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Greater Victoria’s affordable housing crunch

The 35 people forced from their homes after a fire at the Evergreen Terrace complex in Victoria in November have found new places to stay — but the problems in housing people in Greater Victoria remain.

The 35 people forced from their homes after a fire at the Evergreen Terrace complex in Victoria in November have found new places to stay — but the problems in housing people in Greater Victoria remain.

There is high demand for affordable accommodation, but little supply. The working poor, seniors on fixed incomes and people with disabilities have been hit especially hard by the shortage of spaces, by rising rents, and by “renovictions” — evictions that occur when a building owner makes massive upgrades to rental units.

The fire at Evergreen Terrace, formerly known as Blanshard Court, helped bring attention to the problem. Eight units were destroyed or left uninhabitable, and 35 people — the official number, at least — were forced to move. Former residents say the number of people displaced is actually higher, because some people who were couch-surfing do not appear in the official count.

A homeless count last fall found 1,400 people “sleeping rough” in parks or elsewhere in Greater Victoria, and another 1,800 living on the street.

Some people are sleeping in their cars, on quiet streets or in church parking lots.

In December, Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming tried to find help for a 71-year-old woman who was living in her vehicle after she was evicted from a rental residence in James Bay because of renovations.

“I see people like that all the time,” Fleming said. “Seniors are being displaced.”

Housing Minister Rich Coleman said the government is doing all it can to help provide accommodation.

“There is no time in the history of this province that has seen the investment in housing that this government has made in the last decade, and nowhere else in Canada,” he said.

“And we’ll continue to do it.”

Coleman said that about $4 billion has been invested in construction over the past decade, along with money spent to expand shelter spaces and buy buildings to deal with the most vulnerable citizens.

Between April 1, 2006, and March 31, 2016, more than 19,000 “new units” were created, according to the Housing Ministry. That includes housing units, beds, spaces and rent supplements for clients from individuals through families.

The B.C. government has committed $855 million to support the construction of 5,000 units of affordable rental housing, including $119 million for 18 projects on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

“That’s 2,900 units on top of the 2,200 I’ve got under construction already,” Coleman said. “On top of that is another $355 million going out over the next four years to do another 2,000 units of housing.”

Coleman said economic downturns in Western Canada have increased homeless numbers in B.C. In the past 24 months more people have been using shelters and securing housing via homelessness, he said.

“We’ve had to significantly increase our budget,” he said.

Opposition members such as Fleming and David Eby, the NDP’s housing critic, say that the government needs to do more.

Fleming said housing problems are “creating all kinds of anxiety and financial stress for working families” in Greater Victoria.

“There are so many factors all happening at once,” Fleming said. “There are people who are working with children and need three bedrooms and family housing is even in more acute shortage than units for single people so we’ve neglected that also.”

The government should have been building hundreds of non-profit housing units every year, he said.

“Now, in an election year, they’re making all kinds of promises, but we’re already well into the crisis and it’s going to be very difficult to dig our way out,” he said.

Eby also says housing is in a crisis.

“I’m not sure what word is better than crisis to describe the situation of multiple tent cities … rental markets where families can’t find adequate housing on local wages, waiting lists of multiple years for students at post-secondary institutions to find residence rooms, and a housing market that has no connection to local wages,” he said.

“If this isn’t a housing crisis, then I’m not sure what would qualify.”

While Coleman points to the investment in housing over the past decade, Eby says the B.C. Liberal government failed to see the signs that the housing crunch was coming, and dismisses the government’s efforts.

“Whether you’re renting or whether you’re buying or whether you’re living in poverty, the housing strategy has been a failure,” he said, noting that he expects housing to be a major issue in the May 9 provincial election.

The province spent more than $25 million to buy and renovate properties to create more than 190 spaces for homeless people.

“I can do affordability in the marketplace to help people with their rent if it’s only about income — if it’s a senior or family in the marketplace — if I have product,” Coleman said.

“On the other side, I also have a very vulnerable population that have issues around mental illness and addictions and issues around whether they want to come in to get help.”

Last year, the province allocated almost $32 million to provide subsidized housing and rent supplements to more than 5,100 low-income households in Victoria, including support for 920 senior households and more than 1,200 family households.

The government has announced $45 million for eight affordable housing projects that will provide 510 units in Greater Victoria for low- to moderate-income adults, families and seniors, along with $30 million, with a matching contribution to come from the Capital Regional District, for affordable rental housing.

Victoria’s tent city, with homeless people camped at the provincial courthouse from November 2015 to August 2016, showcased the need to move quickly to provide housing for people looking for it.

Margo Matwychuk, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria, says tent cities represent do-it-yourself housing.

Matwychuk, who has worked with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, said nature hates a vacuum.

“What happened in countries like Brazil where the government didn’t put any resources into building houses, people built their own,” she said. “We have so many laws to prevent that, but at some point, if the government isn’t going to invest, then someone else will.”

Matwychuk says no one has dealt with the fact that incomes have not kept pace with the cost of housing.

“What we have built is mainly not social housing, it’s mainly supportive housing — more the notion that it’s not just for people who are poor but people who are poor and are ill in some way and need to be fixed,” she said. “There’s not been much for people who are just poor, and we need to address that before those people end up on the street and become ill.”

Matwychuk said typically people are taken off the streets or out of shelters and put into supportive housing.

“The idea is you fix them in some way and then you send them to go into market housing,” she said. “But they are people who will never be able to afford market housing and they will end up back on the streets again.”

Bernie Pauly, an associate professor at UVic’s School of Nursing and author of several reports on homelessness, cautions that a census of the homeless will never count them all.

“It’s just not capturing everyone, it doesn’t capture the couch surfers, or those people who are just hanging on — paying 50 to 70 per cent of their income for shelter,” she said.

Pauly said in many cases governments and the public don’t want to know the real numbers, because they illustrate how difficult a task lies ahead.

“Governments want to make that number as small as possible,” she said, adding they also want to restrict the definition of who is homeless “so they don’t have to invest as much.”

 

Breaking down the numbers

Housing stock (current, one assumes, but no date given)

B.C.  
Emergency Shelter and Housing for the Homeless
Homeless Housed    8,854
Homeless Rent Supplements    3,261
Homeless Shelters    1,967

Transitional Supported and Assisted Living
Frail Seniors    11,221      
Special Needs    5,942
Women and Children
Fleeing Violence    838

Independent Social Housing
Low-Income Families    20,137
Low-Income Seniors    21,235

Rent Assistance in Private Market
Rent-Assist Families    10,574
Rent-Assist Seniors    20,532

B.C. grand total    104,561
 
Vancouver Island
Emergency Shelter & Housing for the Homeless
Homeless Housed    907
Homeless Rent Supplements    750
Homeless Shelters    247
Transitional Supported & Assisted
Living Frail Seniors    2,104    
Special Needs    1,058
Women and Children
Fleeing Violence    151

Independent Social Housing
Low-Income Families    3,473
Low-Income Seniors    3,031

Rent Assistance in Private Market
Rent-Assist Families    1,927
Rent-Assist Seniors    3,883

Island grand total    17,531

Capital Regional District
Emergency Shelter & Housing for the Homeless
Homeless Housed    503
Homeless Rent Supplements    485
Homeless Shelters    147

Transitional Supported
& Assisted Living
Frail Seniors    1,326
Special Needs    778
Women and Children
Fleeing Violence    80

Independent Social Housing
Low-Income Families    2,458
Low-Income Seniors    2,116

Rent Assistance in Private Market
Rent-Assist Families    817
Rent-Assist Seniors    1,912

CRD grand total    10,622

Source: B.C. Housing 



Registry helps find homes

The provincial government’s Housing Registry maintains a database of applicants, which helps housing providers.

• In 2015/16, more than 2,300 households found affordable housing through the registry. Of those, 2,055 (420 of them from Vancouver Island) were regular placements and 244 (74 from Vancouver Island) were housed under priority placements for a total of 2,299 (494 from Vancouver Island).
(this means that one or two were from outside vancouver island. doubtful)

• A total of 1,442 applicant households were housed in the Capital Regional District in the past five years:

• 64 per cent of households were placed in housing within the first year of submitting their application to the registry. An additional 33 per cent of were housed within two to five years. These applicants were considered at a lower priority for housing need than those housed within the first year. The remaining three per cent, the lowest priority, were housed after five years.

• Placements included low-income seniors, families, and low-income individuals who were looking for new housing.

• Priority is based on need, for example women who have left a violent relationship, homeless people, people with serious health concerns, and families in unstable accommodations such as shared accommodations or a cramped apartment.

• In the past year, 6,532 families requested housing, compared to 1,121 singles.

• On Sept. 30, there were 15,865 applications in the registry, but many of the people are already housed and are seeking to move to a different type or size of accommodations or housing in a different region.

• There were 1,727 applicants in the Capital Regional District and 2,463 on Vancouver Island.

• Applicants are advised to be flexible about location.

• The registry does not include all social housing and subsidized housing developments, so people should apply directly to those.

Source: B.C. Housing Ministry

 

Two things that help pay for housing: rental aid, loans for first mortgages

The provincial government offers direct financial aid to help people pay for housing.

One example is a rental assistance program for eligible working families with a gross household annual income of $35,000 or less.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman says about 30,000 households benefit from that program, which has cost the province almost $1 billion.

Another example is the aid for first-time home buyers.

The province is offering loans of up to $37,500, or five per cent of the purchase price, to match the investments by the buyers. No interest or principal payments are required in the first five years of the 25-year loans, as long as the home remains the buyer’s main residence.

Those in favour of the program say it gives first-time buyers a viable way to get into the market while critics suggest it will simply encourage people to take on more debt.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com
aduffy@timescolonist.com