Why low-income working families are often mired in social housing

Jessica Pitt is spending $1,900 a month in rent for a home in the Tillicum area, more than double what she was paying before a fire forced her to leave Evergreen Terrace.

She was ready to go — she had been anxious to find a new place to stay after 12 years in the subsidized housing complex formerly known as Blanshard Court.

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Pitt felt there was a stigma attached to living in subsidized accommodation.

“We’re not being treated like people, we’re being treated like a charity case.”

Beyond that, she did not like some of the problems she faced at Evergreen Terrace.

The Nov. 18 fire, which cost Pitt and her children all of their possessions, started in a unit that had been the subject of multiple complaints to B.C. Housing.

“I don’t have to just trust that my house is safe, I have to trust that my neighbour’s house is safe,” she said.

Pitt, a mother of four who says she earns a decent living as a nursing assistant at Victoria General Hospital, felt she was trapped in the system of subsidized housing.

Pitt picked up extra shifts to save money for a damage deposit for new accommodation, but worried she could lose her right to housing assistance before she had saved that financial cushion.

Her rent at Evergreen Terrace was set at 30 per cent of household income, but B.C. Housing conducts an income review once a year.

“When you live in B.C. Housing, they see your income and they jack your rent up and make it impossible to get out,” she said. “If I could find someone willing to rent to me for $1,400 [a month] I could pull it off.”

To get a new rental unit, Pitt took a second job, sacrificing time with her kids.

Pitt soon discovered that the private rental market was no kinder to the family. She learned in mid-March that the home is being put up for sale and now the family is facing eviction just two months after they moved in.

Pitt has no idea what they’ll do.

Stephen Portman, of the Together Against Poverty Society, said Pitt’s experience sums up the problem faced by low-income working families. “If you are a low-income working family, even if you get ahead, if you leave the security of that social housing you’re taking a major risk.”

Rents in Greater Victoria are among the highest in the country and the vacancy rate is among the lowest at 0.6 per cent.

The region is experiencing the highest level of rental construction since 1988, but Portman says none of the apartments and condominiums being built downtown will be accessible to low-income families.

“It’s going to ease some pressure, but I don’t see it being in the reach of low-income working families, people currently living in social housing,” he said.

The 2016 Vital Signs report, an annual snapshot of well-being in the capital region, found that 64 per cent of housing being built in Greater Victoria is affordable to only 25 per cent of households.

TAPS and Victoria-Swan Lake NDP MLA Rob Fleming recently raised the alarm over dozens of tenants of a Cook Street apartment building who are being evicted as a result of extensive renovations.

One of the tenants, Richard Gillett, lives on a senior’s pension and fears the “renoviction” will put him back on the streets. He doubts he’ll be able to find another one-bedroom suite for close to his current rent of $770 a month.

“There are no options, my option is to leave the Island,” Gillett said. “We’re going to make [Victoria] an elite place for only people who can afford to live here.”

Portman said TAPS works with more people who are housing insecure — either couch surfing or facing eviction — than people who are visibly homeless and living on the streets.

He said the society regularly hears from renters who have to hide the fact that a relative or friend is staying with them.

Several families at Evergreen Terrace told the Times Colonist they often have people who aren’t on the lease staying in their homes, often friends who are sleeping in cars or have nowhere else to go.

Rev. Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, which supports street people, says couchsurfing is common for people with unstable housing. He knows of two families, a total of 12 people, in a two-bedroom apartment in View Towers.

“What we see is the tip of the iceberg in poverty in this city,” Tysick said. As long as the people with insecure are invisible, nothing will be done to address the problem.

“The only reason we got housing was because of tent city,” Tysick said. “It was visible, it was in our face and we acted. If it’s not in our face, we don’t react to it.”

In June, the province funded 229 supportive housing units in order to dismantle the tent city at the Victoria courthouse. It purchased Central Care Home at 844 Johnson St. for $13.5 million, Mount Edwards Court Care Home on Vancouver Street for $3.9 million and the Super 8 Hotel on Douglas Street for $6.5 million.

Tysick applauds the $500 million the province has earmarked for 2,897 new rental units in B.C., but said it’s “too little, too late.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says part of the problem is that the social assistance shelter allowance for a single person is only $375 a month, an amount that has stayed the same since 2007.

“There are no apartments you can rent anywhere in this region for $375 a month,” Helps said.

“The working poor are in a terrible position and really it is provincial government policy that can have an impact on that.”

Pacifica Housing runs two programs that offer supplements to help low-income renters access affordable housing.

Sacha Sauvé, Pacifica’s manager of fund development, said the government-funded agency has a rental portfolio of about 70 market-rate rentals, 150 low-end market rentals and 600 subsidized units.

“The idea is to stabilize the person and give them a base of support and to allow them to move to an independent living situation,” Sauvé said.

But she said the limited number of subsidized housing units means people are often on wait lists for years.

“There are people who remain in unhealthy situations because they can’t afford to move,” she said. “If [rental] prices are going to continue to go up and that’s something we can’t control, we need to find a way to increase people’s living wage.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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