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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.

In all, Sofia Pickstone put up about 40 posters in two days, stapling them to telephone posts in the Vancouver neighbourhoods she hopes to live in by the fall.

"Emily Carr student looking for a place to rent," read the poster, in large illustrated letters. "Very tidy, quiet and responsible student in search of affordable accommodation in this neighbourhood. Thanks!"

The double Os in the word "looking" were made to look like binoculars, held by a cartoon version of Ms. Pickstone, 19. Tear-off tabs contained her contact information.

The postering effort came after a couple of months of scouring online advertisements daily for an affordable place to stay – a room under $700, ideally – and finding nothing, said the student. Most people didn't even respond to her e-mails; when they did, it was usually to say the place had been taken.

"I was hoping a landlord would see the posters and see that someone has actually taken the time to make them and put them up," Ms. Pickstone said. "I thought a poster with something that popped out would be a good way to represent myself."

In Metro Vancouver's eye-watering real-estate market, many renters, too, are finding themselves in a desperate scramble for adequate housing. The region's rental vacancy rate is just 0.8 per cent – a figure that is shaved down to just 0.6 per cent in the city of Vancouver, where the majority of residents are renters. Housing experts say a healthy vacancy rate is between 3 and 5 per cent.

Lower-cost accommodations are elusive. In the city of Vancouver, the vacancy rate for purpose-built rental units under $750 is just 0.2 per cent; from $750 to $1,000, 0.8 per cent. Metro Vancouver stands at 1 per cent for each price range.

The shortage, paired with climbing rents, has created ripe conditions for unconventional rental strategies from both prospective tenants and landlords.

A July Craigslist post advertised what seemed to be a fantastic deal: a 780-square-foot studio in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood – pet-friendly, with new appliances and a private entry – for just $799 a month. The catch? $799 was just the starting bid.

"Rent to be determined by winning bid," the Craigslist ad continued. "Open bidding will start Sunday, July 7th, 9 a.m. at the property."

In Port Moody, one man advertised a "very nice" 300-square-foot room, free of charge, for a "young but mature" woman willing to "take care of the house cleaning and gardening etc based on 4 hours a day worth of work."

In downtown Vancouver, another advertised a room available for just $500 for a "female roommate with benefit." But, the posting stipulates, "We have to meet for coffee first."

Cass Sclauzero came across many curious ads while hunting for a new apartment last year. Frustrated, the 33-year-old started the Twitter account @dearYVRlandlord, posting screen grabs of various Craigslist rental ads accompanied by her own snarky commentary.

She recently highlighted one ad for a 500-square-foot basement suite in Victoria that included the line: "I'm looking for a specific, loose morals person to enter into an agreement … Please respond with pics if you're interested."

Another ad, for a 300-square-foot "nice bachelor suite" in Vancouver, was nothing more than a bare room with a mini-fridge in the corner.

A third ad, for a basement suite in Vancouver, included a photo of a toilet brush next to a hot plate.

Ms. Sclauzero, who rents in Vancouver and is a landlord in Ontario, says it is dejecting to see the substandard options that renters have to choose from.

"The housing standards that people are trying to get away with, and call a home, are not okay," she said.

"What's available out there puts renters in a lower class of housing quality. It's like, 'Be happy you found a place. It has a stove, it has cupboards, what else do you want?'"

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