I'm a responsible 33-year-old who just wanted a decent place to live. With landlords upping rents like crazy and way more apartment hunters than units, my search became a six-month drama

Photograph by Erin Leydon

I’ve always wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw: smart, outgoing, sophisticated, stylish. I was raised in Oakville, the daughter of Terry, a real estate broker, and Diane, an educational assistant. I studied hospitality and tourism at Humber, and during my downtime would binge Sex and the City, daydreaming about moving to Toronto, about boozy lunches with my best friends, shopping all day and coming home to my high-ceilinged condo. I knew it was mostly fantasy, but I hoped the reality might fall somewhere close.

In early 2015, I decided it was time. I was 32, living in Burlington and needed a change, so I looked for a job in the city and landed one as a concierge at a luxury apartment building on King West, packed my bags and headed east. Over the years, I’d spent plenty of time in Toronto, visiting friends and dining out, hitting the bars, going to the theatre and often spending so much on hotel rooms that I figured it would cost me less to live here full-time. I rented one of the first places I saw, a 342-square-foot bachelor in the Theatre Park building at King and University for $1,380 a month plus hydro. I had saved up about $20,000 from working at Aspire, a credit card call centre serving VIP clients, and dipped into that fund to pay first and last. I was swept up by the romance of living opposite Roy Thomson Hall and steps from TIFF headquarters (I later bumped into George Clooney in the back alley). The sidewalk was usually bustling with tourists, and I’d see actors darting from the backstage doors of the Royal Alex after curtain call. It all seemed perfect.

Within weeks, I was regretting my decision. My apartment was so small that I could boil water without leaving my bed. Parts of the building were still under construction: the noise was unbearable, and the promised outdoor pool with a view of King Street looked like it might never be finished. I needed to find a new place to live. My job wasn’t working out so well, either. I was friendly and agreeable, but I got the sense that my boss, who’d been out of the country when I was hired, wanted a supermodel at the front desk, and she didn’t think I had quite the right “look.” Nine weeks in, she fired me. I cried right in front of her, the kind of embarrassing display—gulping, sniffling—you hate to remember. I retreated to Oakville. My parents gave me a pep talk, and after a couple of days I returned. I used my savings to cover my rent, stocked up on microwavable ramen and started looking for work. In no time, I was doing up to seven interviews a week, sometimes with multiple callbacks, but never getting the job.

I was shaken by my early face plant, but it helped a little to learn that I wasn’t alone. Steady employment, I quickly realized, is hard to come by. As jobs have become increasingly automated, outsourced or clung to by boomers who aren’t ready for retirement, millennials like me are left to bounce from one short-term, low-paying gig to the next. Back in October, Finance Minister Bill Morneau described the phenomenon as “job churn,” callously advising millennials to get used to it. But job churn often means no benefits, pension or security, and I find that hard to stomach. We hear all the time that millennials are entitled, lazy and spoiled. Sometimes, that’s true. But I also think many employers see us as disposable, replaced in an instant by someone just as desperate and eager to please. This new reality could be manageable—people adapt to changing workplace circumstances all the time—but it’s compounded by the fact that the cost of living is incredibly high, especially in cities, which are where you must be if you want a 21st-century job. When I read headlines about Toronto’s crazy property prices, they seem so cruel they’re almost funny. People can’t buy a house? Poor them. I just want an affordable, clean, non-humiliating place to rent.

Six months of job searching and nearly $9,000 in evaporated savings later, I found work covering a mat leave as an events coordinator—weddings, Christmas parties and the like—at the Sultan’s Tent, a French-Moroccan restaurant featuring belly dancers, near the St. Lawrence Market. After three months, I got the feeling that the woman for whom I was covering was returning early, so I took a job as an executive assistant for a real estate team. One of the perks was that I could scan the rental listings from my desk. My lease was nearly up, and I wanted out. I wasn’t getting enough for my $1,380.

After viewing three places, I hastily signed for a 415-square-foot condo in Liberty Village for $1,365 plus hydro, saving me $15 a month. It had a separate bedroom, at least sort of: there was a sliding glass door dividing it from the living room. Soon after I moved in, the guy next door began hosting regular late-night dance parties, with house music thumping and weed smoke wafting from his balcony. I realized I had made a huge mistake—I was paying effectively the same amount for a tiny upgrade in square footage without the romance of King Street. Even worse, my landlord, encouraged by the news that rents were spiking, informed me that he would increase mine to $1,500 in May. I was incensed, convinced that what he was doing was illegal.

Sadly, it wasn’t. Any apartment first rented after 1991 is exempt from rent control, which means a lot of the city’s renters are subject to the whims of property owners. Sometimes, landlords use their leverage as a means of evicting tenants they don’t like, raising the rent so high that the tenant is forced to vacate. Often, the apartment is then posted at the original rate. This is illegal but common, since the chance of getting caught is basically nil. (How many debt-ridden millennials are going to take their landlord to court?) Airbnb hasn’t helped matters, as some landlords who might have rented their unit conventionally choose to rent it as an Airbnb, further reducing options for people like me.

I had seven months remaining on my Liberty Village apartment, but I told my landlord I wanted to break the lease. He provided three standard conditions: I would have to find a tenant, who would have to meet his approval; I would have to advise the new tenant of the scheduled rent increase; and I would have to pay my landlord $300 for the paperwork. I started to cry. I was spending a big chunk of my income on an apartment I hated. I was trapped, desperate to move but ultimately powerless. And I didn’t even have it that bad compared to some: I had a decent job, spoke English and had a fallback plan—move back in with my parents. For people without a safety net or with a language barrier, finding a place to live is much harder and far more fraught.

I posted my apartment on Bunz, the popular trading site, and then reassessed my budget. I could comfortably afford $1,000 for rent, which would free up roughly $400 a month. I wanted to live around Kensington Market, an area I loved for its cafés, shops and bohemian vibe. To do it I’d need at least one roommate. And so began my house-hunting odyssey.

A listing for a place on Beatrice Street, north of Kensington Market, caught my eye. I met a young woman at the door. She explained in a hushed voice that she and her family occupied the first and second floors, and that her parents were asleep. She led me downstairs into a dank basement with low ceilings. There was a galley kitchen with a miniature oven, sink and fridge. The bedroom was tiny and musty. I was horrified, and she could tell. “Upstairs is bigger,” she said. I followed her up three flights to the attic. There was more space, but she explained that I would have to use the basement kitchen. Having to descend three storeys to get a drink or have a bowl of cereal was a deal breaker.

The next listing was for a two-bedroom apartment near Kensington, at $900 plus utilities. In the living room, there was a lamp without a shade—just a single, glaring bulb. My would-be flatmate informed me that she was a hard-core environmentalist. To minimize water waste, she said, the shared toilet was to be flushed sparingly. I politely excused myself.

I was excited by the next option, a three-bedroom house on Markham near Dundas. The two tenants were friends named Cat and Ali. We arranged for a viewing, but they later sent a disheartening follow-up: “We’ve decided we’re going to have a group interview instead of slotting everyone in separately,” they wrote. “To help us get to know you better, please bring something that represents you, and be prepared to share—think show and tell : ).”

I was done with crying. Now I was just angry. I’m tidy, polite and prompt with the rent, and yet it seemed my only options were living in a hovel or jumping through a thousand hoops just to secure space in a basic apartment. We hear all the time about the benefits of Toronto’s population boom—the burgeoning tech start-up culture, the world-class universities, the eclectic music scene. There’s little said about the drawbacks. In the last five years, more than 116,000 people have moved to Toronto—a 4.45 per cent increase—and while condos have sprouted everywhere, rental housing hasn’t kept pace with the population. The vacancy rate is minuscule, and for someone like me, the odds of finding an affordable place in a decent neighbourhood are impossibly long. Prospective tenants can’t be above grovelling, bribery or pretty much agreeing to whatever a landlord asks. I have a friend who’s afraid to complain about a broken faucet for fear of angering his landlord, and I know of a few cases where prospective renters have been nudged to hand over wads of cash bribes to sweeten their offers.

I was ashamed to participate in something as juvenile as a show and tell, but I liked the place and the location was perfect. I scoured my apartment for a suitable item. My Disney hat with the Mickey ears would make me seem childish. My black lace dress was too formal. My framed Kathie Lee Gifford autograph would make me seem like a name-dropper. I spent five quixotic minutes considering how a bottle of hot sauce would make me look—racy and adventurous?—before I started laughing: Is this what it’s come to?

I’d been working on a novel, a semi-fictional memoir about an ex-boyfriend. It was deeply personal and not ready for public eyes, but I figured it might demonstrate some degree of diligence and maturity. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and was greeted by Winston, a grey Weimaraner. Cat showed me the bright kitchen with the high-tech, communal coffee machine and the cozy living room. My bedroom and bathroom, with shower, were small, but I could manage. I was excited. Cat and Ali seemed lovely. I had a feeling we’d get along great.

Two other prospective tenants showed up, and we sat in the living room, the three of us in a half-circle, our judges opposite. A slick, rocker-type guy sat next to me. He said that he had been struggling with his apartment search, too. When it was showtime, he held up his guitar and said he was in a band and played at cafés and restaurants. His roommates had gotten engaged, he said, so he needed a new place. A young woman went next. She was a U of T student, tiny and soft-spoken, and presented her pillow, saying she would be around only to sleep—she’d otherwise be in class or the library. Damn, I thought, that’s good. I was next. I pulled out my pink folder containing 200 pages of scene summaries and character outlines, and tried to project a sense of purpose as I explained the plot. The judges said they would deliberate, and we were dismissed. I never heard back.

My own apartment listing had generated interest, but when people heard about the scheduled rent increase, plus the fact that there was no parking, they all backed out. It appeared there was a limit to what landlords could charge. Work wasn’t much more promising. Real estate, it turned out, wasn’t for me. I applied for lots of jobs, and eventually, in January 2017, found part-time work as an usher at Roy Thomson Hall. My lease in Liberty Village was up on May 1, at which point I’d be forced to move out, so I had just a few months to find something new. The pressure was on. I viewed a two-bedroom place at the corner of College and Spadina. The living room was modern and the terrace was spacious. But the bedroom was so small that my queen bed would take up nearly every square inch. I would have to crawl across it to get out the door, which would have to be permanently left open. The rent was $1,050, plus utilities. I said no.

I looked at a place in Kensington Market above a restaurant, listed for $975. I met the owner on a Sunday evening. He stood outside puffing on a cigarette. I watched him size me up. “Come,” he said, finally. We wandered up stairs so dark I had to feel my way along the wall. There was a bit more light at the top, and I could make out a ladder, buckets and paint cans. The unit had no windows, and “kitchenette” was a generous way to describe the kitchen. The walls were patchy, the floors cracked and the surfaces dirty. When I mentioned that there were no windows, the man pointed to a tiny pane in the ceiling. “Skylight,” he said. I imagined describing the place to my parents. I said I’d think about it and left.

I went to a café and scrolled through postings on Craigslist, perking up when I saw an ad promising $150 rent. I clicked the link: “Pay your rent with sex. This is not a joke. I’m an attractive, divorced, fit, mid-40s man looking for a female renter who would be willing to pay rent in sex 1-2 times weekly at most. Done with relationship drama… You would pay ONLY $150+sex for furnished room with laundry, cable, parking, private bath, utilities included.” It was outrageous. Lewd. Disgusting. So why was I considering it? I was desperate, and a little bit curious about how this would play out. I wrote back: “Hi, might be interested. How does your decision process work?” Immediately, I regretted it. What was I doing? He responded, saying the first step was to gauge “our compatibility.” I had a pretty good idea what that meant. I ghosted. I was intrigued to see a post a few weeks later. A man, I assumed the same one, had upped the rent to $200 and revised his request. “The only catch is I wish to take pictures of your feet ONLY. I don’t care about your body or face,” he wrote. “If you are interested please email me with a photo of the tops and the bottoms of your feet. Non-smokers, please.”

In February, I went to a showing at CityPlace, near the Rogers Centre. I was greeted by my potential roommate, a shirtless guy who looked to be about 30. He showed me my bedroom, a converted study, windowless and small, and we moved out into the kitchen. He eyed me and asked, “You eat meat?” I did, yes. He nodded and passed me an advertisement for a small Coleman cooler from Canadian Tire. “Buy this,” he said. Apparently, he was a strict vegetarian, and I’d have to quarantine my meat. There was more. I’d have to prepare it on a designated cutting board and consume it outdoors. He gestured toward the snow-covered terrace. I had a number of questions, none of which I needed answered. I left.

When I got home, I lay down on the floor in my condo, chucked a book across the room and called my mom. I was considering giving up, I said. Toronto was against me. I had tried my best, but it wasn’t worth it. I was spending my money on a place I hated. I was sad and defeated and felt isolated in a city full of people who seemed to be thriving. My mom suggested I move home. Not everyone can handle Toronto, she said. That annoyed me, but she was right.

I still had a few weeks left in my Liberty Village apartment, so I decided to keep at it before raising the white flag. That weekend, I messaged a young woman who was offering a room on the second floor of a modern house in Little Portugal for $990, all in. I would share the kitchen, bathroom and living room with her and two other people. My bedroom was large enough to fit my stuff. The backyard had trees and a deck. It was the best option I’d seen. The four of us chatted about life and the struggle to find work. I asked them lots of questions, and tried not to worry about how I came across. I was getting good vibes. After I left, I texted to say I hoped I was the one. Moments later, the woman emailed the lease. I filled it out and e-transfered first month’s rent. She said she’d have her mom, the landlord, sign and return it the next day. I was ecstatic.

The next morning, I checked my inbox for the lease. Not there! I went on Facebook to message my future roommate and saw she had posted my room an hour earlier. I fired off a slew of angry texts, accusing her of fraud. I threw my phone. I was out $990. Then she responded. She’d been sleeping and was very confused. Where had I seen the post? How could she convince me that everything was okay? Sure enough, an email soon arrived with the signed lease and a sweet note welcoming me to my new home. I was relieved and more than a little embarrassed. I called my parents and told them not to expect me to move home anytime soon, and that I was done calling them in tears.

So far, that’s proven true. I move into my new unit shortly. And on the work front, things are improving, too. I landed a gig as a travel agent. It’s an intriguing job, full time with benefits, including discounted travel. I make $27,000 a year, plus commission, which could get me to $40,000. With my $990 rent, that would leave more than $1,600 for everyday expenses. Life is finally looking up for the first time in a while. That’s good, because I’m not sure I can bear the idea of having to go through this whole process again.