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.

Read More

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.

Letter to council regarding occupancy bylaw

February 21, 2020
Mayor and Council
District of Saanich
770 Vernon Ave,
Victoria BC,
V8X 2W7

Sent via email to council@saanich.ca

Dear Mayor and Council,

Re: Unrelated occupants and Zoning Bylaw, 2003, Amendment Bylaw, 2020, No. 9608.
We write in regard to the proposal to amend the unrelated occupants provisions of Zoning Bylaw, 2003.
The Community Social Planning Council (CSPC) is an independent, non-partisan, and organization that
represents thousands of citizens across the region. Many Saanich organizations and individuals are
members. We are an informed voice on social issues in BC’s capital region. By fostering social innovation
and integrated action on social, cultural, economic and environmental conditions the Council supports
the creation of sustainable communities. Two of our four priority work areas are housing affordability
and sustainability.

There is strong evidence that increasing housing density creates more affordable housing, and reduces
climate and other environmental impacts. We support the proposed change in the number of unrelated
occupants permitted in section 5.20 and the definition of “family” in the Zoning Bylaw, 2003, from four
to six. As noted in the staff report of 1/24/2020 entitled “Zoning Bylaw- Unrelated Occupants:”
“Small scale communal living arrangements have existed in neighbourhoods throughout Saanich
for many decades. Given the current availability and cost of rental housing in the Region, a
measured increase in the number of unrelated tenants allowed in a single family dwelling may
be warranted.”

We agree that strategies for additional density should be pursued, over and above the density levels
afforded by single family dwellings. There is clearly a housing gap in Saanich for low- and middle-income
individuals, seniors and students; we are in the middle of a regional housing crisis. The Community
Social Planning Council (CSPC) has released a report on the challenges of the tight rental market for
renters and how it is forcing individuals into unsafe, substandard or unaffordable situations that are
impacting on health (https://www.communitycouncil.ca/Renter%20Survey%202018). Beyond that, the
CSPC conducts the Point in Time count for the region and has been concerned about students that are
homeless.

We understand the concerns that some residents hold in relation to parking, noise and property upkeep,
as well as concerns about landlords carrying out unpermitted construction to add profitable sleeping
2 quarters to their properties. We respectfully suggest that the appropriate way to address those issues is
directly, by enforcing rules related to those matters.

We understand that resources are required in order to enforce those rules, and the suggestion that
placing a limit on the number of occupants in a home can indirectly address some of the concerns.
However, as acknowledged in the staff report of 1/24/2020, increasing the number of allowable
unrelated persons would reduce the number of instances of non-compliance with occupancy rules,
thereby offsetting resource demands. Moreover, as noted in the report, there is no statistical data that
enforcement of occupancy rules serves to successfully address nuisance or parking concerns.

Further, the bylaw is unfairly discriminating as it does not place any limits on occupancy for related
persons meaning that those issues of parking, noise, etc. This rule discriminates on the basis of marital
and family status. While a legal review of the bylaw is beyond the scope of this submission, we note that
the BC Human Rights Code (s.8) prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status and family status,
and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (s.15) prohibits discrimination on both enumarated
and analogous grounds, one of which is marital status. Whether or not the bylaw itself is unlawful, the
fact that it is discriminatory should give Council cause for significant concern.
Saanich previously had a limit of six unrelated occupants and this motion merely returns the limit to the
previous level.

In light of all of the above, we recommend that Council:
● Adopt the amendment to return the number of unrelated occupants permitted to six;
● Instruct staff to enforce relevant rules related to nuisance, parking, etc., (subject to the existing
policy of prioritizing resourcing complaints related to health, safety, environment and
infrastructure over nuisance concerns between neighbours);
● Instruct staff to monitor the demands on resources over at least a two-year period following the
amendment, and report back to Council; and,
● If needed after the two year review, allocate additional budget to hire bylaw enforcement
personnel.

We thank you again for the opportunity and for your consideration of this submission.

Yours truly,
Diana Gibson
Executive Director

Greater Victoria household expenses up, but living wage for families down.

2019 Living Wage for families: $19.39.

May 1, 2019

(Greater Victoria) Household expenses for raising a family in British Columbia increased again from 2018 to 2019. And if it hadn’t been for government policy – most notably BC’s new Affordable Child Care Benefit – the increase would have been close to ten thousand dollars, says the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria, in its 2019 Living Wage report released today.

However, new government policy initiatives actually reduced the living wage for eligible families. The Affordable Child Care Benefit, the Child Care Fee Reduction Initiative, and cuts to MSP premiums actually outweighed the increased cost of living, and reduced the wage needed to form a living wage. “This demonstrates that good government policy can be an effective tool for reducing poverty,” says Diana Gibson, CSPC Senior Researcher and co-author of the report, “and it shows the great opportunities for making change in other key areas – like housing – that are driving that cost of living.”

A $19.39 hourly wage is needed to cover the costs of raising a family in Greater Victoria, down from $20.50 per hour in 2018. The Living Wage is the hourly wage that two working parents with two young children, aged 4 and 7, must earn to meet their basic expenses (including rent, child care, food, and transportation), once government taxes, credits, deductions and benefits have been taken into account. The family Living Wage for our region is calculated annually by the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria (CSPC).

“A $19.39 hourly living wage may seem high to some, but it is based on a bare-bones budget for a family of four in our region,” said Diana Gibson. “It doesn’t include any savings for vacations, childrens’ education, retirement, caring for elderly parents, or home purchase.”

Housing and child care continue to be the two biggest costs in the living wage calculation. Over the last year, the median rent for a 3+ bedroom unit in Greater Victoria has gone up by $135 per month, more than an 8 per cent increase. In some areas of the region, this increase is much more pronounced. Child care costs are high, but are nearly covered by the federal and BC child-related benefits. …/2

“While the decline in living wage for families this year is welcome, the cost of living is on a long-term upward trend. And the cost of living in the Greater Victoria region is one of the highest in BC,” said Halena Seiferling, Campaign Organizer for the Living Wage for Families Campaign. Living wage reports for several locations in BC also were released today.

Over 140 employers across BC, employing more than 20,000 workers, have been certified as Living Wage Employers. These include the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, Vancity, the United Way of the Lower Mainland, the City of Quesnel, the City of Port Coquitlam, and in Greater Victoria, certified Living Wage Employers include Central Saanich, the City of Victoria, Pacifica Housing, Urban Solar, and Community Plus, the Vancouver and District Labour Council, to name a few.

Working poverty is a Canada-wide issue. Over 50 communities across the country, including 18 in BC, have active living wage campaigns and are advocating to improve quality of life for low-wage workers.

For full report click here.

Background: Living Wages across BC

Living wage rates in many across the province are similarly lower this year: Columbia Valley ($15.92), Comox Valley ($15.28), Cranbrook ($14.38), Fraser Valley ($15.54), Greater Trail ($18.83), Greater Vancouver ($19.50), Kamloops ($14.38), Nelson ($18.46), North Central Region ($14.03), Parksville-Qualicum ($15.81) and Revelstoke ($18.90).

Community Living Wage Year Calculated
Metro Vancouver $19.50 2019
Greater Victoria $19.39 2019
Revelstoke $18.90 2019
Greater Trail $18.83 2019
Nelson $18.46 2019
Columbia Valley $15.92 2019
Parksville-Qualicum $15.81 2019
Fraser Valley $15.54 2019
Comox Valley $15.28 2019
Cranbrook $14.38 2019
Kamloops $14.38 2019
North Central Region $14.03 2019

Renters speak up about housing insecurity in the Capital region

VICTORIA – Survey reveals that Victoria’s tight housing market is meaning renovictions, demovictions, discrimination, living in poor quality housing, and increased vulnerability for renters.

A new study by the Community Social Planning Council of Victoria and the Victoria Tenants Action Group, Can’t Stay and Can’t Go: A participatory action research project on rental housing instability in Greater Victoria, brings forward renter voices about lived experiences in today’s housing crisis. Nearly 500 renters participated in the online survey and in-person roundtables.

The survey reveals critical impacts of lack of affordability and lack of availability on renters, from high levels of discrimination to feeling trapped in poor conditions. Most (92%) of participants reported that high rents were a barrier to finding housing, while 55% cited increasing cost as a threat to remaining in their current home.

Renters consider Greater Victoria to be their home and want to continue living here, but fear that affordability issues will push them out of the region: 77% reported they would stay if they had the choice but 76% said it is somewhat to very likely that housing pressure will force them to leave.

“We called this report Can’t Stay and Can’t Go because of that tension we heard from renters,” states Gavin Torvik of the Victoria Tenant Action Group (VTAG), “the looming risk of being forced out of your home by renoviction or rent increase combined with the real fear of having nowhere to go.

The tight market affects not only renters’ future prospects but the power imbalance with their current landlords: 47% did not ask for repairs out of fear it would negatively impact their tenancy. One participant said that when they told their landlord they needed pest control called, the landlord called an appraiser.

“People feel that even if they have housing, their number will soon be up,” says Cameron Welch of VTAG, “And when it is, being forced out into this housing crisis is like being thrown to the wolves. So they’re stuck, they’re always stressed out, and they’re vulnerable to being exploited.”

Renters lack confidence that the Residential Tenancy Branch will protect them. Although nearly half of participants felt they had been in a living situation in which their rights were violated, only one eighth had chosen to go through dispute resolution. Renters cited impact on life, unpredictability of outcome, uncertainty about the law, and time as reasons for their reluctance.

“The CSPC did this study because the real experiences of renters are lost in policy dialogues, meaning well-intended policies are often misaligned,” says Diana Gibson, Senior Researcher with the Community Social Planning Council. “Anyone engaged in housing policy and planning will want to look at this data.”

The report includes policy priorities indicated by renters and a call for more action by the municipal and provincial governments.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Victoria Foundation.

Click here for full report.