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

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

He is an electrician and drives from gig to gig all day long. The office is where he secretly sleeps at night because he can’t afford to rent an apartment anywhere in the city. He lived in his truck for two months during the frigid winter in Newfoundland and Labrador. Then in February he found an office that cost $450 a month.

“I do this 100 percent clandestinely,” the 37-year-old told CBC News. “I’ve actually given up trying to find 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 situation.

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

Finding housing is daunting amid rising prices and reduced availability that marks Canada’s rental housing crisis. Demand exceeds supply through the whole countrywith vacancy rates hitting a new low and average rent growth reaching a new record, according to a January rental market report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

LOOK | Canada’s rental crisis in numbers:

A closer look at the figures on the rental crisis in Canada

According to a CBC News analysis of more than 1,000 neighbourhoods in Canada’s largest cities, less than one per cent of rental units are both vacant and affordable for the majority of renters. CBC’s Nael Shiab shows off a new online tool that shows where you can afford to rent.

According to a report from the Canadian government, the average asking price for rent hit a record high of $2,202 per month in May. June report from the rentals.ca listing website.

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

The data covers both the primary and secondary rental markets and includes basement apartments, rental apartments, apartment complexes, terraced houses, semi-detached houses and detached houses.

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

Ten years ago, Canadians called it the center rental helpline were usually lower income or dependent on social assistance, Hodgins said. But these days, more calls are coming in from people who work full-time, she said.

“It really reflects how astronomically high the rents are,” Hodgins told CBC News. “It’s a huge problem.”

A woman with long brown hair, dressed in a black jacket and a green blouse, sits in front of a bookshelf.
Annie Hodgins, executive director of the nonprofit Canadian Center for Housing Rights in Toronto, says people are willing to make sacrifices to pay their rent. For example, they reduce their budget for food and medicine. (Canadian Centre for Housing Rights)

Employees are sold out

A recent CBC News Analysis of more than 1,000 neighbourhoods in Canada’s largest cities found that less than one per cent of rental units are both vacant and affordable for the majority of the country’s renters.

As of October 2023, there were only 1,400 vacant bachelor or one-bedroom homes in the 35 metropolitan areas analyzed by CBC News, located in neighborhoods that full-time, minimum-wage workers could afford. CBC calculated affordability based on rent and utilities remaining below 30 percent of household gross income, a standard established by the CMHC in 1986.

Last year, a 2023 report was published by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives said there is no province where minimum wage workers can afford an apartment.

“They are likely to spend too much money on rent, live in homes that are too small, or, in many cases, both,” the report said.

A person wearing a parka and pink fleece pants carries a shovel full of snow down the street.
A person shovels snow in St. John’s on March 8. Last winter, an electrician who worked 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 earns more than minimum wage, making $20 an hour and working 40 hours a week.

He said 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 ready, 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 probably afford about $750 a month in rent. But everything he could find in his price range was already rented or had a room in “a house full of students.” According to Rental.cathe average rent in St. John’s is currently $1,060 per month. There’s nothing under $850.

Then he saw the mention of the office.

The man sleeps on a futon mattress and says he eats “a lot of potatoes and pizzas” that he can cook in his microwave. And when he needs to shower, he laughs that he has a “birdbath” in the sink.

He said it’s actually pretty good for $450 a month, as long as he doesn’t get caught.

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

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Rental crisis is spreading beyond the big cities

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

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

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

“It’s a widespread problem,” said Ab Iorwerth, who added that the CMHC is concerned that not enough rental housing is being built because of high interest rates.

People will make sacrifices to ensure they can pay their rent, including cutting back on food and medicine, said Hodgins of the Canadian Center for Housing Rights. And younger people may have trouble paying their student loans, or delaying returning to school or starting a family — all to pay rent or because of a lack of space, she said.

The crisis is impacting renters’ health, mental health, relationships and families and can cause people to leave the communities they depend on, Hodgins said.

“Housing is the heart of your life, and when that is compromised, it has far-reaching consequences,” she says.

But now that “all eyes are 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 was talking about it, she said.

“At least attention is being paid to it.”

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