Seniors advocates highlight existence of ageist housing discrimination in different areas of Vancouver

The allegations came in a South Vancouver Seniors Network webinar

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      A Vancouver seniors advocate has alleged that some landlords are discriminating against older tenants seeking apartments. Gail Harmer, 80, made this declaration in an hourlong January 20 webinar on housing hosted by the South Vancouver Seniors Network and attended by Vancouver-Langara B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee.

      “Seniors have very lengthy tenancies because it is our last home,” Harmer said. “We are discriminated against when it comes to applications for housing in a market that is free market–driven and where landlords actually benefit from certain turnover.”

      It was one of many statements at the forum highlighting discriminatory treatment that seniors face on the housing front. Harmer went so far as to declare that ageism is “endemic”. She added that landlords are “certainly uncomfortable with any applicant who’s going to be there for 20.5 years”, which is the average length of tenancy for seniors in the West End.

      “Politicians like Michael know how important we are because we vote,” Harmer noted. “We have incredible power if we start to use it.”

      Lee noted that COVID-19 has shone a light on the treatment of elderly people, whether it’s in care homes or living at home in isolation. “We are all in this together, as is said often,” Lee said, “and I’m grateful for each of you to lend your voice.”

      One of the more horrific tales at the forum came from Grace Hann, trainer and manager of volunteers at the Jewish Seniors Alliance. She shared a heartbreaking story of an 85-year-old woman living with cancer in a B.C. Housing unit. According to Hann, this senior has difficulty walking and spends most of her time at home.

      “The biggest thing with her—and it’s quite heartbreaking to hear—is when she’s eating dinner,” Hann said. “There are mice crawling up her leg.

      “I want us to stop for a moment and visualize if that would be us or if it would be our mom or dad or if it would be our grandparents,” she added. “I took that very seriously on behalf of Jewish Seniors Alliance.”

      Hann said that the situation was only addressed after the Jewish Seniors Alliance intervened on behalf of the tenant.

      “We did get the problem eradicated, but my question is why did it take all of us to be involved?” Hann said. “Why are they not listening to seniors?”

      Andrea Krombein, seniors outreach coordinator for Marpole Oakridge Family Place, presented pictures of a mice-ridden unit in Marpole.

      She revealed that this went on for more than three years, with management of the situation primarily left to the senior tenant.

      Andrea Krombein shows this photo of a mouse caught in a trap in one senior's residence.

      Krombein pointed out that advocacy organizations often receive calls from seniors struggling with other issues in their building. That includes being treated in ageist ways by landlords or building managers and not getting repairs done or services in a timely manner.

      “Listening carefully to these situations, we find a mix of problems,” Krombein said. “Seniors are often lonely and without family or connections and on low income. So they don’t want to rock the boat with landlords. They don’t want to be evicted or victimized. These are real fears.”

      According to Krombein, sometimes these fears are rooted in mental-health issues or insecurity, but on other occasions, she noted, they are based on things that can really happen.

      As an example, Krombein related that one senior using a mobility scooter had to pay $10 to a building worker every time she wanted to leave. The building worker took advantage of her because the automatic door had remained broken “for ages” and she had no choice.

      Krombein also emphasized that senior tenants often don’t want to challenge bad behaviour by other tenants—such as drug use, smoking, loud music, or criminal behaviour—for fear of reprisals. And when they do phone the police for problems in the building, they have reported that sometimes they feel that officers are not sympathetic or sensitive to seniors’ issues.

      “A crisis point is reached in the neighbourhoods when a landlord or building managers become abusive verbally or neglectful and are unable to control unruly tenants—and seniors feel afraid for their physical and emotional safety,” Krombein said.

      Seniors in these situations will call different offices—such as the Jewish Seniors Alliance or the MLA’s office or police—which means there is no one database record of what has taken place at a specific building.

      “A senior tenant told me, ‘B.C. Housing needs to make a plan so there’s a single number to call,’ ” Krombein said.

      In the meantime, Marpole Oakridge Family Place is looking at providing training for tenants and landlords about their respective responsibilities and educating them about elder abuse and neglect.

      “South Vancouver Seniors Network partners want to make sure that seniors feel safe in their housing situations,” Krombein stated.

      The South Vancouver Seniors Network was launched by MLA Lee and Krombein. The weekly webinars, hosted by Krombein and Hann, aim to connect seniors with government, community leaders, and other decision makers in real time.