By Kahir Lalji
The stark reality facing BC seniors has become painfully clear: a lifetime of hard work culminates in retirement, only to be overshadowed by the looming prospect of homelessness.
A comprehensive new report—Aging in Uncertainty: The Growing Housing Crisis for BC Seniors, jointly released by United Way British Columbia and a coalition of BC non-profit community-based seniors’ organizations—serves as an urgent call to action, spotlighting the critical issue of seniors grappling to hold onto or secure affordable housing amidst soaring living costs, insufficient government retirement incomes, and a severe shortage of affordable housing.
The numbers are alarming, with 15.2 per cent of BC’s seniors considered low income; in 2020, one in four seniors faced after-tax incomes below $21,800—nearly $10,000 below the minimum wage. Almost one in five senior-led renter households (18 per cent, or 21,565 households) are spending 50 per cent or more of their income on housing, and are precariously housed and at risk of homelessness.
My concern deepens as I recognize the dwindling access to subsidized seniors’ housing (where rent is capped at 30 per cent of income), and the vanishing of low-cost, private-market options. Skyrocketing rents, evictions, renovictions, redevelopments, and seasonal population influxes are pushing older British Columbians to the brink. This is a reality that cannot be ignored.
The report insights gathered from interviews with 16 seniors’ service and housing organizations, along with individuals who have experienced housing precarity, paint a poignant picture. Seniors, who have contributed to our society tirelessly throughout their lives, are suddenly facing the spectre of homelessness during what should be their golden years.
Take Lucy, aged 73, who lost her long-time job and found herself in a homeless shelter. Fearing for her safety, she resorted to living out of her car until non-profit organizations intervened, helping her secure affordable housing for women. Lucy’s reflection on the struggle speaks volumes: “When I’m thinking of housing for seniors, you know, when you have to make a decision whether you want to get your medications or eat that month, or if you’re paying rent, that’s pretty, pretty scary.”
Housing precarity and homelessness also take a significant toll on the physical and mental health of seniors. One frontline service provider stated that over half of their clients experiencing housing precarity talk openly about whether they want to live anymore. At this juncture, I must acknowledge the incredible pressures that frontline staff across the province face in helping to support people in crises—my hats off to them.
Our report doesn’t merely lay bare the issues; it also charts a course for change. Six critical goals and 16 specific recommendations are outlined, addressing the need for increased low-income rental housing stock for all age groups, as well as the unique requirements of the senior population.
These recommendations include augmenting the Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters subsidy, providing funding to non-profits delivering on-site tenant and social connection support for vulnerable seniors, expanding access to supportive and transitional housing, and enhancing mental health support for seniors.
At United Way BC, we value our trusted partnership with government and community partners, and remain committed to collaborative efforts aimed at finding solutions to complex social issues.
In the face of the growing housing crisis for BC seniors, it is imperative that we act collectively. It is not just about policies; it’s about recognizing the dignity of our elders and ensuring they can age in place with the security and respect they deserve.
Kahir Lalji is the Provincial Director of Government Relations & Government Programs at United Way British Columbia.