Amanda Ferguson, 33, imagines Toronto’s astronomical rents are dinner-party fodder for people of her parents’ generation and her contemporaries living in small-town Ontario.
But renting is a longer-term and costly reality for more young professionals like Ferguson.
“It’s what you do to survive and balance the books,” she said.
At their own dinner parties, Ferguson and her friends talk about solutions to the high cost of housing — the possibility of commuting to Hamilton or moving to a smaller city — amid the mounting impossibility of owning in the Toronto region where the average detached or semi-detached home costs about $1 million.
A slavish devotion to home ownership in Canada, which has one of the highest rates in the world, and the growing gap between household incomes of tenants and homeowners in the Toronto region have helped attach a stigma to renting.
But with home ownership rates dipping in Canada, there’s a move afoot to normalize renting by pushing for policy and regulations that would give tenants the kind of security and control normally attached to home ownership.
Generation Squeeze, a Vancouver lobby group led by University of British Columbia professor Paul Kershaw, focuses on the economic plight of adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s struggling to pay for housing and child care. It has launched a petition and campaign called We Rent, to push politicians to level the playing field between renters and home owners.
The most obvious way to do that is by increasing the stock of affordable and market-rate, purpose-built rentals that provide tenants with the security and professional management that provides them with security of tenure, says Generation Squeeze.
It wants the government to help by making the business model for rental development competitive with condos by using tax incentives such as GST rebates.
The guiding principle of We Rent is that “renters are not second-class citizens.”
It’s a cultural phenomenon that we prioritize home ownership, said Kershaw. For a long time it wasn’t as challenging to own a home in Canada as it is today in cities, particularly the two least affordable centres, Toronto and Vancouver.
“It became a sign of adulthood — you left the nest, you’ve got your own space and there’s some autonomy that comes with home ownership,” he said.
It’s not just about whether you can own a pet or paint your apartment. It’s about knowing that, as a renter, your child can access a particular school and stay there until they graduate in the same way that a homeowner is secure they can stay in the neighbourhood.
In the five years she has lived in Toronto, Ferguson, a communications professional, has been evicted twice. In both cases the landlords said they were moving her out to move in their relatives. Both instances followed conversations about illegal rent increases, she said.
When she moved to Toronto, Ferguson paid $1,350 for a one-bedroom apartment. The next place cost $1,450. Forced out again into the city’s 1 per cent vacancy rate in August, the average price was about $2,000, she said.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto in the third quarter of this year was $2,056, according to market research firm Urbanation.
“They say you’re supposed to spend 30 per cent of your income on housing. That number is no longer realistic in Toronto unless you room-mate up,” she said.
She cites cities like London, England, where even established adults have flat-mates as the only feasible way of affording a home.
After the second eviction Ferguson and her boyfriend decided to look for a place together. They lucked out with an older-large two-bedroom place for $2,450.
Growing up in Amhertsburg, a town of about 22,000 half an hour south of Windsor, Ferguson remembers a big house with a lawn and being able to run to her to her friends’ houses nearby.
Owning a home “is something that’s instilled in me as the next step,” she said. “It’s kind of sad that it’s potentially off the table or, in order to get that, I’d be looking at a three-hour commute round trip from Hamilton.”
The benefits of renting are often under-rated, said Chris Spoke, who rents part of a Leslieville house with his wife and baby daughter, and is a founder of Toronto advocacy group, Housing Matters.
“When you think about things like labour mobility, being flexible enough to move to where the opportunity is, you’re less tied down. That’s something that you see as we extoll the virtues and benefits of home ownership — you do see less labour mobility and less flexibility on these fronts than societies that have higher rental rates,” he said.
Canadians have subscribed to the notion that housing is an investment. Increasing the value of that investment is incompatible with creating more affordable housing, Spoke said.
About the same time builders stopped making purpose-built rentals in the Toronto region, municipalities enshrined zoning rules that protect established neighbourhoods from denser, more affordable housing such as apartments, duplexes or triplexes.
For many Canadians, home ownership is a retirement fund — a way of paying yourself — Kershaw said.
“We’ve distorted that to say you’re going to pay yourself in an asset that we want to grow faster than the economy. We want it to be the best part of your portfolio. That has gone hand in hand in many big cities in Canada with home prices escalating far faster than economic growth and as a result leaving earnings behind,” he said.
A generation ago it took five years of full-time work to save a 20 per cent down payment on an average priced home in Vancouver and across Canada.
“If you flash forward to today . . . it would take 13 years to save a 20 per cent payment on an average priced home in Canada,” said Kershaw. “In Ontario it is 16 years. In British Columbia it’s 19 years. In the GTA, it is 22 years and in Metro Vancouver it is 27 years.”
Given how horrifying those statistics are, he said, “We just have to anticipate that we are on a route where more and more people are going to be renters for longer periods of their lives.”
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski