Low supply, increasing demand, higher rents, and “renovictions”—is any relief in sight?
DOREEN BEGORAY, 61, knows how quickly life can unravel when financial circumstances suddenly change. After 11 years as a sessional professor teaching sociology at the University of Victoria, Begoray got laid off. Unable to find another job, she opted to sell the house she owned to extract the equity from it. She planned to sustain herself by using that money to pay her way in the rental market.
As the house proceeds got spent and rents increased, she could no longer find affordable accommodation that would allow her to keep her two dogs. “The dogs are the issue for me…so I moved into my car,” explains Begoray, who was by then living on a $320 monthly pension and $350 disability payment.
“I just couldn’t find a place. It was ridiculous,” says Begoray, who spent more than eight months, from May to December, living in her Jeep Liberty, which she parked at night on Dallas Road by the off-leash dog park. “It’s actually quite cozy in my car, but I really missed bathrooms.” She showered at the Y and, during the day, would hang out at coffee shops where she could sit on the patio with her dogs.
During that seven-month period, Begoray was not approached by police, despite sleeping directly under a sign prohibiting overnight camping. City of Victoria council is now looking at the possibility of taking down such signs and officially sanctioning the practice of sleeping in vehicles overnight.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps
This stop-gap measure to accommodate people facing the harshest realities of our near-zero vacancy rate is not, according to Mayor Lisa Helps, any sort of sustainable solution. “Sleeping in vehicles is not housing. I don’t want anyone sleeping in their vehicles…but, if they are sleeping in their vehicles, I think we should let them sleep,” Helps says.
Although Begoray was on the lengthy BC Housing waiting list, only two subsidized buildings in Greater Victoria allow tenants to have two pets. Seeing her situation as increasingly hopeless, Begoray approached the staff at MLA Rob Fleming’s community office. With assistance from the office staff and a subsidy from Pacifica Housing, she found a studio apartment in Cook Street Village, but worries about others in similarly dire straits.
“There was one person sleeping in the woods off Dallas Road who had mental health problems. It’s just barbaric that our society does not provide for people who need it,” Begoray laments. “Rental accommodation is just beyond expensive. The City and the Province and the country keep saying we are going to put all this money into housing, well let’s see some affordable housing…I want people to recognize this is a societal issue.”
MLA Fleming also worries about the many others who are finding themselves in situations like these, and recently saw a garage listed as a two-bedroom apartment. The potential backlog of renovictions, he says, which would remove hundreds of units of housing stock, also looms darkly on the horizon. There’s no adequate safety net in place for those who would be displaced. “When we try to find housing in the affordable, non-profit portfolios, there’s a 2500-person waiting list,” he says.
The supply-and-demand disparity also puts renters at the mercy of unscrupulous property owners. Stories abound of landlords being surreptitiously offered, and accepting, an instant lump payment to boost an applicant to the top of the list.
Student Stephanie Cameron-Johnson, 23, describes how the owner of a house she rented tried to wring thousands of dollars from her and her roommates. After putting the house up for sale, her landlord insisted that, if they wanted to stay on as tenants, he would pocket both their $800 damage deposit and $800 pet deposit. He also asked them to pay for new floors and other renovations, and demanded additional compensation for utilities. “He wanted more than $7000 from us,” Cameron-Johnson says. While she’s grateful that a mediator appointed by the Residential Tenancy Branch advocated for them, the dispute left a bad taste and meant a long, unfruitful search for a new rental. She eventually gave up, and moved back in with family.
THERE ARE THOUSANDS MORE CASUALTIES of the current affordability crisis, with some more visible than others. Greater Victoria “officially” has almost 1400 homeless, according to last year’s Point in Time Count. That number includes 175-plus “chronically homeless” individuals, another 353 in shelters on the night of the count, and 842 “provisionally accommodated,” meaning couch-surfing, in motels, or in other temporary housing. These numbers are always in flux, says Don Elliott, executive director of Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
As well, these numbers are only the most-obvious tip of a much more substantial iceberg, one that is amplifying in a self-perpetuating cycle of high rents, desperate demand, and meagre supply. “There’s a huge group of people who are employed and are not able to access affordable housing,” Elliott says; not surprising when the vacancy rate remains stuck at a stubborn 0.5 percent, and average rents in Greater Victoria keep rising (5.5 percent in 2016 alone).
Social service providers on the front lines see exactly who is ending up in shelter beds—and why. They report an alarming and steady increase of people who have become unexpectedly homeless because they can no longer afford to pay their rent, have been renovicted (when a property owner legally terminates a lease to improve a rental unit, then re-rents it at a much higher rate or sells it), or just cannot manage to locate adequate housing in such a competitive market, where landlords often receive 30 or more applications for each available apartment.
Don McTavish, director of residential services for the Cool Aid Society, concurs with Elliott, saying that between 15 and 20 percent of those using Victoria’s shelters are indeed employed. In an effort to keep them out of shelters and in their homes, Cool Aid administers a one-time subsidy program for people who are more or less making ends meet, but are about to lose their rental because of a missed utility or rent payment. The program is well-used, McTavish says, indicating the growing number of households teetering on the edge of homelessness. “Most of the time [those receiving this subsidy] are people we have not seen in the shelters before.”
During the homeless count, 721 individuals agreed to be interviewed. While 20 percent said they were homeless because of addiction or substance abuse, 18.9 per cent gave job loss as the primary reason and 13.6 percent had been evicted because they were unable to pay the rent. When asked about the main barrier to finding a place to live, 60 percent said their income was too low and 56 percent that rents were too high.
Statistics make it clear that many renters are stretched to the limit. The Canadian Rental Housing Index reports that 24 percent of all renters in the CRD spend more than half their gross, pre-tax income on shelter. The Community Social Planning Council has calculated that the Living Wage for Victoria is $20.02 an hour, yet BC’s minimum wage is only $10.85 an hour.
The situation is worse, of course, for those on income assistance, where rates have remained frozen since 2007. A single person on basic income assistance receives $610 per month and a single parent with one child receives $946 a month. Average rents in the CRD are now at $785 for a batchelor suite and $912 for a one-bedroom. (CMHC)
“So, there are two very significant economic drivers and that is what we are trying to focus on,” says Elliott, whose research shows that a minimum of 250 to 500 units of supportive housing and 1500 units of affordable housing are needed in Greater Victoria.
A new report by Housing Central and the BC Rental Housing Coalition, which includes groups such as the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, LandLord BC and the BC Seniors Living Association, analyzes what it will take to get everyone adequately housed. It calculates that it will take $1.8 billion annually over the next decade to solve the province’s affordable housing crisis. In its 10-year road map, the group recommends the cost be shared among the federal and provincial governments and the non-profit sector (non-profit investment could come from leveraging land assets and using community land trusts to attract government and private-sector investment to construct rental housing). (See www.housingcentral.ca.)
Their research indicates almost 70 percent of renters in the province are spending more than they can afford on housing. In the Capital Regional District, that translates into 3024 households with average incomes less than $22,378 in core housing need, and 12,164 in need of income support.
In addition, the report notes, more than 3000 households with average incomes of $55,511 are living in inadequate housing because they cannot find suitable, affordable accommodation. Almost $177 million is needed annually to upgrade the rental housing supply in the Capital Region. The organization stresses that its estimates are “conservative.”
ALTHOUGH THE FIGURES APPEAR DAUNTING, Mayor Lisa Helps believes the region is making progress. The missing piece of the complicated puzzle, she feels, is federal funding. “In 1989 the federal government spent $114 per Canadian on affordable housing and in 2014 the federal government spent $15 per Canadian on affordable housing. At the same time, the population of Canada grew by 30 percent, so that is the root of the problem,” she says.
She notes that the new federal Liberal government has made significant commitments to housing, but says it’s a challenge to make up for the 30-year gap in federal funding.
While there is abundant construction around the region—including new, market-price rental units being built for the first time in decades—it isn’t enough even for the newcomers arriving. Helps notes that between 2011 and 2016 a total of 5775 new residents moved to Victoria, but only 2802 new housing units were built. (Victoria averages 1.8 people per household, so the math shows a shortfall of over 700 units.)
And the new units have not reduced rental rates on older units. “There is so much demand, landlords are charging almost the same for old stock as for new stock,” explains Elliott of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “So, yes, we are seeing a lot more construction, but no, it’s unlikely that homeless or low-income individuals will be able to take advantage of that increase in supply.” A 1970s one-bedroom rents for as high as $1100 or $1200 a month, he says, “and that is about a five-percent increase compared to last year.”
Helps believes that all the construction, along with other steps being taken by the City, Region and Province will lead to some relief in the next couple of years.
The BC government, for instance, in the wake of Victoria’s tent city, spent more than $25 million to buy and renovate properties, creating about 190 spaces. It also announced another $45 million for housing projects that will provide 510 units for those with low to moderate incomes.
At the regional level, Helps points to the CRD’s Regional Housing First Program, with $30 million coming from taxpayers and $30 million from the Province. That program will see 880 new rental units built over the next five years with rents ranging from $375 a month to 85 percent of the market rate. She says the first two buildings have already been approved for funding, and will include 50 units to be rented at $375 a month.
Helps also points to moves by the City: Council just voted to allow garden suites in single-family zones; applications for rental buildings are being fast-tracked; and developers are being encouraged to include affordable units when going to council with a project. “We are on the right track,” she says, adding, “We have got all the things we need in place except federal funding for housing, so hopefully that will flow.”
Meanwhile, those working in the housing field are delighted to see the issue topping party priority lists during the provincial election campaign, and are keeping their fingers crossed that promises will translate into concrete action after the election.
The Liberals are promising to build 5000 more units of affordable housing over three years, with $855 million for social housing; expand the existing home renovation tax credit to help homeowners add rental suites; and close loopholes landlords use to evade rent controls.
The NDP is promising to use partnerships to build 114,000 rental, social, student residence and co-op homes over the next decade, and pledging to bring in a $400-a-year tax rebate for renters together with additional protections from landlords who use renovations as an excuse to sidestep rent increase rules.
The BC Greens are promising $750 million a year to support construction of about 4000 new units of affordable housing annually, an investment of $100 million a year for retrofits of older units and more protection for renters through the Residential Tenancy Act.
Kathy Stinson, Victoria Cool Aid Society CEO, is encouraged to see not-for-profit groups and different levels of government working together. “Even some of the private developers have committed to putting in five percent of the units as affordable housing,” she says. “I am more optimistic than I have been for some time.”
But the question for those looking for somewhere to live, without handing over more than half their paycheque every month, is whether the various initiatives will be translated into bricks and mortar in time to prevent their slide into homelessness.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.