Rhea Azarraga broke up with her boyfriend two months ago, but they are stuck living together because she has nowhere to go.
His parents own the two-bedroom condo, so she’s more of an unwanted house guest than roommate. But Ms. Azarraga, who is 29 and works in tech, is at the mercy of sky-high rents and intense competition for anything close to what she can afford. The rental situation in Vancouver is at its bleakest.
She spends a typical week sending out at least a dozen inquiries and if she’s lucky, a handful will respond. She routinely scans Craigslist, Kijiji, Facebook Marketplace, PadMapper, Zumper and RentCafé. She walks around neighbourhoods and looks for vacancy signs, going beyond her own Yaletown neighbourhood in downtown Vancouver into Burnaby. After two months of searching, she’s only been invited to view a handful of places, and when she arrived early, there was already a crowd.
“There were already people there, filling out applications, sucking up to the landlord. It’s so cutthroat. And I think because I look younger than I am, there is also a bias or discrimination,” says Ms. Azarraga. “A lot of landlords say, ‘Oh you work in tech? I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what a software engineer is,’ and, ‘How much do you make?’” says Ms. Azarraga, who describes her income as “decent.”
Higher interest rates means potential first-time buyers are renting instead. At the same time, the pandemic has had a well-publicized effect on relationships – many couples decided they couldn’t handle so much togetherness after all – and the ensuing breakups have increased rental demand as former couples look for new places to live.
Ms. Azarraga knows of other young couples that are also stuck sharing space when they’d rather move on.
“It’s unbelievable,” she says. “I remember when COVID happened and all that drama of couples stuck at home together, and everybody is getting divorced or breaking up. And I thought, ‘I am so glad we’re not in that situation.’ But we got there.”
“It’s been a hell of a few months,” she adds.
The supertight rental market means that some people are buddying up in order to get by.
Ms. Azarraga hasn’t ruled out living with roommates again, although she dreads navigating house rules such as “vegans only” or flatmates who don’t like her dog on their furniture.
New Statistics Canada data show that households with three or more people contributing to shelter costs and other expenses grew 61 per cent compared with the overall household growth in the City of Vancouver in the past five years, according to Andy Yan, director of the City Program and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.
Prof. Yan says Vancouver has the highest proportion of households in Canada with occupants classified as “household maintainers,” that is, residents, not necessarily family members, who contribute to housing costs and other bills. They can be adult children living with parents, or several roommates who are sharing spaces to make ends meet. They are students crowding into houses and apartments, turning dining rooms into bedrooms and dividing living rooms into bedrooms. Multiple families who are not related are also living under one roof.
“It’s a big number and a trend, and a combination of economic necessity and social choice, such as folks getting a third roommate, or kids moving back home,” said Prof. Yan. “This is one way for households to cope with a crisis of unaffordability.”
The rule of thumb is that people shouldn’t spend more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter costs. But 39.4 per cent of Vancouver renters are spending more than that amount, added Prof. Yan. Homeowners fare better, but one in four are spending more than 30 per cent of their income as well. And those numbers don’t include the second highest expense, which is transportation.
Vancouver has the highest rents in Canada, and at least one source says that the rents spiked significantly across the region in August.
According to Rentals.ca, Vancouver’s average rent for a one bedroom is at $2,574. That was a 2.9-per-cent increase over the previous month for the city, and an 18.8-per-cent increase over last year. A two-bedroom unit in Vancouver averages $3,694.
Rents in Metro Vancouver had soared in August by as much as $147 since July, according to a report from Liv.rent site. Landlords had been asking an average $2,029 a month for one-bedroom apartments in the region, a little less than the $2,056 they’d been asking in June. But by August, the average rent jumped to $2,176 for a one-bedroom, across several municipalities. Only North Vancouver stood out for a drop in rents, by nearly 4 per cent. The biggest jump was in Richmond, with a 24.1-per-cent increase, but New Westminster and West Vancouver also saw big jumps.
Before she moved in with her boyfriend, Ms. Azarraga was paying $1,300 for a studio apartment in 2020. When she left, the landlord told her the rent would be going up to $1,600.
“I can only imagine what it is going for now,” she says. “Everything that’s between 380 square feet and maybe 500 square feet, you’re looking at, on average, $1,750 to $1,900 if you want to stay within downtown, and I’m noticing that doesn’t include ensuite laundry, or allow pets. Storage is additional, parking is additional, and you have utilities on top of that. Between bills and groceries, it’s ridiculous.”
Ms. Azarraga said she’s become more aggressive in her apartment search. But she draws the line at paying several months’ rent in advance, as she’s heard others have done.
“I say in my inquiries, ‘I have the deposit and references ready and I can come by today with deposit in hand.’ I’m not messing around. I need a home.”
Marley Leacock lost her job during the pandemic and had to move in with her mother in another province, but she returned to Vancouver when she and her partner managed to find a three-bedroom house to share with three other people. They’ve moved again and are now living with roommates in a Vancouver townhouse, and the total rent is only $2,100, because the landlord is trying to sell. She knows their days are numbered, and she wonders where they’ll go, especially with a dog and a cat.
In an e-mail, she said she is “constantly waiting for an eviction notice that will upend my life. Could I just move out now? No. The average one-bedroom rental cost is currently over $2,300. This is 100 per cent of my monthly gross income.
“I have never had a home in Vancouver. I’ve never been in one place long enough to place any roots or become part of a community. Even the one I have is going to be taken from me by a faceless company who doesn’t care what happens to me or anyone else.”
Jessica Gut, member of the Vancouver Tenants Union advocacy group, says the crisis is worsening as developers and institutional investors purchase older buildings. She’s working with a group of tenants who are facing ‘demovictions’ and rent increases of 100 per cent once they are pushed back into the market. It’s likely that most will have to leave the city, and it’s hugely stressful for them, she says.
“There’s no affordable housing left in this city. There’s nowhere left to go,” says Ms. Gut. “Our neighbourhoods are gentrifying and all but the rich are being forced out.”
The new data showed that in 2021 nearly 1.5 million Canadian households were living in core housing need, which is a home that is unaffordable or inadequate. The home might be in need of repair or it might be too crowded. The rate of core housing need in Canada fell from 12.7 per cent in 2016 to 10.1 per cent in 2021; however, Prof. Yan said that doesn’t mean a reduction. It could mean that a lot of wealthier people entered markets such as Vancouver in high numbers and diluted the rate.
“It presents a false dawn that core housing need is declining in Canada,” says Prof. Yan.
“The complication here is that the total number of households living in core housing need actually went up 11 per cent, from 48,645 to 54,210 households, in raw numbers in the City of Vancouver from 2011 to 2021,” he says. “From that perspective, then you do have many more households living in a state of anxiety.”