I had just finished a five-minute tour of a loud, filthy bachelor on top of a store on Bloor Street in Toronto’s Koreatown, and the look on my face must have told my potential landlady exactly what I thought about it. “Would you prefer a quieter apartment?” she asked.
Not only was it quieter, she also assured me that it wasn’t a basement and was cheaper than the first unit she had showed me, to boot. Sounds like a win, right? We walked a block west and turned onto a tiny, tree-lined street, then immediately made a sharp turn into a filthy laneway. She stopped at what looked like a garage—and then she went inside. The unit was a square room no more than 350 sq. ft. This wasn’t a laneway home, it was a hovel dressed up with laminate.
I was two weeks into my apartment hunt and so far, it was very much like online dating. (Especially the part where you see a potential match for the first time and immediately think, ‘This doesn’t quite look like the picture.’) The fact that I loved the apartment I currently lived in made the process much harder. I shared a place with a friend in a newish building that had in-suite laundry and a dishwasher I rarely used but loved having anyway. There was even a gym!
But the truth was, over the last year I had toyed with the idea of leaving my perfect pad on Queen St. West to live alone. The second coolest neighbourhood in the world was starting to feel unbearably hip. But every time I looked at how much living alone actually cost, I shied away from pulling the trigger. And then my roommate did. Cue the panic.
The first wave was what my friend Katie calls “main floor feeling.” That’s the shit that hits in you the face when you walk in the door, in this case, the realities of Toronto’s housing crisis. My parents are realtors and they never miss an opportunity to ask me if it’s time to buy. Whenever this comes up, I get excited at the possibility, crunch some numbers and then realize, nope, now, is definitely not the time. I’m beginning to feel it may never be the time. I’m in the same boat as most Canadian millennials—a poll by Angus Reid and CIBC from March showed that 42 percent rent, 38 percent have bought and 21 percent live with their parents. And those who own are stressed the f*ck out—more than half were worried they wouldn’t be able to make their mortgage payments if interest rates went up.
But the rental market isn’t much better. Rents have jumped at an unprecedented rate. The average one-bedroom apartment is now going for more than $2,000, at least in part because people who have been locked out of the hot housing market are renting instead. This has driven the vacancy rate down to around 1 percent (!)—which means the supply of units is sitting at a seven-year low and bidding wars are now commonplace.
I told myself to calm down. After all, I should be an attractive tenant: I’m in my early 30s, I make decent money (I mean, for a journalist), I have two graduate degrees and I’m so responsible my friends have coined a really annoying nickname for me, #safetysadiya. But when I started to actually look at units—which were inevitably either small-and-gross or decent-and-way-out-of-budget—I developed a semi-permanent eye twitch.
This prompted a second wave of panic, which came from a much deeper, darker place: the “basement feeling.” Why did I have so little choice?
There was plenty to feel bad about. First up, my career. Though I’d settled into a perfectly solid career as a bureaucrat, I decided to go back to school at 25 to shut up the annoying little kid in me who kept whispering that I should follow my dumb dreams. Despite earning a full scholarship and taking on countless research jobs (was it four… or five?), living in Vancouver for two years left me with student debt that I’m still paying off. And the reward for that is working in an incredibly unstable industry. I’m lucky to have a staff job, but I freelance to boost my income, which means I spent many evenings and most weekends working. To be honest, I’m not sure I can work any harder.
The pressure to make more money in one of Canada’s most expensive cities is compounded by my single status. Watching couples mill about during apartment viewings, whispering to each other, then loudly declaring they were willing to offer more than asking made me feel sick. It was impossible to compete with dual incomes.
My last heartbreak has left me really unenthusiastic about dating, but no matter how self-assured I am about being single, living in a society that constantly reminds you it’s built for couples makes me feel shitty. While I definitely wanted to live alone, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Why don’t I have anyone to split rent with? To drag to apartment showings? To fight with over where the couch would go?
The thing that really made me spin out was that these problems—career choice, money, relationship status—didn’t have a quick fix. And I didn’t have the ability to take the long view when all the things I was most vulnerable about had surfaced deep from the basement and seemed to be sitting on the front porch.
Then something kind of weird happened: The constant, crushing anxiety of it all seemed to fall off a cliff for me—I’d run out of energy to keep it up. And I realized what I was feeling was not abnormal. A U.K. survey found moving was the top life event that stressed people out—more than changing jobs or divorce. Moving house makes us all feel incredibly inadequate, apparently. (Yay?)
And then something really magical happened: I found a place. A few more weeks and many more frustrating viewings later, I found a gem on the main floor of a recently renovated house. It was on the subway line, and not too far from my current neighbourhood. While it’s definitely at the upper range of my budget (okay, fine, I stretched myself a full $100), the in-suite laundry is totally worth it.
I’m not a “believe it and you can achieve it” kind of gal. Checking Craigslist, Kijiji and ViewIt incessantly and constantly harassing friends for leads on apartments is the strategy that worked here. But what ultimately helped me make a clear-eyed decision on the next big step in my life was to stop thinking about it as the next big step in my life. To recognize that I have a ton of junk in my basement but it was more important to deal with the main floor, the immediate thing I needed: a place to call home.