‘Rare and expensive’: Why is it so hard to find a 3-bedroom rental these days?

Looking for a three-bedroom rental? Get in line.

Amanda Laflair has been on a waiting list for one she says she could afford for four years.

“I work full time … and between bills and groceries and everything else, I’ll never be able to afford full market rent,” Laflair, a 36-year-old personal support worker who lives in Ottawa, told CBC News.

Laflair, her husband and their three children have lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment for the last five years, where they pay rent she says is geared to lower incomes. Her two sons sleep in the larger bedroom. She and her daughter sleep in the second bedroom, sharing a bed.

Her husband sleeps every night on the couch.

“We don’t have space for anything,” she told CBC News, while explaining she also asked her rental company about internal transfers, but there are rarely any three bedroom available.

“Or if they do it’s over $2,000 per month plus utilities, which I definitely can’t afford,” she said.

A sign says for rent
A rental sign is seen outside a building in Ottawa on April 30, 2020. The average price for a three-bedroom rental in Ottawa in May was $2,741 per month, according to listing website rentals.ca. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

For many Canadians, finding housing at all is daunting amid surging prices and decreased availability marking Canada’s rental housing crisis. Demand is outpacing supply across the country, with vacancy rates reaching a new low and average rent growth increases reaching a new high, notes a January rental market report from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

And a recent CBC News analysis of more than 1,000 neighbourhoods across Canada’s largest cities found the market is even more dire for people looking for multiple bedrooms — typically, families. That leaves many families cramped in smaller units because they can’t find something bigger, and if they do, they can’t afford it.

Are you:

  • An international student who is concerned about housing?
  • A senior looking to get back into the rental market?
  • Someone who locked in to a great deal on rent years ago, and is now reluctant to move?
  • Living with a roommate much older or younger than you?
  • Living with an ex or staying in a relationship because of the rental market?

If this is you, or you are in a different unique living situation because of the rental crisis, we want to hear from you. Send an email to [email protected].

Only 14,000 units with two bedrooms or more were potentially vacant and affordable for the median income of families living in a rented place, according to CBC’s analysis. And for those looking for three bedrooms, it’s even worse, with only approximately 2,850 units potentially vacant and affordable in major cities across the country, according to CBC’s analysis.

CBC calculated affordability based on rental costs staying below 30 per cent of a family’s gross income, the generally agreed-upon “rule,” using a $64,108 median income for families who rent. That works out to spending about $1,600 on rent per month.

The average price for a three-bedroom rental in May was $3,775 per month in Vancouver, $3,638 per month in Toronto, $3,500 per month in Montreal, $2,982 per month in Halifax and $2,741 per month in Ottawa, according to listing website rentals.ca. 

“These three-bedroom units are rare and expensive,” Aled ab Iorwerth, deputy chief economist with CMHC, told CBC News.

“It doesn’t leave a lot of options.”

WATCH | Canada is in a rental crisis: 

We investigate the impact the current housing crisis is having on low-income Canadians, and reveal who is being shut out with no safe place to call home.

A lack of bedrooms

To calculate the extent of Canada’s rental crisis, CBC News combined 2021 census data with the most recent findings from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s rental market survey, conducted in October 2023.

When looking for three-bedroom rentals that would be affordable based on the Canadian median income for families who rent ($64,108), eight major cities had zero available options.

In other words, there are no three-bedroom rentals available for $1,600 per month or less in: Abbotsford, B.C., Guelph, Ont., Kelowna, B.C., Kingston, Oshawa, Ont., St. John’s, Vancouver or Victoria. Calgary had one.

Calculating the same based on median incomes for lone-parent families, $53,934, pushed Canadians out of the three-bedroom rental market in 18 major cities.

The reason there are so few multi-bedroom units can likely be at least partially explained by the cost of adding bedrooms during construction, ab Iorwerth with CMHC said. Many provinces have building codes that require each bedroom to have a window, he said, which has a tendency to make the cost of building three-bedroom units disproportionately more expensive.

“Because of that jump in price in getting a three-bedroom unit, developers and builders just put less of them in,” he said.

The non-profit U.S.-based Center for Building in North America echoes the statement in a blog post from last May about why it’s so hard to find family-sized apartments in the U.S. and Canada: codes.

The toronto skyline and  a building under construction
Construction continues on condos being in downtown Toronto on April 18. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

“North American zoning and building codes work together to drive up the size of multi-bedroom apartments in particular, putting them financially out of reach for many parents raising children,” executive director Stephen Smith wrote.

“The effect is clearly that apartments, in order to provide the same number of bedrooms and give everyone a window, must necessarily consume far more floor area.”

Even back in 2018, Calgary real estate developer Chris Ollenberger told CBC that three-bedroom condos were costly to build. He described apartment buildings as tall rectangles where you have to make the most efficient use of the space,  and said three-bedroom units are the hardest to make fit.

‘When did this happen??’

Today, some people searching online for three-bedroom units are shocked by the prices. In a post on Reddit’s Canada housing forum in April, user “Far-Simple1979” wrote “When did this happen??” in response to an online ad for a $5,700 per month three-bedroom apartment in Halifax.

In another post, a user from Toronto, Glitter_Divide101, asked advice on making a two-bedroom, 950-square-foot condo work for a family of four.  

“It’s not going to be possible to upsize from a two-bedroom. Who wants to live longer than five years in a two-bedroom? People want a kid or two. They want to work from home,” wrote a user from Montreal, Agreeable-Ask-7594.

WATCH | Renting with kids: 

Parents have little recourse if landlords won’t rent to them

In Halifax’s tight housing market some landlords have implemented ‘no kids’ policies, leaving parents struggling to find a place to live and no recourse to get the rule overturned.

Meanwhile, some cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, are already pushing for change by requiring developers to include a certain percentage of larger units in buildings.

And city council in Victoria recently endorsed a plan that sets guidelines for the percentage of three-bedroom units required in rental buildings. A report by Sustainable Planning and Community Development that was presented last week called the need for more family-sized housing in Victoria “well-established and increasingly urgent.”

“While rising rents and home prices have made finding affordable housing challenging for most households, families with children face even greater challenges because of the limited availability of suitable homes,” the report said.

A group of people stand on the steps of a large, ornate stone building. They hold two banners, reading "Shelters are not Homes" and "Homes for all."
Members of a group called the Housing Justice Project rally at the B.C. Legislature on May 7. In a new report, Victoria’s sustainable planning and community development committee called the need for more family-sized housing in Victoria ‘well-established and increasingly urgent.’ (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

“Worse still, families seeking to rent a three-bedroom home faced the highest average rent increases over the past four years.”

But it’s clear Canada needs more mixed housing, with more density at the ground level such as townhouses and rowhouses — housing structures that are more family-oriented, ab Iorwerth said.

“At the moment, I’m afraid we’re stuck in this dichotomy of either apartment structures or single, detached housing,” he said.

‘Trying to be optimistic’

Fidelia Cabrera says she’s one of the lucky ones. The mom of four kids under the age of seven lives in a three-bedroom, basement apartment in Ottawa. Her three daughters share one room, her son has his own, and she and her husband share the third room.

Even then, it’s tight, Cabrera said, and living in a basement where they don’t have temperature control has its downsides.

“We’re cold in the summer and too hot in the winter,” Cabrera, 40, said with a laugh.

But she’s already paying about $1,900 per month, and says they can’t afford to move.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” she said. “I have good people near me. I have food. I’m very lucky.”

A selfie of a woman in a car
Fidelia Cabrera, 40, lives with her husband and four children under seven in a three-bedroom basement apartment in Ottawa. (Fidelia Cabrera)


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