Where to look for cheap rent in Canada, as prices soar, again

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As rent prices spiked over the past two months, affordable pockets of rental housing became harder and harder to find.

In July, the average monthly cost for rental properties across Canada was $1,934 — up 10.4 per cent over last year, according to the data of the property listing company Rentals.ca. A similar hike in June saw the average rent spike 9.5 per cent.

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Analysts say the steep prices are being driven by more demand than inventory.

And that demand is being driven in part by some people fleeing larger cities, while others flock to them.

This creates a challenge for people like Joan Alexander.

The senior has rented homes across Canada, in St. Catharines, Ont., and Guelph, Ont., then in Castlegar, B.C., and for the past two years on Prince Edward Island.

Joan Alexander, left, sits with her dog Beau and her partner, Elizabeth Huether. They plan to move from P.E.I. to Lloydminster, Alta./Sask., this October. (Submitted by Joan Alexander )

Alexander and her partner chose Summerside, a city about 50 kilometres northwest of Charlottetown, for its small-town feel.

But rising rental costs and other considerations — like proximity to health care — are driving her to relocate.

“We really hoped that P.E.I. would be our last stop on our life journey,” she said. 

Last year, rents on P.E.I. rose higher than they had in a decade. Plus rental places are scarce.

Finding affordable rental housing in Canada after a pandemic is proving a challenge for many, with spiking interest rates, inflation and limited rental stock. 

Ben Myers, president of Bullpen Research and Consulting, a real estate advisory firm that tracks rental pricing in Canada, says if you are looking for a deal there still are some places he’d describe as comparatively “cheap.”

He suggests looking at Red Deer or Lethbridge in Alberta, or Saskatoon.

“You can get a two-bedroom for under $1,150 a month. It’s all about where you can work,” said Myers. 

Alexander says she was able to find a few havens on the Prairies.

“It felt almost too good to be true. There seemed to be a few pockets where we could find what we were looking for. Pet friendly, affordable, safe housing,” said Alexander, who needs monitoring after donating a kidney and a place that welcomes her small, beloved dog — Beau.

Lloydminster — a city that spans Alberta and Saskatchewan — attracted Alexander and her spouse with affordable prices and a pet-friendly property owner.

They move in October to their new $1,200-per-month home.

WATCH | Priced out by rising rents:

Soaring prices leaving some renters priced out

While the housing market may be cooling down, the rental market is on fire, with the price of an average unit up 10 per cent compared to last year. That has left many renters scrambling to find suitable housing.

Rentals.ca listings include detached and semi-detached homes, townhouses, condominium apartments, rental apartments and basement apartments. The company can’t provide an average rent for all cities. Some smaller communities don’t have enough rentals to get an accurate average.

So it’s worth hunting. There are some hidden gems.

Myers says that in a normal year, rent can fluctuate on average three to five per cent. But average rents grew 10 to 12 per cent in 2019, due to a shortage of supply, he says. Then the pandemic hit and rent declined, on average, 15 to 20 per cent.

“We are now adjusting back to pre-pandemic levels,” said Myers.

Renters on the move

Then there are the super-expensive anomalies — like Vancouver, which rebounded even faster from the pandemic, with a per month average rent of $2,300 in June 2022. 

Myers says there have also been significant shifts to cities that used to enjoy low rent, as some people migrate to smaller places where they can get more real estate for their dollar.

Retiring Baby Boomers from the Toronto area are creating demand and raising prices in places like the Niagara Region and Halifax, for example. 

“Halifax has gone kind of nuclear. Definitely a lot of Ontarians moved to Halifax during the pandemic,” Myers said.

Also, he says a lot of students stayed in their university towns like Victoria, London, Ont., and Kingston, Ont., when offices closed during the past two years.

“All the benefits of living in a big city were almost bad because you didn’t want to be around a lot of people during a pandemic,” said Myers. 

Vanishing affordable rentals

But all this change has just put more pressure on the rental market that’s been seeing declines in rental options for low earners for more than a decade, according to housing policy researcher Steve Pomeroy.

He uses Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) data to probe losses in the rental market.

Rents can fluctuate on average three to five per cent, says one expert. But when the pandemic hit, they dropped, on average, 15 to 20 per cent. (CBC)

Pomeroy, the senior research fellow for the Centre of Urban Research at Carleton University, estimates that between 2011 and 2016, the number of rental units that would be affordable for households earning less than $30,000 per year — with rents below $750 — declined by 322,600 in Canada.

That has an effect on the one in three Canadians who rent, according to 2016 census data.

Pomeroy says historically Quebec offered the largest rental stock available in the country.

“Quebec has always been culturally very different. Rent is much more culturally accepted. It’s a bit about European influence … You get these very scenic estates of two-, three-storey homes with the wrought iron staircase and with three units, and two are rented. So by definition, two-thirds of your population are renters,” he said.

He says perhaps it’s time for the remainder of Canada to consider a more European model, where renting is more accepted. 

He says there are many cities, in France and Germany for example, where renters almost match owners in population.

North America historically has had a different culture, where owning is seen as better.

“Traditionally there has been very strong support for home ownership. Here in Canada we’ve had mortgage insurance including increasing access to credit for buyers … the political system has very much reinforced that belief system, that ownership is the right thing to do.”

But now, tenancy and anti-poverty organizations are lobbying for more renters’ rights. That’s something Pomeroy sees as a positive shift.

He also says he believes many younger Canadians see renting as their future. It gives them the freedom to pursue experiences, move for jobs and not remain tethered to a property that they can’t afford.

Pomeroy recently asked his graduate students — all employed and in their 20s — if they thought they could buy a home in the next five years. Would you want to?

He says he was surprised to hear for the first time, none of them believed they could.

“Nobody thought they could, and only about half actually wanted to.”

Historically, Quebec has had the most rental stock available in the country, like this Montreal building, seen in May, which features a wrought-iron staircase and a shared garden area. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)



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