Changes are happening, but renters and their advocates are demanding further protection.
THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE was neglect of the property; needed repairs were ignored by the new owner of the Burnside-Gorge house. Then, when the tenants showed no sign of moving, the landlord escalated efforts to drive them out with aggressive threats of eviction or a 10 percent rent increase.
“There was never anything in writing, but he’d call me and say things like, ‘We’re going to turn your suite back into a carport, so I’m going to have to evict you,’ but then that eviction notice would never come,” said Gavin Torvik, who found the continual stress and insecurity affected all aspects of his life.
For a time Torvik, 30, a homecare worker who spends about 45 percent of his income on rent, contemplated living in a van because he knew that with Greater Victoria’s rental vacancy rate hovering around one percent (following a few years of sub-zero vacancy rates) and average rents that jumped 7.5 percent in the past year, the chance of finding affordable accommodation was slim.
“It was a whole stew of things, not just for me, but for my neighbours, and there were no mechanisms to deal with the pressures we were facing…I was having midnight panic attacks for a while,” he said.
The landlord, having failed to shift the renters, which would have allowed him to raise rents beyond the provincially mandated rate for existing tenants, decided to sell the house, continuing the uncertainty.
The provincial government has reduced the amount that landlords can raise rents from inflation plus two percent, to the straight inflation rate—about 2.5 percent this year. As well, in an effort to kick-start more rental construction, the Province has given local governments the power to bring in rental-only zoning, said Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson.
But tenants and social action groups want the Province to also control the amount landlords can raise the rent after tenants move out. In Victoria’s ultra-tight housing market, rent hikes on vacant apartments helped increase the median price for advertised one-bedroom suites by 15.8 percent in 2018.
The vacancy loophole on rent control creates an incentive to kick out long-term tenants, said Cameron Welch, a member of Victoria Tenants Action Group (VTAG).
However, vacancy control is opposed by those in the real estate industry, who argue it would slow down rental construction. Even Minister Robinson emphasized that the Province’s priority is increasing the supply of rental housing, not all-out rent controls.
The Province has pledged a record $7 billion to build 114,000 affordable homes over the next decade, and part of that funding is going to 1,100 new affordable rental homes in the Capital Regional District, Robinson said.
“At the end of the day what we need to work towards is creating a vacancy rate that is healthier and that will reduce those behaviours. That’s the answer to all of this. When you get to a three or four percent vacancy rate, you are not going to see those behaviours from landlords,” Robinson said.
ACROSS CANADA, it is estimated 1.6-million households are in “core housing need,” meaning those families are living in homes that are either unsuitable or too expensive given their income. Faced with the escalating need, housing is on the to-do list for every level of government.
Victoria council has prioritized housing, said Mayor Lisa Helps. It has boosted its housing reserve fund to more than $1 million this year (from $250,000), and initiated a Victoria Housing Strategy to create a roadmap for improving housing affordability.
However, among the controversial issues is the amount of “inclusionary” housing—units that are affordable for people with low to moderate incomes—that should be required in new developments when increased density is sought. City staff and a community working group recently recommended a policy requiring 10 percent of units in most strata projects (of more than 60 units), and cash in lieu for smaller projects, be devoted to such purposes. But Councillor Ben Isitt, at an April Committee of the Whole meeting, argued that this was a “watered down” solution, and urged council to have staff look at requiring 30 percent of units in new strata projects be affordable to those with low to moderate incomes when developers want increased density. The motion passed with only Helps opposed. A staff report is due May 16.
Critics, including the City’s consultant from Coriolis, say a requirement for 30 percent would make most projects financially unattractive for developers, so the end result would be no additional units, affordable or otherwise.
Helps argues that inclusionary housing is not the magic bullet that some people imagine it to be. She feels the best route to more affordable housing is through bold moves identified in the draft Housing Strategy, including buying land, pursuing partnerships, allowing movable tiny homes in back yards, and streamlining applications for multi-family units in single family zoning, provided some units are affordable.
“We need to get out the big nails and big hammers…Inclusionary housing is about 10 percent of the problem. This is not the tool to tackle the problem in the biggest, boldest way,” she said.
While governments are struggling to find solutions, renters in the City of Victoria, who make up 60 percent of its households, feel they are continuing to fight the same old battles. And in recent times, problems have been exacerbated as older, lower-priced buildings are demolished to make way for pricey condominiums.
Nicole Chaland, former director of Simon Fraser University’s community economic development programs and a member of the City’s Inclusionary Housing Working Group, said it should be non-negotiable that there is no net loss of affordable housing. Council should be asking what is incentivizing people to demolish older buildings.
Chaland also asks, “Is it socially acceptable to be building condos that only the wealthiest 10 percent can afford?” Rejecting the “trickle--down” theory, she said, “We’ve just seen the largest boom in real estate construction since the 1970s, yet all the indicators for affordable housing are going in the wrong direction…Home prices are further disconnected from local wages.”
Citing research from Andy Yan in Vancouver, Chaland noted that densification and community planning can actually lead to higher land prices. “What the plans communicated to developers is this is where we are going to direct new housing growth,” Chaland said. Council needs to consider speculation pressures from outside the community and look at the City’s role in price escalation, she added.
BACK AT GROUND-ZERO of the housing crisis, Torvik rapidly discovered his rental experiences were not unique and, as he searched for help, he connected with the Victoria Tenants Action Group which, with the Community Social Planning Council, has compiled a report looking at housing instability among Greater Victoria renters.
“One of the main reassurances for me was realizing how almost universal my experience was, especially for people in my income bracket, earning less than $30,000 a year,” Torvik said.
The team who conducted the study Can’t Stay and Can’t Go asked almost 500 renters about their experiences and found that most feel uncertain and powerless because of lack of affordability, along with threats of “renovictions” and “demovictions.”
Although 77 percent of those interviewed consider Victoria their home, 76 percent fear that affordability problems will push them out of the region, and a startling 95 percent identified cost as a barrier to renting suitable accommodation. “Being a renter feels like a vulnerable, disempowering and unprotected position,” states the report. “Renters often make sacrifices in their lives—tolerating subpar housing, mistreatment and more—for the sake of attempting to maintain a sense of housing stability; 47 percent report that they have not asked for repairs or maintenance because they were concerned this would impact their tenancy.”
Competition for units is fierce, and those with small children or pets can find themselves relegated to the bottom of the list, said Cameron Welch, one of the report’s authors.
“It is not super-aggressive discrimination, but there is a certain vision of a 29-year-old, white, government worker as the ideal candidate. It is enabled by the market,” Welch said.
Renter Suzanne Nievaart said she often faced discrimination when she moved to Victoria six years ago. “They assumed that, as a single parent, I couldn’t afford to pay the rent.”
Then, once she was accepted for a unit in a not-for-profit building, she found she could not afford to move, despite a black mould problem. “There were a lot of health concerns, so I kept looking around for places, but the prices kept going up,” Nievaart said.
Her break came with a better-paying job, but, even armed with references and financial statements, it was not easy to find a new home, and Nievaart worries about those wanting to escape spousal abuse, those on fixed incomes or with disabilities. “The amount of stress they are under is appalling,” she said.
Welch noted that that kind of disempowerment leads to tenants not trusting the system that is supposed to enforce current laws, such as the Residential Tenancy Branch. The Can’t Stay and Can’t Go report bears this out, finding that only a small proportion of renters who felt their rights had been violated had filed for dispute resolution with the Residential Tenancy Branch. Reasons given for not complaining included the time commitment and lack of confidence in the process.
Minister Robinson said it was clear the Residential Tenancy Branch was previously underfunded, and recent changes should help ensure renters and landlords are playing by the rules. A compliance unit is now in place, and additional staff mean there has been a dramatic reduction in wait times, she said. “You used to wait 46 minutes [on hold] to get your call answered, and now we are down to six [minutes]…People are getting information faster and they are getting more service,” Robinson said.
But there is no magic pill that is going to solve the housing crisis overnight, Robinson warned; “It’s going to take a concerted effort, and it’s going to take time.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
Edited by admin