Home: Renters are left behind in good and bad times

Renters get left behind when times are tough, and equally so when times are bad.

The dream to own their home was never a reality for Tony Roy’s family.

Roy had lived in 12 different homes by the time he reached Grade 12.

For reasons of work skills and opportunity, his parents never worked with the idea of one day owning a home, they worked to survive and pay the rent.

Roy is the executive director of the B.C. Non Profit Housing Association, a product of a working poor social environment who was able to get a university education and find the stability in his own working life his parents weren’t able to achieve.

“We were an economically disenfranchised family,” Roy said, “but through social housing, my family was able to eventually find a rental stability that enabled me to grow up and ultimately get a university degree and carve out a career for myself.”

Roy said rental housing, having sufficient affordable units available to meet the needs of a community, is often lost in the shadow of prosperity. Rental rates go up, rental vacancies go down and developers say they can’t afford to build affordable housing units in new high-density developments.

Renters get left behind when times are tough, and equally so when times are bad.

Sharon Shepherd tried to address that issue in her last term as mayor prior to the re-election of Walter Gray three years ago, but failed to make any significant headway.

Today, Kelowna developers are rushing to meet a demand for new building lots across the city, but little with regards to rental housing.

“The people on lower incomes struggling to pay the rent are the ones who always get left behind. Kelowna is no different. One of my friends says the idea of affordable rent in Kelowna is an oxymoron. If you look at resource-based communities up north in places like Terrace, Kitimat or Fort St. John, a basement suite now rents for $1,500 and the tenants are bragging how cheap that is.

“People who earn high salaries in the resource industry can afford that but as the demand for housing rises, it presents some tough challenges for renters who can’t afford those rental rates. The economics change and they get pushed out.”

To help shine a greater focus on the impact of the rental availability in communities across B.C., last Friday the BCNPHA unveiled a preview of the Rental Housing Index, which will debut with data specific to Kelowna before going province wide in November.

The RHI is an innovative new research tool that was developed in partnership with VanCity, created to examine issues of income, rental affordability and overcrowding across the province through an interactive map.

The RHI was revealed as part of the Regional Education, Networking and Tradeshow for non-profit housing providers and local private social housing stakeholders held at the Capri Hotel.

Roy said the Kelowna data will show there are more than 17,000 renter households in Kelowna, and half of them earn less than $40,000 per year.

“There’s a real income challenge for renters (in Kelowna) and, of particular concern is that there are nearly 4,400 households in Kelowna who spend more than 50 per cent of their gross income on rent, limiting their ability to purchase other essentials,” Roy said.

“That’s a crisis level of spending that can lead to homelessness, health, crime and other social issues that are much more expensive to address.”

Roy said while incentives for developers to build new homes in B.C. communities need to balanced with incentives to creating more affordable rental housing.

“The provincial government offers tools such as adding density to donate land, financing at lower rates than market value but the money to fund them isn’t always there,” he said.

He says behind Victoria, the feds in Ottawa also have to re-engage with funding commitments for rental housing, which in recent years has been largely downloaded to the provincial government level.

He said the data included on the RHI is generated from Statistics Canada, with the idea to give municipalities better information on the need or availability of affordable rental housing, and how to incorporate that need into official community plans.

“We want this to shine a spotlight on the people most in need, and the economic challenges they face,” Roy said.

“When you have a large segment of a population in a given community spending more than 50 per cent of their gross income  on rent, that gets into risk issues…people risk losing their rental home if they miss a paycheque, they don’t eat properly, their health suffers, crime issues arise which are all things that come with a cost.”

While not everyone can buy a home, especially in Kelowna, Roy says having a stable rental unit market is a more critical need. “If you don’t have a permanent address, you can’t get a job, get a driver’s license, you have no structured order in your life and you scramble between the lines of becoming a criminal or not to survive. One of the constant root causes of crime in any community is poverty and homelessness.”

Roy added that another big change in the immediate future is affordable housing and that co-op projects built prior to 1994 will soon begin to see their mortgages come up for expiration.

There is a clear and present risk, he said, that if the housing subsidies offers by government end, the affordable nature of those units may be jeopardized.

Roy said the BCNPHA is doing an assessment of the current inventory of about 60,000 social housing units across B.C. regarding long-term viability and the cost of building upgrades.

“Our research so far shows about one-third of the buildings have deteriorated to a point or lack the reserves to be maintained without government involvement,” Roy said. “Those mortgage expirations will start to be an issue in the next eight years, so we need to get ahead of this with a plan on how to move forward, how to protect and expand on those affordable renting opportunities.”


Kelowna Capital News