Shelter costs in Vancouver eat up income

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      Vancouver housing advocates were holding pocket protests on various street corners across the city on a sunny, springlike Saturday afternoon (March 1) while Nick Boswell was busy hauling his household items on a truck.

      A full-time dispatcher at a local towing company, Boswell had lived for six years in an apartment building at 334 Carrall Street in the Downtown Eastside. The other tenants, according to the 34-year-old single father, are a mixed bunch of employed people, including one who works for the City of Vancouver as a parking enforcement officer. Their rents aren’t high enough for the owners of the building, which will be converted into a condominium complex that Boswell heard will be marketed for $400,000 per unit.

      “I thought I had a good thing,” Boswell told the Georgia Straight about his previous home. “The rooms are well-maintained, and there’s even a courtyard. If one were to be blindfolded and led into this building, you’d think after the blindfold is off that you’re in one of those West End properties.”

      From a two-room unit that used to cost him $674 in rent, Boswell and his two young sons—one a five-year-old and the other only 14 months old—will live next in a one-room place located on Commercial Drive, for $1,000.

      “For me, that’s one paycheque gone,” Boswell said of his new rent, noting that’s going to hurt other household expenses. “I can’t afford a car, and I bike to work to save whatever I can. There’s got to be something that should be happening here.”

      Asked what he had in mind, Boswell replied: “I mean there should always be some affordable housing whenever you need it.”

      Families are under the threshold of housing affordability if they are spending less than 30 percent of their income on shelter. Those who exceed this level are commonly considered to be in “core housing need”, according to a federal-government study released on January 25 this year.

      Conducted jointly by Statistics Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, The Dynamics of Housing Affordability found out that about three out of every 10 Canadians spent more than 30 percent of their household income on shelter at some point between 2002 and 2004.

      The study also established that a stable 20 percent of Canadians spent above the affordability benchmark for shelter in any single year during the three-year period. It further noted that “roughly one-third of those exceeding the benchmark at least once during the study period can be considered to be persistently doing so, while the other two-thirds are moving in and out of this state.”

      Robyn Newton is the research manager for the Social Planning and Research Council, a charitable organization hired by the regional steering committee on homelessness for the 2008 Metro Vancouver homeless count, to be held on March 11 and 12.

      In an interview with the Straight, Newton noted that more working people are at risk of losing shelter amid rising costs in a market-oriented housing sector.

      “It’s the bigger story,” Newton explained. “Some are one paycheque away from becoming homeless. Something can happen: a divorce, a loss of job. We’re seeing people that you’ve never expected to struggle with issues of housing.”

      Newton recalled that in the last homeless count, in 2005, volunteers saw “a lot more” people who were working yet either staying in shelters or living temporarily in other households.

      On March 1, on the sidewalk on the northwest side of the intersection of Main Street and King Edward Avenue, housing advocates like Mary Ann Code distributed leaflets and talked to passersby who stopped to ask what was going on. Code noted to the Straight that on several other street corners that same day, other advocates were also protesting the fact that affordable housing can’t be guaranteed to people in such a well-off country as Canada. For her, the situation is shameful.