Affordable housing in Canada: the shortage

Last week, we looked at the depth of housing need in Canada among vulnerable populations such as immigrants, single parents, off-reserve Aboriginal peoples, and single working-aged individuals. This week, we look at the low supply in Canada’s rental market and the need for more affordable housing.

Marianne’s story

A few years ago, Marianne Irvine was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis causing inflammation and pain throughout her body. Her work as a self-employed bookkeeper became incredibly difficult to keep up and she had no choice but to refer most of her clients elsewhere. As a single woman, this drop in income was devastating and, at the advice of a trustee, she declared bankruptcy.

The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) provided her with $1,164 per month. The application process took only four months. The speed with which the ODSP bureaucracy provided help was not lost on Marianne. “I cannot tell you how grateful I was to hear this news because the alternative would have been: no money, no place to live, and no food to eat.”1

However, the next step for her was to figure out how to live off these limited funds. For Marianne, and others like her who are living on a low-income, a reduction like this can make it nearly impossible to put food on the table and find a decent place to live.

Rental housing: low supply, high demand

The shortage of rental housing in Canada is a major contributing factor to these difficulties. With a vacancy rate well below 3% - the level experts cite as the minimum for a healthy rental market – rental housing in Canada is in dangerously low supply.2 While the national rate has climbed from 2.2% in 2011 to 2.6% in 2012, the rate in certain cities is still much lower. Vancouver’s vacancy rate is 1.8% while Toronto and Winnipeg both have rates of 1.7%. Calgary is at 1.3% and Regina, with the lowest rate in the Canada, sits at just 1%.3

Part of the reason for the low supply of rental housing is that it can be quite lucrative for developers to build homes and condos for the homeownership market, while they often lose money when developing rental housing. While almost one-third of all households in Canada rent, private rental developments are way down, accounting for only 10% of all residential construction over the past 15 years.4 As a result of this shortage, rental housing prices are continuing to rise (by 2.9% in the past year). As demand outstrips supply, fewer and fewer Canadians are able to find affordable housing. People living in poverty feel the squeeze the most. Many are forced to choose between feeding their kids or paying rent for what are oftentimes overcrowded, unsafe, or run down apartments.

Long wait lists for affordable housing

In 2010, the Conference Board of Canada reported that five percent of Canadian households live in subsidized housing, which is made affordable because their rent is geared to their income. However, an additional twenty per cent of households struggle to keep up with housing payments since more than 30% of their income goes towards housing.5

Marianne Irvine is part of this twenty per cent. She contacted the regional housing office to apply for subsidized housing and, contrary to the speedy service she received at ODSP, learned that the wait time was at least six years.

Marianne’s situation is not unique. Long wait lists exist in cities across the Canada. The infographic below shows the number of households waiting for affordable housing in eight cities across Canada as well as the average monthly rent for a two-room apartment. Thousands of Canadian households are waiting for affordable housing hoping they can hold out in the private market long enough to make it to the top of the list.

Across all of Ontario, for example, there are 156,358 households waiting for affordable housing. While it varies by location and household type, the average wait time in Ontario is two to four years. Some groups (mostly seniors) are housed within a year, while others (mostly singles and childless couples under 65) wait up to 10 years.6 Similarly, in Vancouver, the average wait time is 16 months and in Halifax it is approximately three years.7

Coordinated action needed on affordable housing

More affordable housing would help those most in need. We need governments at all levels (federal, provincial/territorial and municipal), along with non-profits and the private sector, to further invest in affordable housing through a long-term, coordinated framework. Doing so would put safe, adequate, and affordable housing within the reach of poor and low-income Canadians and dramatically improve their well-being. In the words of Marianne Irvine, “if I had a dream, I would find ways to empower and help those who need it most find ways to a sustainable living and affordable housing.”8

A very special thanks to the Marianne Irvine and the great people at the ALIV(e) Community (Awareness of Low Income Voices) for their permission to use this story. Check out the ALIV(e) blog for more stories like this.

  1. 1. The ALIV(e) blog. ‘Poverty: A Personal Story.’ July 20, 2012.
  2. 2. Shapcott, Michael. Wellesley Institute. 'Painfully low vacancy rates, shrinking number of homes: New national report underlines rental housing woes across Canada.’ December 9, 2010.
  3. 3. Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. ‘Rental Market Report: Canada Highlights.’ Fall 2012.
  4. 4. Federation of Canadian Municipalities. ‘The Housing Market and Canada’s Economic Recovery.’ January 2012.
  5. 5. Conference Board of Canada. ‘One in Five Canadian Households Struggles with Housing Affordability.; March 30, 2010.
  6. 6. Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. ‘Waiting Lists Survey 2012: ONPHA’s 2012 report on waiting list statistics for Ontario.’ August 2012.
  7. 7. Capital News Online. ‘Cross-country affordable housing.’
  8. 8. The ALIV(e) blog.
Brad Wassink is CPJ’s Communications Co-ordinator.


Submitted by Peter Cohen on
"...while they often lose money when developing rental housing." It would seem to me that this is the crux of the problem. I was searching the web trying to figure out how it was that in Calgary where there is no rent control, there is none the less a shortage of rental properties. Just why is it that rental developers can possibly lose money when there is a high demand for rental property? This flies in the face of any free market logic, and I can only surmise that there must be some seriously messed up regulation going on here.

Submitted by Robert on
I have read over the rights of tenants and landlords for my area (Ontario) and having done so would never consider renting out a home under such terms and conditions. Clauses that allow a tenant to 'invite" guests without number - without notification to the landlord or compensation, protracted requirements to evict, risk of damages to the property during an eviction, etc it adds up to far too much risk for the available gain.

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