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A run of recent news on rent increases, home prices, and shelter for the unhoused in Vancouver shines a light on how housing issues are all interconnected.
First: rents are spiking. A report from Rentals.ca and Urbanation found that average rent for all types of housing across the country broke $2,000 for the first time, a 12.6 per cent increase from last year. Vancouver had the dubious honour of topping the list, with average rent for a one-bedroom coming in at $2,633, up 20.5 per cent since 2021.
Home sales, meanwhile, were down by 3.3 per cent compared to the previous month, with prices dropping 12 per cent in the past year, according to figures from the Canadian Real Estate Association. While home prices in BC are down 8.9 per cent compared to last year, prices in Greater Vancouver have seen a much smaller annual dip of 0.6 per cent. Homes for sale in Metro Vancouver are still averaging $1.13 million, up about 10 per cent from pre-pandemic levels of around $1 million.
And more locally, the province, the City of Vancouver, and BC Housing announced they were working together to build 90 modular homes. These are scheduled to be completed in spring 2023—providing no permanent relief during the cold winter months.
The 90 spaces will go to people currently living in shelters. The province said there are 475 unhoused people living on the streets in Vancouver, meaning the 90 new homes will free up less than a fifth of the shelter spaces necessary to ensure everyone has access to the most basic kind of temporary shelter.
So: rents are going up, house prices are stabilizing considerably above pre-pandemic levels, and there is some incremental process on providing shelter to unhoused people. But advocates say it is impossible to treat any one part of the housing crisis on its own.
Mazdak Gharibnavaz, a member of the Vancouver Tenants Union steering committee, told the Straight that unaffordable housing is a systemic issue that comes from viewing housing as a source of wealth.
“We keep hearing governments say the words that housing is a human right, but it’s never treated like a human right. It’s treated as a commodity,” he said.
Currently, tenants see caps on how much their rent can increase. That’s two per cent in 2023. But the same cap doesn’t apply when homes are rented to new tenants, which Gharibnavaz said may incentivize landlords to try and evict existing tenants in order to rent out units at a higher cost.
Data from the Canadian Household Survey released in July found that 3.6 per cent of BC households had been evicted in the last five years, the most of any province in Canada. The same survey found 30 per cent of respondents across the country who have experienced homelessness reported being evicted within the past five years.
“People’s wages aren’t going up by 20 per cent every year,” Gharibnavaz said. “As soon as you’re not able to make that rent, it means you’re out.”
Organizations like the Vancouver Tenants Union, Living Wage for Families BC, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition have long been pushing for vacancy control as a way to help tackle ballooning rents. This would mean the annual limit on rent increase that’s currently tied to tenants would instead apply to units themselves, preventing landlords from increasing rent whenever a tenant leaves a unit.
While average home prices have now stabilized, or may even fall, they’re up considerably compared to their pre-pandemic levels—and up even more dramatically compared to 10 years ago, when CREA reported average home prices were around $750,000.
Provincial Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon told the Straight that “the magnitude of the challenge” of affordable housing showed the need to “change the system as it is now.”
He did not provide details, saying more information would be laid out in a housing strategy in the new year. Kahlon’s mandate letter tasks him with “seeking out, fostering, and championing good ideas regardless of their origin.”
When asked about vacancy control, Kahlon said he was “not entirely sure that we’re going to go in that direction” and pointed to the need to build more housing.
“I’m an advocate that we need more supply of housing … but they can’t be just all market-based,” he said, adding that non-market, supportive housing and co-ops would all play a role.
For advocates like Gharibnavaz, the government response to housing is not meeting the scale of the problem. He mentioned the recent federal housing top-up that promises $500 for households that earn below $35,000 per year, estimated to be up to 1.8 million people, as an example. There are five million renter households in Canada.
“If people actually cared about solving housing unaffordability … they will be looking to build houses for those one in five renters,” he said.
Ninety temporary homes for people experiencing homelessness come nowhere close to being enough shelter for unhoused people, let alone the rest of the population who are being squeezed by rising rents.
He is also wary of the reliance on the market to solve issues, as typically developers build high-end apartments, and the additional supply has not historically brought down rents.
In his view, the best thing for the government to do is mass build public housing, the way the federal government did before prime minister Jean Chrétien halted investments in 1993. In the meantime, small announcements are welcome, but cannot be the end.
“There’s a very specific desire for government to say, ‘Look, we’re doing something,’ when actually they’re not addressing any part of the issue. It’s this sort of band-aid solution,” Gharibnavaz said.
As long as rents carry on rising, more people will lose their homes. As long as homes remain too expensive for new buyers, the renting class will grow. And as long as land remains expensive due to the possibility of building new homes, it will be expensive and difficult to build shelter for those who need it most.