He can’t afford to rent an apartment. So this man secretly sleeps in an office

Categories: Canada

A man in St. John’s rents office space, but he doesn’t have an office job.

He’s an electrician, driving from gig to gig all day. The office is where he sleeps at night, secretly, because he couldn’t afford to rent an apartment anywhere in the city. For two months during the frigid Newfoundland and Labrador winter, he lived in his truck. Then, in February, he found an office listed for $450 per month.

“I’m 100 per cent doing this clandestinely,” the 37-year-old told CBC News. “I basically have given up on finding anything else.”

CBC News agreed not to identify the man because it would jeopardize his precarious living situation and his employment. But he is one of many people across Canada who contacted CBC News about how the cost of rent has affected them and their living situations.

Many of those people, like him, have full-time jobs.

Finding housing at all is daunting amid surging prices and decreased availability marking Canada’s rental housing crisis. Demand is outpacing supply across the country, with vacancy rates reaching a new low and average rent growth increases reaching a new high, notes a January rental market report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

WATCH | Canada’s rental crisis by the numbers:

Crunching the numbers on Canada’s rental crisis

According to a CBC News analysis of over 1,000 neighbourhoods across Canada’s largest cities, fewer than one per cent of rentals are both vacant and affordable for the majority of renters. CBC’s Nael Shiab shows a new online tool that reveals where you can afford to rent.

The average asking price for rent in Canada hit an all-time high of $2,202 per month in May, according to a June report from listing website Rentals.ca.

The website looked at rents for condos, apartments and houses/townhouses, based on monthly listings from the Rentals.ca Network of Internet Listings Services.

Its data covers both the primary and secondary rental markets and includes basement apartments, rental apartments, condominium apartments, townhouses, semi-detached houses and single-detached houses.

The situation where a full-time worker still can’t find an affordable rental option is becoming more common, said Annie Hodgins, executive director of the Toronto-based non-profit Canadian Centre for Housing Rights.

Ten years ago, the Canadians who called the centre’s rental help line were mostly lower income or on social assistance, Hodgins said. But these days, more calls are coming in from people who are employed full time, she said.

“It really reflects how astronomically high rental housing is,” Hodgins told CBC News. “It’s a huge problem.”

A woman with long brown hair, wearing a black blazer and green blouse, sits in front of a bookshelf.
Annie Hodgins, executive director of the Toronto-based non-profit Canadian Centre for Housing Rights, says people will make sacrifices to ensure they can pay their rent, including cutting their budget for food and medication. (Canadian Centre for Housing Rights)

Workers priced out

A recent CBC News analysis of more than 1,000 neighbourhoods across Canada’s largest cities found that fewer than one per cent of rentals are both vacant and affordable for the majority of the country’s renters.

In October 2023, across the 35 metropolitan areas CBC News analyzed, only 1,400 bachelor or one-bedroom homes were vacant and located in neighbourhoods that full-time minimum-wage workers could afford. CBC calculated affordability based on rental costs and utilities staying below 30 per cent of households’ gross income, a benchmark set by the CMHC in 1986.

Last year, a 2023 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said there’s not a single province where workers earning minimum wage can afford an apartment.

“They are likely spending too much on rent, living in units that are too small, or, in many cases, both,” the report notes.

A person wearing a parka and pink fleece pants carries a shovel full of snow across a street.
A person clears snow in St. John’s on March 8. Last winter, an electrician working full time in the city had to sleep in his truck because he couldn’t find an affordable apartment. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

The electrician in St. John’s makes more than minimum wage, earning $20 per hour and working 40 hours a week.

He says he moved to St. John’s a few years ago and had a place to live, but after he met his girlfriend, they wanted something bigger when his lease was up. He had an apartment lined up, but the landlord rented it to someone else, he said. Soon, he was single and living in his truck.

“It was cold,” he admitted.

He said he could likely afford to pay about $750 per month on rent. But anything he could find in his price range was either already rented or a room in “a house full of college kids.” According to Rentals.ca, the average rent in St. John’s is currently $1,060 per month. There is nothing below $850.

Then, he saw the office listing.

The man sleeps on a futon mattress and said he eats “a lot of potatoes and pizza pops” that he can cook in his microwave. And when he needs a shower, he laughs that he has a “bird bath” in the sink.

He said it’s actually pretty great for $450 per month — as long as he doesn’t get caught.

“I feel like I’m really lucky to have what I have,” he said, adding that he has a one-year lease and will try to stay as long as he can.

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Rental crisis has spread beyond major cities

The number of people who work full time and can’t afford rent is a “major concern,” Aled ab Iorwerth, deputy chief economist of the CMHC, told CBC News.

While the rental crisis is more of a specific problem in larger urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver, it’s spreading from there as people look for affordable rentals further and further afield, he said.

A man sits on a bench
Aled ab Iorwerth, deputy chief economist of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, says the CMHC is concerned that high interest rates are preventing the building of more rental housing. (Submitted by CMHC)

“It’s a pervasive problem,” ab Iorwerth said, adding that the CMHC is concerned that there aren’t enough rentals being built due to high interest rates.

People will make sacrifices to ensure they can pay their rent, including cutting their budget for food and medication, Hodgins, of the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights, said. And younger people may struggle to pay their student loans, or delay going back to school or starting families — all to make rent or because of lack of space, she said.

The crisis is affecting renters’ health, mental health, relationships and families, and can cause people to leave a community they rely on, Hodgins said.

“Housing is the centre of your life, and when that gets into jeopardy, it has really broad-ranging impacts,” she said.

But with “all eyes finally on this issue,” Hodgins said she also sees reason for optimism. Ten years ago, her organization knew there was a crisis, but no one talking about it, she said.

“At the very least, people are paying attention.”

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