Rent bank launched to help keep Greater Victoria renters in their homes

In a little over a week since launching, a new ­program providing financial support to Greater ­Victoria renters at risk of eviction has already helped people stay in their homes.

The Greater Victoria Rent Bank Program, launched by Community Social Planning Council and B.C. Rent Bank, helps to support renters through a temporary financial crisis by providing small, ­interest-free loans of up to $1,500 for an individual and up to $3,000 for a household. The money can be used to cover rent, overdue essential utilities and security deposits or first month’s rent to secure housing.

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One in five renter households in Greater Victoria is paying more than half of their income on ­housing, and nearly half of all renters put more than one-third of their income towards housing, leaving little ­financial cushion to get through any temporary ­setbacks, said Diana Gibson, executive director of the Community Social Planning Council.

“If a short-term crisis hits, it might be enough to throw you into homelessness,” Gibson said.

The Point in Time count, capturing a snapshot of homelessness in the region every two years, shows that people are often living on the street because of a temporary loss of employment or health challenge, she said.

The rent bank, funded by the provincial and ­federal governments, is designed to help people facing these kinds of short-term challenges remain housed until they’re back on their feet.

The program has helped several renters avoid eviction on March 1.

The community council is also offering one-time grants up to $3,000 made available through federal funding until the end of April.

Kris Westendorp has watched over the last year as requests for financial help flooded a Facebook group they moderate that connects people asking for and offering support. People can ask for help of any kind, such as running errands or delivering groceries, and the group sees a lot of requests for help to pay rent.

“We’re also seeing a lot of: ‘I spent the last of my money on rent. And so I now can’t afford, you know, my prescription medication’ or things of that nature. So people are kind of finding themselves in a ­position of having to make a choice,” Westendorp said.

Leslie Robinson, a long-time renter in Victoria and tenant advocate, said there’s a huge need in Greater Victoria for the help provided by the program, because rents are increasing more quickly than incomes.

Robinson said she has lived in the same apartment for 15 years, which has kept her rent lower than many of her neighbours. She said she worries about asking for repairs to the unit, because she doesn’t want to rock the boat and risk eviction.

“If I lost this housing, I don’t think I could afford to stay in Victoria,” said Robinson, who volunteers with the Victoria Tenant Action Group and sits on the City of Victoria Renters’ Advisory Committee.

The rent bank will benefit renters who find themselves in emergency situations, but it’s a temporary solution to the real problem, that housing is not affordable, she said.

Douglas King, executive director of the Together Against Poverty Society, echoed Robinson’s ­sentiment, saying any support for renters to maintain their housing is welcome, but it won’t solve the overall housing crisis.

“It’s almost like every year we see a new subsidy, or program or initiative, to help people afford the market rents, rather than to bring down the market rent to meet people where they’re at and where their incomes are at,” King said.

He’d like to see the province bring in vacancy control, where the cost of rent is tied to a unit instead of the renter, removing the incentive for landlords to turn over units often to raise rents.

“It would solve so many of our problems in the housing crisis and provide a kind of stability and health for low income tenants that hasn’t been there for generations,” he said.

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