Overspent: Students can’t afford to rent downtown

The smell of grilled chicken permeates the air as Kyle Cunningham and his parents prepare dinner, chopping vegetables and washing lettuce. “Any good news today?” Cunningham’s father asks, referring to the hundreds of job applications the university grad has sent out.

“No,” responds Cunningham—his usual answer.

Cunningham graduated from the geographic analysis program at Ryerson University in 2015 and has yet to find a job in his field. He currently lives in Scarborough, at his parents’ house, since he cannot afford the rent in Toronto without a well-paying position. He’s almost 25 years old.

“I feel sad, and it is a little bit embarrassing that I still live at home with my parents,” said Cunningham. “It is something I obviously think about every day and would really like to change, but I can’t afford rent in the city.”

It’s not only current students who feel the pressure of Toronto’s housing market on their wallets—recent university graduates feel the effects of living as a student long after their time in school is over, posing obstacles as they transition into professional careers.

Travelling west from Scarborough to the Church-Wellesley Village in downtown Toronto, Paige Smith returns to her bachelor apartment after a serving shift.

“There is no way I can fit a double bed in my apartment because…it is tiny,” said Smith.

Smith pays approximately $1,300 a month, after factoring in utilities, for a 400-square-foot studio. Since she hasn’t been been able to find a job in her field yet, she works as a server to cover her rent. Smith graduated from the acting program at Dalhousie University in 2014 and moved to Toronto last December to pursue her chosen career.

Paige Smith in her bachelor apartment.

“It was always my plan to move to Toronto, I just wasn’t sure how I would afford it,” Smith said. “So I took the year and a half [after graduating] to work…I had three different jobs at one point. I think I went through a 20-day stretch without a day off, just so I could afford to get myself here.”

According to a survey by a coalition of affordable housing groups, one in five Canadian renters face an affordable housing crisis, spending more than half their income on living expenses.

“I thought I would have a nice, cute one-bedroom with a small open-concept area, living room and a tiny kitchen,” Smith said. “I wasn’t looking for something huge, but I never expected what I ended up with for how much I was paying.”

Affordable housing seems unattainable for recent graduates due to the lack of inexpensive rentals. In Toronto, most properties come from high-priced investors and have a high price tag to match. Young professionals simply cannot afford it.

“I am a little bit more comfortable, but I’m still extremely budgeted,” Smith said. “I give myself $30 a month to go out and that is it.”

Smith said this affected her relationship building and confidence when she first moved to Toronto. “I’m trying to make a life in a new city and I can’t afford to do it,” she added.

Just a few streets away, Ryerson fashion communications graduate Sarah—not her real name—sits in the bedroom of the row house she rents. Like several of the students interviewed in the process of researching this story, Sarah asked to have her name remain confidential, saying she was embarrassed of her financial circumstances. She lives with two other roommates to save money.

A group of row houses similar to the one Ryerson University graduate Sarah* lives in.

“Some of us are messier than others—that’s something I did not really take into consideration before living with two other people, but I definitely notice it now and would definitely appreciate a place of my own,” said Sarah.

Sarah is currently working in retail to afford her $900-per-month rent, but is still having a difficult time managing these expenses with her student debt.

“At this point in time, it’s impossible for me to pay off my student loan while also paying for rent and living expenses,” said Sarah. “It’s kind of hard to take on an extra financial burden when I am not making that much.”

In Canada, 40 per cent of renters spend more than a third of their income on rent. About a fifth of renters spend more than half their income. Yet there are no national regulations currently in place to try and combat this housing crisis across Canada.

Even after finishing university over a year ago, Cunningham says he still feels the financial impacts of being a student.

“I was saving up, but I had to put a lot of that money towards tuition, so in the end it was not enough to move out right away and that’s where I am stuck now,” said Cunningham. “With the current job I have, it’s not enough to be able to afford anything in Toronto, so I feel like I have to have a career position before I can move out on my own.”

For Smith, however, the struggle to make rent is all part of living in the big city and trying to make her dreams a reality.

“Moving to Toronto, while it was really difficult and I am struggling to pay everything, it’s worth it,” said Smith. “In my heart, I know that I need to stay here and keep fighting for [my] dream.”

Smith, Cunningham and Sarah plan to move out of their current living situations and find more affordable housing. However, none of the three know when they’ll be able to make that happen.

Earlier this month, Canadian housing advocates called on the federal government to introduce a national strategy to combat the housing crisis across Canada. Though advocates hope the something will be in place by early 2017, the federal government has yet to set any plans.