Vancouver is bedevilled by rising rents and low vacancy rates, which take a disproportionate toll on young people.
On any given day in Metro Vancouver, hundreds of youths like Cynthia Thomas are either homeless or close to losing the roof over their heads.
Being out on the street couldn't have come at a worse time than last summer for the 19-year-old Thomas, who recently spoke to the Georgia Straight at the Youth Directions Centre on Burrard Street. She and her boyfriend, whom she declined to identify, learned she was pregnant after they had just lost the place where they were staying.
She was in and out of temporary shelters, unable to find work, as her boyfriend struggled to keep a full-time job while living on the streets. Thomas said that under these circumstances, even something as simple as eating takes on a whole new meaning. "It can become a goal to your entire day and something to plan your day around: where to get food," she said.
She recalled leaving the shelter where she was staying one morning to go wake up her boyfriend so he wouldn't be late for work. "We were sitting down on a sleeping bag and this old dude just walked right up and sits down right on our sleeping bag and whips out a crack pipe and, 'Here, do you want some?'" she said. Only recently did they find a landlord who was willing to take them.
Thomas's story is perhaps more extreme than most. However, it reflects a growing rental crisis for young people who are coping with some of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the region's history: 0.7 percent last fall, rising slightly to 0.9 percent in the spring, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The average two-bedroom apartment in the region rented for $1,045 last fall. CMHC senior market analyst Robyn Adamache told the Straight that she expects this to increase to $1,087 this year and $1,119 next year.
Last February, the Vancouver Youth Housing Options study reported that–based on different estimates between 1997 and 2005–the number of homeless and at-risk youth in Vancouver ranges "from an absolute minimum of 179 persons to a high of 1,255 young people". Eberle Planning and Research, which offers housing-policy consulting services, has estimated the actual range is "probably closer to between 300 and 700 on any one day", which includes people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are living in the streets, in shelters, or in unstable home situations, and those who are "sofa surfers".
Young people are hit with a double whammy in Vancouver's housing market. The price of condos has shot up astronomically in recent years, to the point where $500 per square foot is now considered a bargain. For many whose parents can't afford to help, buying a home has become an impossible dream. They also get hit in the rental market, as prices rise to match the demand for accommodation, particularly immediately after apartment units are vacated. The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association reported last year that a person would have to earn $13.48 per hour just to be able to afford the average bachelor apartment in Vancouver.
Under the Residential Tenancy Act, rent increases have been capped this year at four percent–which is two percent above the increase in the consumer-price index–for tenants who don't move. But young people who are seeking their first apartment are still very vulnerable because landlords can jack up the price much higher after the previous occupant leaves the suite. And in a tight housing market, landlords can pick and choose tenants based on their income.
Tamryn Liebenberg, a 22-year-old restaurant server and part-time bookkeeper, told the Straight that she has only been able to find apartments through people she knows. "I've tried a whole bunch of places," she said. "It's either too expensive or they're looking for somebody who probably makes more money or who they would think are more reliable."
She and a roommate pay $1,440 per month for "a bedroom and a half" in the West End. If she didn't do part-time work on the side, her shelter costs would eat up 50 percent of her income.
A Vancouver city staff report earlier this year stated that more than half of all households in the city are renters, and 80 percent of younger households are renters. Almost a third of all rental households are in "core need", which means the residents spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing.
"Some people rent through choice," the report stated, "but income data indicates that most do so through necessity, and that younger households rent until their earnings and savings are sufficient to enter the ownership market. Overall, median incomes for renters are about half that of owners."
Postsecondary students can be hit especially hard by the housing crisis. Kevin Shopsowitz, a 21-year-old UBC graduate student in chemistry, told the Straight that after seeing the cost of apartments in Vancouver, he decided to stay in residence on campus after moving back here from Montreal. That was because one-bedroom apartments he found here rented for between $800 and $1,400, which is significantly higher than in Montreal. He said he pays slightly more than $500 per month to have his own room with a shared living room and kitchen.
"I would rather live somewhere else, like Kitsilano or downtown, but it's more affordable for me," Shopsowitz said of living in a student dormitory.
Veteran housing activist Tom Durning told the Straight that Canada is committing some of the same public-policy blunders that occurred in the United States 20 years ago, which is exacerbating the rental-housing crisis for young people. "It's like a tsunami we've seen coming for 10 or 12 years, and nobody is doing anything about it," he said.
Durning, who is with the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre, said that all levels of government could be doing a lot more. He noted that the federal government pulled out of building housing in 1993, though it came back in briefly as a result of NDP pressure in Parliament. Durning also said the B.C. Liberal government took money that should have gone into building nonprofit housing and reallocated it to "assisted-living units", which require a medical referral. He said the assisted-living units should have come out of the health-care budget, and the government should have maintained the other money for social housing.
But Durning saved some of his greatest scorn for municipal governments–particularly those of Burnaby, Delta, West Vancouver, and Surrey–for not allowing secondary suites, which provide rental accommodation. "I blame the bureaucrats in these municipalities as much as the politicians," he said.
In addition, he said, municipalities refuse to pass bylaws requiring certain maintenance standards, which gives slumlords a free hand to let their buildings deteriorate. Durning singled out Vancouver and the City of North Vancouver as the best municipalities in the region for renters. This year, for instance, Vancouver approved a zero-percent rate-of-change regulation, which means that any lost rental housing must be replaced on a 1:1 basis. But Durning also acknowledged that landlords face higher costs because of the aging housing stock, which is one reason why rents are "going through the roof" in the West End. "Some landlords are trying to evict people for renovations," he noted.
The West End Residents Association has close ties with the new Renters at Risk Coalition as it tries to force the various levels of government to respond in a coordinated way to the rental-housing crisis. WERA president Brent Granby told the Straight he worries that only "super í¼ber-rich people" will be able to afford to live in the West End.
He cited the conversion of the Rougemont Apartments at 1689 Robson Street into a language school, with some units on the top floor preserved for students, as just one example of the loss of rental housing in the area. "These are good, affordable apartments that are getting rundown, and there is no real replacement that's coming forward," Granby said. "So average-earning people can't afford to live in the neighbourhood."
Robert Gardiner, a Yaletown artist, told the Straight that he has been working with WERA to push for more action on rental housing. Gardiner, who has gone to court to fight being evicted, said there is no studio space in the suburbs, and he wants artists to band together with other tenant groups to raise hell about the issue.
"There is homelessness, but there is a bigger issue that is directly connected to that: of people at risk of becoming homeless," Gardiner said.
ln an interview last month, Jim Deva, a partner in Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium, told the Straight he fears that the gay community will be dispersed from the West End because of rising housing costs. He said that gay and lesbian people sometimes don't have close contact with their families, so the sense of community in the West End provides an important touchstone in their lives. And he said this is threatened by what's happening in the housing market.
"A lot of people in our community work in the service industry throughout downtown Vancouver," Deva said. "Why the hell would they live in Chil liwack and then bus into downtown Vancouver to do their jobs? It makes no sense at all. So I really think rent control is huge, and it's going to be an issue civically and it's going to be an issue provincially."
Talk of rent control drew a surprised reaction from Jan Robinson, chief operating officer of the Greater Vancouver Apartment Owners Association, who said there already is rent control under provincial tenancy legislation. "There is a lot of pressure put on the owner of residential rental property to provide affordable housing," she told the Straight. "That's not what we're here for. We're here to provide market housing."
Real-estate marketer Bob Rennie recently told the Straight that condominium investors are supplying subsidized rental housing in Vancouver because they will pay the down payment and often charge the tenants the cost of covering the mortgage. "Nobody builds rental product," he said.
Robinson cited one study that suggested that a building owner would have to charge $3 per square foot if he or she were to build an apartment building, which would work out to $1,800 per month for a standard one-bedroom apartment.
"That's double the average market rate for a one-bedroom suite," Robinson said. "It seems that option is out unless they find free land."
She added that the municipalities should be lowering the permit fees for secondary suites, which would encourage homeowners to bring new units of rental housing onto the market. Meanwhile, the Canadian Federation of Apartment Associations has called upon the federal government to change the tax system so as not to disadvantage landlords, developers, and renters.
"Many low-income families are being hurt by the policies, pressure and rhetoric promoting homeownership," the CFAA wrote in a paper last August. "Recent developments in the U.S. sub-prime mortgage market show the damage to low-income families that can be caused by promoting home-buying mortgages to those who lack an adequate down-payment and the income to weather a downturn in house prices, or in their household income."
The association called upon Parliament to eliminate programs that enable people to buy homes with no or five-percent down payments. In addition, the CFAA demanded that rental-property owners be allowed to write off capital costs at higher rates. In Germany, for instance, building owners can write off 33 percent of these costs in the first five years after construction, compared with just 17 percent in Canada.
But perhaps the most significant request was for a tax deferral on capital gains when a property is sold if the building owner reinvests this in more rental housing within 12 months of the sale. Vancouver councillor Peter Ladner believes these types of changes are necessary to address the rental-housing shortfall and provide shelter for the work force in Vancouver in the future.
"The most urgent need I see is for the federal government to change the tax laws to enable private developers to build apartment buildings for rent only and still make some money on them," Ladner said last July. "If that doesn't happen, the public purse will be expected to supply all the rental housing, which is completely impossible."
FOR NOW, IT'S THE poorest youth who face the most intense challenges. Jennifer Hanrahan manages the Youth Directions Centre, a 24-hour drop-in centre on Burrard Street for homeless and at-risk youths. In an interview with the Straight, she said that some of the youth find housing in single-room-occupancy hotels, even though they are not necessarily the best environment for young people trying to escape life on the street or alcoholism.
One of the youth at the centre that day, Clark Levykh, told the Straight that he was in foster care and has been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and a panic disorder, which he attributes to being bullied in school. He said he has also lived on the streets, and he hasn't had a pleasant experience in shelters for the homeless.
"With all the shelters I've been in, I've always had to worry about people picking on me or bullying me or physically assaulting me," Levykh, 20, said.
Robert Wilmot, manager of the Broadway Youth Resource Centre, told the Straight that many homeless youth have mental-health problems as well as addiction issues, and they're also unemployed. Wilmot said his organization is conducting a B.C.-government-funded pilot program in which the centre guarantees landlords that young tenants will pay their rents on time and maintain their homes.
Wilmot said he hopes that this program will be expanded to help more young people overcome some barriers that force them onto the streets. But will this even come close to dealing with what is shaping up to be an explosive and divisive generational issue? Because in today's Vancouver housing market, it's often the baby boomers who own ever-more-valuable homes at the same time hordes of people in their 20s are doomed to living with their parents, sleeping in the streets, or sofa-surfing until they can afford to pay the rent.
Homelessness Action Week is next week (October 15-21). For more information on events and charities, go to www.stophomelessness.ca /.