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British Columbia The picture of renters in Vancouver’s tight housing market

Neil Salmond and Liza Sutton with their children, three-year-old Rafe and seven-month-old Phoebe, at their rental suite in Vancouver.

Neil Salmond and Liza Sutton with their children, three-year-old Rafe and seven-month-old Phoebe, at their rental suite in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

Who rents?

Rising home prices in cities like Vancouver are changing the face of the typical renter, writes Ian Bailey

After five moves in eight years, Ian Smedley has seen his family's rent double in the last four months alone as he and his wife moved from a two-bedroom basement unit in East Vancouver to a floor in a house.

The shift was necessary given the arrival of his son. But Mr. Smedley, a 38-year-old transportation consultant, says he has been dumbfounded by spiralling rents after moves from West Vancouver to Kitsilano to East Vancouver. The last move saw the family's rent go from $1,700 to $2,400 per month, and rent now consumes about 20 per cent of the family's income.

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.

"You start looking for something similar to the price you're paying and you can't find anything," he said. "It doesn't exist."

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The couple have covered the new price increase, but it has cut into efforts to save money to buy a permanent home. They aren't necessarily willing to stay in Vancouver forever, and are not ruling out a move to a more affordable location elsewhere in Canada.

The progression from renter to homeowner has long been the typical housing story for many Canadians, in which renting serves as a way station before shifting to more permanent housing.

But the formidable cost of buying property in the overheated Lower Mainland real estate market – where the average price of a detached home is well over $1-million, and even small condos fetch half-a-million or more for enough space to raise a family – means that many in Vancouver's rental market are not necessarily buyers-in-waiting.

That has meant that renters in cities such as Vancouver are spread across age groups, demographics and family situation. "It would be nice to own, but we're not willing to pay any price," Mr. Smedley said.

Across Canada, 30 per cent of all households were renters in 2011, according to census data compiled by the Canadian Rental Housing Index, a project released last year by Vancity and the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association. Another study based on the same data was released earlier this month.

It found that the proportion of renters is higher in B.C.'s Lower Mainland than in some other jurisdictions – 34 per cent in Metro Vancouver and slightly more than half in the city of Vancouver. In Calgary, that figure is just 27 per cent.

Of the renters in Metro Vancouver, about one-third are millennials, aged 15 to 34; about 30 per cent are 35 to 49; and another 26 per cent are baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964.

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The Vancity data found renters work in various sectors, including restaurants, retail, health care, science and construction, and challenges finding affordable accessible housing can compromise their ability to contribute to the economy.

"There's some perception of renters that we're largely talking about hospitality workers or minimum-wage workers. Things like that," said Kishone Roy, chief executive officer of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association. Instead, "they're the people you see every day … everybody building and developing this city and largely the main focus of our economy over the next decade."

Among renters in Vancouver, the average household income was about $54,000, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, compared with $46,000 across Canada.

About 45 per cent of households in the Vancouver region spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent and utilities, while more than one-quarter are spending more than 50 per cent. In the city of Vancouver, the rates are similar. The statistic is known as the shelter-to-income ratio, and anything higher than 30 per cent is seen as unsustainable. At the same time, vacancy rates are extremely low: 0.8 per cent in the Lower Mainland and 0.6 per cent in Vancouver.

For families, the situation is even trickier: Two- and three-bedroom units make up only 1.13 per cent of the rental market in the city of Vancouver, compared with 10 per cent across Canada, according to figures from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Neil Salmond, who arrived from Britain with his wife about six years ago, is in the midst of ending a run as a Vancouver-region renter that saw the couple live in four apartments and houses.

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Their growing family – children aged six months and three – prompted them to dig deep and put down a deposit on a three-bedroom condo in New Westminster that won't be ready until 2018. While they wait, they are living in their last rental on the second floor of a 20-storey tower in Vancouver's West End neighbourhood.

"[It was] frustrating at the changeovers, but once in the place, we have only had good landlords. We have only had good experiences," said Mr. Salmond, an analyst in the renewable energy sector. "The hunting is less pleasant – the sense that there's less choice out there, less available than in London, and at similar prices."

Mr. Salmond and his family came to Vancouver from London after his wife got a postdoctoral research position at the University of British Columbia, arriving just before the 2010 Winter Olympics. She is now a biology instructor at Douglas College.

They initially lived at UBC, starting with a one-bedroom space in a Mount Pleasant apartment building for $1,200 a month. As they started a family, they moved to a two-bedroom unit on the top floor of a house for $1,400. Other apartments followed, leading to their current two-bedroom unit in the West End.

The competition throughout was challenging. Mr. Salmond remembers some rivals attempting to charm landlords with cakes. "My wife and I would make a great play of being a young, stable couple," he said. "We even engaged in small talk over our accents."

New Westminster was always on the radar as "the best of the Vancouver suburbs," given its walkability and waterfront, as well as its endorsement from friends.

Mr. Salmond said he is worried about the "big debt" of a major mortgage that will be about double their $1,800 monthly rent. He said he's also concerned about increased responsibility for household repairs. "I quite liked being a renter and being able to just call somebody and say, 'Sorry. This thing doesn't work. Can you come and fix it?'"

But it was time to stop being a renter.

"Life has changed with kids. You think stability in the long term," he said. "You turn inwards a bit more. Build a home and all of that kind of thing."

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