Under Pressure: The Rental Housing Experience of Seniors Living in James Bay

James Bay New Horizons for Seniors Society, a neighbourhood community hub for seniors, approached CSPC prompted by increasing concerns they were hearing from seniors who were:  

  • struggling to pay high rents,  
  • had lost or were at risk of losing their housing due to renovation evictions, and   
  • struggling to find affordable housing.   

The neighbourhood of James Bay in the City of Victoria has the highest population of seniors, many of them in rental housing.  It also has some of the city’s highest average rents. To study this issue further, CSPC partnered with the New Horizons for Seniors Society and engaged with local seniors. Over 122 senior (55+) tenants in James Bay participated in a survey, and two focus groups were held with senior renters and senior service providers.    

The final report from this study, Under Pressure: The Rental Housing Experience of Seniors Living in James Bay, profiles community housing and income data and brings forward seniors’ voices about their lived experiences in the tight rental market of James Bay. 

The findings from this project painted a detailed picture of the rental housing market in James Bay and factors influencing the housing experience of seniors. 

The connection and attachment seniors feel towards James Bay is very apparent and is primarily due to the senior-friendly neighbourhood amenities, which add to seniors’ social connectedness.  According to literature, this sense of connection is essential to positive health and well-being outcomes for seniors. 

The study reveals that low to moderate-income seniors in the rental housing market are facing a significant crisis of affordability, security of tenure, and rent stability, and senior renters voiced that they are struggling to stay in their current housing situations, yet feel that leaving is not a good option.   

“[If I received notice to vacate my home], I would look for another place in James Bay, but I would be doing so in a confused panic state with severe anxiety. I do not have friends or family that I could stay with for a transition period” – Survey respondent  

Not only is leaving the community undesirable and potentially harmful to older adults’ health and well-being, but seniors feel as if there is nowhere else for them to go. The 0.7% vacancy rate and ageing housing stock in the neighbourhood support the notion of these concerns. This lack of affordable and appropriate housing is also causing a palatable fear amongst seniors specific to the security of tenure, with renovictions and increased rents after renovations being their primary fears.  

“I am concerned that the apartment rental we have found for March may not be long term. I have heard about [‘renovictions’]. This is a possibility as the building is older.”  – Survey respondent   

In 2016, 47% of tenants in James Bay were spending more than 30% of their income on shelter costs, placing them in core housing need. The average rent  in James Bay increased by 20% between 2016 and 2020. Although there is a provincial rent cap limiting the maximum allowable rent increases to the rate of inflation, rent rates are still rising faster than fixed incomes and it does not address the escalation before the cap Some seniors in the study report spending up to 60% of their income on housing. When asked about the impacts of a $25 monthly rent increase (the average that would be allowed under the maximum allowable rent cap), 65% of survey respondents said they would have to make cutbacks in their lives on things like social outings, groceries, medications, and transportation. Unfortunately, 39% have already made such cutbacks.  

It is evident that the high rental costs in the neighbourhood are taxing the budgets of seniors, particularly because so many rely heavily on fixed incomes. While affordable housing is becoming increasingly recognized in policy across the city and country, there tends to be little focus on those living on fixed incomes, especially seniors.  Provincial programs like Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) provide some support; however, these subsidies do not reflect the high market rents and available fixed incomes, nor do they address the significant affordability gap between the two. 

According to BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), an ageing population, combined with population growth, will account for much of the increase in rental housing demand in the region. BCNPHA indicates that by 2036, there will be a significant increase in the population over the age of 65, which will pressure in the James Bay neighbourhood for seniors in the rental market.  

The report makes recommendations aimed at meeting the needs of seniors, including the development of affordable housing for seniors in the James Bay area, a seniors’ navigator to provide in-person housing support and assistance, and extending a local food security program while housing affordability is addressed. 

People don’t move to Victoria to be homeless – that is an urban myth

There is a common misconception that a large portion of the individuals experiencing homelessness in Greater Victoria have moved to the community recently. The Point-in-Time Homeless Count and Survey has time and time again demonstrated that people experiencing homelessness are not moving to the region to be homeless. Instead, high rents, low vacancy rates, low wages and employment insecurity across the region are perpetuating homelessness.

On the night of March 11, 2020, the Point in Time Count counted at least 1,523 people experiencing homelessness, and 854 individuals completed surveys. A large majority (84%) of those surveyed have lived in the region for a year or longer (42% longer than five years and 22% have lived in the region their entire lives).

Of those 854 individuals surveyed, 101 individuals (12% of those surveys) have lived in Greater Victoria less than one year. Half of those 101 became homeless after moving to Greater Victoria. For context, within the last year approximately 6,000 people were new to Greater Victoria. In-migration has been critical to the vibrancy of the region; our aging demographic means a declining population without in-migration. Further, employers have raised concerns about labour shortages while one of the top reasons individuals who are homeless report coming to the region is to seek employment.

It is harmful to jump to conclusions about why people who move to Victoria are experiencing homelessness. While people listed a multitude of reasons for moving to Greater Victoria, top reasons are: family moved here (18.5%), to visit friends and family (13%), and to seek or secure employment (12%). There were 38 individuals who included access to services and supports as one of the reasons they moved to Greater Victoria. Hardly a landslide – and one third of those individuals came from other parts of Vancouver Island, suggesting that smaller communities on the Island do not have the supports and services needed by those trying to find stable housing and/or employment. That is something that needs to be fixed.

The real story should be that people whose families move here or who move here seeking work are experiencing homelessness and further, that medium and long term Victoria residents are becoming homeless and/or experiencing enduring homelessness. Homelessness is not an imported problem, it is a system-wide challenge with roots in greater Victoria’s housing crisis, exacerbated by inadequate incomes. Significant portions of the individuals experiencing homelessness are on disability or social assistance; over 90 percent have an income.

There is misinformation in the media that there is an upward trend in people who are new to Victoria and homeless. The opposite is true. Since the 2016 PiT Count and Survey, the data indicates a decline in the number of people experiencing homelessness who have lived in the region for less than one year.  However, it is important to note that the Point in Time Count is considered a rough snapshot and an under-estimate; changes in numbers might be due to an increase or decrease in survey response rates, which could be driven by changes in the number of surveyors or organizations participating or external factors that affect participation.

The PiT Count and Survey is not meant to discriminate against people and the length of time they have lived in the region. Whether someone has lived here for 5 months or 50 years, everyone has the right to access homelessness services and supports to ensure that all community members have access to permanent housing.

By Diana Gibson and Chelsea Fiorentino

Vital People: Project aims to help women succeed in green economy

The Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria has embarked upon a project that sets its sights on addressing inequalities between genders by identifying current and future barriers to financial inclusion for women in the green economy.

The project, Financial Inclusion for the Green Economy, is hosted by the Community Social Planning Council, working collaboratively with Victoria Community Micro-Lending, the Inclusion Project, Sewlutions and Synergy Enterprises.

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Recognizing Essential Workers on May Day

May 1, International Workers Day, finds its origins in the 1886 Chicago Haymarket strike for the 8 hour day – something we take for granted today. This should give us pause. International Workers Day was established as a day to celebrate workers and their contributions, so that they are not taken for granted.

We all recognize the heroes of this crisis, from the grocery shelf stocker to the meat packing plant worker, who have become essential services and are putting their lives at risk to secure our food supply. Also the long term care workers, who are forced to rely on patching together multiple low paying part time jobs, putting themselves at greater risk. And the low paid temporary foreign workers doing essential work from long term care to farm or poultry plant jobs often with no sick leave, Medical Services Plan coverage, or adequate housing standards. The list goes on.

If we just celebrate these workers by clanging pots or calling them heroes and don’t protect them or give them decent incomes, are we not letting them down?

As we entered the pandemic 48% of Canadians were $200 away from insolvency and 1 in 4 of Greater Victoria’s two-parent families with two children had incomes less than the living wage. COVID has exposed those vulnerabilities in stark relief. Food banks are getting overwhelmed. As a parent with school aged children I was stunned by how much focus our school system was placing on getting meals to families as the crisis evolved. The Greater Victoria School District is providing approximately 10,000 meals weekly to needy families. Many of those in need are the working poor.

To really celebrate the the workers who are risking their lives for us every day, we need to re-imagine how we value work and what we consider to be decent working conditions.

In the recovery following the Black Plague labour shortages meant peasants were able to have more freedoms and better working conditions. COVID will be different. More likely we will see high unemployment, downward pressure on wages and for calls to ring out for austerity.

Lack of sick leave, homelessness, poor pay and working conditions undermine the health and welfare of us all. The impacts are being seen today on municipalities, school districts, local charities and volunteers who, even all together cannot fill the gaps. We will need strong government direction and policy change to ensure a COVID exit that is fair.

This crisis, has both exposed everyday heroes and the massive cracks in our system. This is the day to celebrate those everyday heroes by calling for real change so that they are properly recognized with living wages, sick leave, housing standards and decent working conditions.