

That decision was put off to a later date, with a majority of councillors agreeing further consultation on the matter is needed.

In early August, Mr. Langman and Ms. Pinillos will move into a relatively spacious two-bedroom unit in Gastown, thanks to a contact from friends. It's not their preferred neighbourhood, but it's close to amenities, and a shared green space with toys will be perfect for Marcelo. The newer, concrete design should keep most noise from travelling between suites, as well. They are generally optimistic about the move but concede there is an "ever-present feeling" that they don't have much control over their living situation. "With the vacancy rate what it is, those who own property make decisions and we just take what we're given," Mr. Langman said. "Even if buying a home in Vancouver were a reasonable thing to do, with the price of rent here, there's nothing left to save for a down payment.

"As long as we're in Vancouver, we'll be renters," he continues. "I'm hopeful that we can learn to live with that."

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