[Editor's note: Affordable housing used to be an accepted right in Canada. For many it's increasingly out of reach — a silent national crisis. In this election-year series, Tyee Solutions Society looks at what's failed, and how it can be fixed.]
M. Shearer “can’t believe” it’s been 25 years since she moved into her one-bedroom apartment in a “nice area of the West End.”
"It's not one of the renovated ones" in her 19-story building, Shearer told me. "But it's not a bad apartment at all."
The British native — who also has trouble believing she's 66 — came to Canada at 18 and lived in Toronto before moving to Vancouver in 1974. She'd never considered moving until a developer bought her building in 2013, and the city tripled height restrictions in her area.
Shearer is anticipating an eviction slip when the new owners decide to replace her rental building with a much higher condo tower.
With a yearly income of about $15,000 in 2013, Shearer can't afford a high-end condo. Surviving on retirement savings, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement, and an ICBC accident settlement (not considered income), Shearer doesn't know when her money will run out.
"I'm too scared to crunch the numbers," she said.
Shearer pays one of the lowest rents in her building, just under $1,000. It's below the West End average of $1,239 for a one-bedroom, and $400 to $500 less than what new tenants pay in the building.
Still she can barely afford it. Rent, insurance, and hydro take over 50 per cent of her income. "Let's just say my food cupboard is not full," Shearer said. She walks to save transit fare, wears second-hand clothing, uses a computer "on its last legs," and says she sometimes skips meals to keep costs down.
Shearer has been looking for new apartments. So far she's had no luck in her price range. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) says affordable housing should take no more than 30 per cent of your monthly income. If it takes more, you're in "core housing need."
To afford her area's average rent, Shearer would need nearly $50,000 a year — more than triple her present income — to escape housing stress.
Maclean's magazine recently dubbed Shearer's generation the wealthiest in Canadian history. Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of BC (SPARC BC), doesn't dispute that — as a generality.
But "wealthy" seniors are mostly those who are homeowners with no mortgages. "It's the renters" who struggle, she said "and they are the hidden group."
Rental subsidies a poor safety net
Shearer lives alone, like nearly one in three Canadian senior women — and almost 70 per cent of all seniors in her province living on less than $30,000 a year.
BC Housing's Shelter Aid For Elderly Renters (SAFER) program is designed to help low-income renting seniors. But according to the province's seniors' advocate nearly half — 42 per cent — of seniors living on less than $30,000 a year have never heard of it. Shearer found out about it from a flier in hospital waiting room.
She was accepted in 2009, but a year ago her monthly benefit of $264 was cut by more than half to $124.00 for reasons neither she, her doctor, nor the staff at her local MLA's office have been able to explain. This May she received a letter saying it was going back up by $41 in June.
But even seniors with SAFER aren't safe from housing need. Outside of Metro Vancouver the program caps subsidies on the basis of a nominal top rent of $667 a month for singles. Subsidies don't rise for rents above that threshold.
Within Metro, the maximum rent basis is $765 for a single senior. That's $474 below average market rent in Shearer's neighbourhood.
For seniors like her, "incomes fall within the program's threshold, but the rents are above," said Copas. "That means that the full depth of need is not going to be met through SAFER."
Indeed, 23 per cent of B.C.'s nearly 78,000 renting seniors will receive SAFER benefits this year. But of those, close to 60 per cent pay rents above what the program subsidizes, according to the province's seniors' advocate.
Alberta and Ontario offer rent supplements directly to tenants, but not specifically to seniors. Rent and income limits for aid vary by region and even by building. Other provinces subsidize landlords or non-profit housing managers to reduce their rents.
There are no senior supplements in Atlantic Canada, where Donald Shiner spent five years studying housing as lead investigator for the Atlantic Seniors Housing Research Association.
The Association conducted the largest social research survey in Atlantic Canadian history, questioning over 1,800 seniors from across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, on how aging complicates housing.
Fewer than 20 per cent of the seniors rented. The majority lived in rural areas with few rental options. But in this region, home-ownership doesn't necessarily imply wealth, even on paper.
"They're stuck in these big old houses that are cold, drafty, and in need of repair," said Shiner, a marketing professor at Mount St. Vincent University. "The only asset they own, their home, declines in value and no one will buy it because it's falling apart and it's in a rural place with no jobs."
'Nice grandmas in crappy homes'
Shiner admires Finland's example. There, affordable, accessible senior rental units are attached directly to rural community health clinics or nursing stations. "They keep seniors healthy and in their small rural communities," he said.
But he holds out little hope for Canada. Governments here generally put less money into social services than in Scandinavia, and have tended to centralize services in urban areas, shutting down rural hospitals and clinics.
Nor does he believe that young Canadians care much about seniors they're not related to. As a result, "What we have are a bunch of really nice grandmas and grandpas living in really crappy homes and struggling to get by."
In British Columbia, more than half of renting over the age of 65 spend more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter — amounts that Canada Mortgage and Housing considers unaffordable.
Social Planning Council director Lorraine Copas charges that neither the provincial housing authority nor other levels of government are doing enough. "The supply side is lagging in all areas," said Copas, adding her voice to the expert chorus calling for a national housing strategy.
Municipalities can also help, she suggests, by rezoning for more mixed income density. That doesn't necessarily mean towers. Copas points to Harmony Housing Project in Abbotsford, B.C. It holds 11 townhouses, sold to families with incomes below $60,000, and 11 accessible ground floor bachelor suites rented to low-income seniors and people with disabilities.
On a larger scale, CMHC could bring back its Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program. Until it was canceled in 2012, it provided forgivable loans to build or adapt suites for low-income seniors or adults with disabilities. Homeowners had to agree in writing to charge rent deemed affordable based on neighbourhood income levels. As long as landlords stuck to the deal, the loan never had to be repaid.
"They offered additional funding if you would make it fully adaptable and accessible," Copas recalled.
Unable to count on housing after her savings run out, Shearer told Tyee Solutions she hopes to die first. "I've worked consistently since I came to Canada but I've never had a private pension," she said. Early in her career she saved practically nothing, sending money instead to her mother and younger sister for 12 years after her father died at 52.
"You work every day, you pay your taxes every day, you vote," she said. "And this is what you get."
Housed for now, Shearer and millions of renting Canadian seniors like her are holding on by pinching pennies and skimping on food and clothing. Keeping them housed — while also clothed and fed — requires both more available properties and help, government-funded or otherwise, to bridge the gap between market rents and fixed incomes.