It may be hard to believe, but Statistics Canada data shows that 52 per cent of senior renters (65+) in Metro Vancouver spend 30 per cent or more of their monthly income on rent, and 21 per cent spend half or more.
So how are low-income seniors expected to survive?
The ratio of rent to income directly affects our abilities to live healthy and thriving lives, and to have options aside from falling into precarious living conditions, or at worst, homelessness.
The roots of this crisis can be traced back to the early 1990s when the federal Liberal government drastically cut its investment in social housing and left provinces and cities scrambling to fill the gap.
A recent Vancity Credit Union report, Rent Race: The Growing Unaffordability of Rent in Metro Vancouver, calculates the average monthly market rent in Metro Vancouver as $1,144, which is considerably higher than the $765 per month maximum of the SAFER subsidy. Considering how little market rental stock is available to low-income people, it is alarming that subsidies are not keeping up with the real costs of housing in our region. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see more and more low-income seniors forced into precarious living conditions and homelessness every year.
The 2016 City of Vancouver Homeless Count showed that 204 homeless people in Vancouver (18 per cent of the homeless population) were over the age of 55. Startlingly, homelessness among seniors in Metro Vancouver has increased since 2008. The Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, which takes place every three years, showed that the increase in homeless seniors grew from 1 per cent to 3 per cent in 2011 and to 4 per cent in 2014.
It’s not surprising to see more and more low-income seniors forced into precarious living conditions and homelessness every year.
In BC, the provincial Shelter Aid For Elderly Residents (SAFER) provides subsidies to low-income people aged 60 and older whose rent is higher than 30 per cent of their monthly income. The program only covers a maximum rent amount: $765 for a single person in the Metro Vancouver and $825 for a couple. The province will not subsidize rents higher than these amounts.
The housing crisis affects seniors throughout Metro Vancouver. The City of Burnaby has been criticized recently over its rezoning of the Metrotown area, which is seeing many three-level walkup rental buildings being demolished to make way for high-rise condominium towers. This rezoning has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of people, including low-income seniors, with no end in sight. Called demovictions (evicting people for the purpose of demolition), this practice will continue to force people out of their homes and push people out of Burnaby where one-bedroom apartments in three-level walkups rent for about $800 per month. While this is a steep cost for low-income renters, once evicted, these tenants will join the growing masses searching for a safe and affordable place to live.
Once low-income seniors are evicted from affordable rental apartments, they have few options. Even if you qualify, the waitlists for social housing are long. In Metro Vancouver, there aren’t many options beyond living on the street. And in the city, single-room-occupancy hotels, originally built as temporary housing, are now permanent homes for many seniors. In addition, city shelters have become a sort of placeholder for people while they are on waitlists for subsidized housing.
Aging is already a challenging process. We shouldn’t make things harder by supporting government policies that create housing insecurity for people.
Also in BC, we’ve seen an end to provincial investment in independent social housing coupled with a shift to dependency on supportive housing. Supportive housing is a model in which the provincial government partners with a non-profit that hires staff to monitor the front desk, acts as security for the building, and enforces rules decided upon by the non-profit such as guests signing in when they come to visit residents. Waitlists are incredibly long for supportive housing, which is not a solution to Metro Vancouver’s urgent housing crisis. Additionally, limiting the construction of new buildings to supportive housing assumes that residents require this type of support. Rather than needing support, many seniors simply want the choice to live independently in an affordable home.
Aging is already a challenging process, and if we want our senior population to age with dignity, we must offer better support. We shouldn’t make things harder by supporting government policies that create housing insecurity for people. Instead, we must invest in fully subsidized independent social housing to ensure the well-being of all seniors in our province.