[Editor’s note: Four years ago, a spike in home prices and rent rates spurred B.C. residents to call for change and politicians to respond with new taxes to prevent speculation, and funding to build housing. Then the COVID-19 crisis hit. In this special series, The Tyee focuses on how families are faring in Metro Vancouver’s housing market, whether new policies are making an impact, and how to build a resilient housing system post-pandemic.]
On a cold January evening, Janice Abbott was getting ready to leave work when she got a call.
“A woman was being discharged from the hospital with a four-day-old baby,” said Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, a non-profit that operates housing for women. “And she was looking for housing.”
It was Jan. 13, the start of a week of snow and cold in the Lower Mainland. Abbott said it was “sheer luck” that she picked up the phone.
“I kept her on hold and started phoning around, and we made space for her in a transition house,” said Abbott, referring to temporary housing for women who are fleeing unsafe homes.
“But I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean she’s being discharged with a four-day-old baby in -8 C weather, and she’s on the phone calling me at five after five on a Monday night?’”
Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, British Columbia already had a desperate shortage of social housing, and such a tight and unforgiving rental market that some advocates feared the clock was turning backwards when it came to women being able to leave dangerous relationships.
Then the pandemic hit, and with an emphasis on staying at home as much as possible, things only got worse for women who might have otherwise tried to flee. Vancouver's Battered Women Support Services reported a 300-per-cent increase in calls, part of a national and worldwide trend.
Atira opened an emergency transition house to respond to the increased need; it filled up immediately.
"It feels significantly riskier for women now," said Abbott. "And maybe that's because women can't leave."
The shortage of social and affordable housing has been worsening for years, and long waiting lists mean it’s now virtually impossible to get women and their children into BC Housing buildings, said Lisa Rupert, the director of housing services at YWCA Metro Vancouver.
The wait time to get into social housing has grown from one year, to one and a half years, to indefinite.
“Four years ago, we stopped being able to get anyone into BC Housing,” Rupert said.
In a pre-pandemic interview, Rupert said the housing crisis is so bad, she fears vulnerable women in B.C. are at risk.
“I really feel that [with] the housing crisis, we forget that this is keeping people in abusive relationships,” Rupert said.
“It was really only in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s that women began to be able to afford to leave…. Now I think we’re going right back to a place where women won’t be able to leave, and the impact on them and on their children is huge.”
In a follow-up email in May, Rupert said the pandemic “has created even more awareness of the need for adequate affordable housing, both in terms of people being able to shelter in place and to self-isolate if unwell, and because it has highlighted the danger to women in abusive relationships if they don't have another home to go to.”
She said it’s important to highlight that transition houses are still open and offering emergency housing to women and children.
There are now new pressures on the provincial and federal finances as governments spend to keep renters, homeowners, workers and businesses afloat during a pandemic-caused recession. But many housing advocates think that with such a strong link between health, safety and housing demonstrated during the crisis, governments won't walk back those previous commitments.
The B.C. government says there is no change to its 10-year plan to build 114,000 units of housing.
"Having this pandemic amplify the problem of misogyny and violence against women and the potential for more funding to go into solving this issue is not worth the lives lost," Abbott said, referring to several recent murders of Canadian women by their partners.
"But I hope that in particular policy makers' awareness of what a big issue this is will result in more attention and resources.”
Atkey said her organization will be lobbying to bring the planned spending forward.
"Now that there is broader public understanding of the connection between health and housing for individuals and for communities, I think there will be public support," she said.
‘It wasn’t a nice feeling’
When Evangeline Dalaya was looking for apartments as one-half of a couple, she never had a problem finding a place to rent.
That changed when Dalaya, 32, left her partner and became a single mom last summer. Dalaya and her now two-year-old daughter first lived in a transition house, and then with a friend as she searched for a place to rent.
But Dalaya found that as soon as she told potential landlords she was a single mom, they’d say the apartment was already rented, or simply stop responding to her.
“You’d think that everyone has equal opportunity, everyone has similar resources available to them, and then I became a single mom and suddenly realized — OK, this is very challenging,” Dalaya said.
“You want to be honest with people, and I was very open about it, and then I could see the hesitation if I was speaking to them in person,” she said.
“It wasn’t a nice feeling, feeling vulnerable like that — that I’m being judged or critiqued for being a single mom.”
Then there was the cost of housing. Dalaya wanted to spend at most $1,200 a month. But even one-bedrooms were far above that price: average rent for a one-bedroom in Metro Vancouver is now $1,382 a month, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing’s annual rental market survey.
Dalaya’s experience is common, Rupert said, and it’s a major factor behind an ever-worsening waiting list for social housing.
The problem has been getting gradually worse for years. But Rupert said things got worse in 2016 — the same year home prices and rents rose to historic highs in Vancouver (see sidebar).
“We stopped getting anyone in our transition houses into BC Housing,” Rupert said. “It just doesn’t happen for women staying in YWCA second stage [transition housing] anymore.”
Rupert contrasts the situation now with 20 years ago, when she first started working at the YWCA. Many women would leave a transition house and simply rent an apartment.
Social housing was available, and women stayed a while and then moved on as they went back to school, got a higher-paying job and started earning more money.
Abbott said women who are open to moving anywhere in the Lower Mainland face a shorter wait time. But for women who want to stay in the same area — where their kids go to school and they may have social or family supports — the wait time can be years.
High rents also mean that people are staying in social housing longer, so new spaces aren’t opening up as often, Rupert said.
Dalaya never thought she would need social housing, until she encountered Vancouver’s rental market. A friend showed her an article about a new building the YWCA was working on in partnership with the City of Vancouver in the Killarney neighbourhood, and she filled out an application right away. Rents in the building range from $520 to $1,164.
In early January, she moved into a two-bedroom apartment. Even though she pays below-market rent, it’s still a stretch for Dalaya, who is training to work as an operations manager at a fast food chain.
“I love where I live, it’s an amazing building,” she said. “I think there needs to be more — rent is obviously sky high.”
The social housing supply problem
To understand how we got here, you have to look back nearly 50 years, to the 1970s when social housing construction was booming across Canada.
In 1972, around 31,000 units were built across Canada, and over the next 22 years, that number fluctuated from a low of around 9,000 (1987) to just more than 27,000 (1973). The numbers come from CMHC’s National Housing Observer, which is no longer publicly available — The Tyee obtained the data from Brian Clifford, a policy manager at the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.
But the pace of social housing construction dropped off a cliff when the federal government decided to withdraw from the housing sector in the mid-90s, downloading the responsibility to the provinces.
From 1994 to 1998, the numbers dropped from a little more than 9,000 units to 1,000 units a year, and sometimes less, for all of Canada. Except for a blip in 2006, the numbers remained at that level for the next decade.
Social housing is housing that is subsidized by government, while the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines housing as affordable when a household is paying no more than 30 per cent of income to rent. Non-market housing is “any housing protected from market forces,” such as housing co-ops, according to Patrick Condon, a professor at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
Just nine per cent of the housing in the city of Vancouver is non-market or social housing, while 20 per cent of the city’s residents are in need of housing they can afford or is big enough for their family.
Penny Gurstein, a planning professor at the University of British Columbia, said B.C. fared better than many other provinces when the federal government stepped away from housing. It had a provincial agency devoted to housing, and the non-profit housing sector stepped into the gap and started developing creative partnerships to get housing built.
But the number of people experiencing homelessness and the need for subsidized housing for seniors and working families kept growing. In the mid-2000s, the then-BC Liberal provincial government introduced a new plan that focused on helping those who were most in need.
The funding priority was building or opening new emergency housing spots for high-needs people at most risk of homelessness.
For those who simply struggled to pay the rent, government focused on rent supplements to help people afford private rental apartments.
From 2006 to 2014, the province increased the number of emergency and supportive housing spots from 5,138 to 9,839 and the number of rent supplements for the private rental market from 18,897 to 32,428.
But during that same period the number of non-supportive social housing units — for people whose challenge was simply affording rent — fell by 464 units, according to a 2017 report by B.C.’s auditor general, even as demand soared.
At both the federal and provincial levels, the 2000s and early 2010s were marked by an emphasis on supporting homeowners, with budget after budget offering new tax credits for homebuyers or increasing existing ones.
That changed in 2016. That year, with the housing crisis in full swing and an election on the horizon, the BC Liberals announced $855 million to build 4,900 units of social housing and expand the rental supplement program.
When the NDP was elected in 2017, they introduced a 30-point housing plan that promised to build 114,000 units of “affordable homes” over 10 years. Currently, 23,000 of those units are in some form of development.
Also in 2017, the federal government announced it was re-entering the housing sector with a new National Housing Strategy. Housing advocates have both cheered the return of the feds to the sector, and criticized them for not earmarking enough money to actually fix the huge gap created over the past 30 years.
According to BC Housing, the B.C. government’s current housing investment is split into several income bands. Some of the housing is for people who are on welfare, where a single person has $385 to spend on rent every month, and a single parent has $525.
There’s another batch of units for low to moderate income: people who live in social housing and make less than $65,000; or who live in market rental and make less than $74,000.
There are also some units under construction for middle-income earners. The average household that qualifies for those units makes around $99,000.
Gurstein praised the B.C. government’s 30-point plan, because it addresses problems with the entire housing system, including new taxes targeting the speculative demand that has warped housing prices.
But it will take time to repair the damage done as social housing construction was neglected for 30 years. Ramping up supply is great, but it takes time to build all those projects, Gurstein said.
‘There are a lot of women living really precariously’
Fifteen years ago, Gurstein conducted a study of single mothers, interviewing a group of women every six months. Some had secure, stable housing; others didn’t.
“What became really obvious was that those who could get into stable housing were faring so much better than the others,” Gurstein said.
“The others were having to constantly move. It was constant disruption, it was really affecting their families and affecting their health — it was housing that had bedbugs or was causing asthma.”
Single moms were also facing discrimination in the private rental market, Gurstein said.
“The landlords just did not want to rent to them,” she said. “It was just a horror story.”
Not much has changed since then. Dalaya’s experience of facing discrimination because she’s a single mom is common, said Abbott. That’s why relying on rent supplement programs — an approach the BC Liberals favoured in the 2000s and 2010s — isn’t the answer.
“Private landlords can be very picky who they house, and finding landlords who are open to housing women fleeing violence — especially if they’re not white — is a real challenge,” Abbott said.
As the province funds more projects, and as cities like Vancouver offer up land for housing, Abbott also wants to see more family-sized units built. Just like the prevalence of one-bedroom and studio suites in condos, there’s been a trend towards building smaller units in non-market buildings.
“We have a lot of studio apartments for women, and it’s not that we don’t need more, but our bigger priority is women who are getting their children back from care,” Abbott said.
Abbott and Rupert said the province’s system of transition houses and second-stage housing, where women can stay for up to two years, is working well.
When it comes to finding permanent housing, both Atira and YWCA are relying on their own stock of buildings to get women from transition or second-stage housing run by the non-profit organizations into non-market buildings.
That’s good for women already in Atira’s and YWCA’s system — but it leaves a long list of external applicants out in the cold, Rupert said.
“There are a lot of women living really precariously, and they’re making these awful choices about their limited amount of money,” Rupert said. “They’re not paying their rent and getting evicted; they’re moving from place to place all the time.”
“It’s not what we want for children and for the future of our society, to have to constantly be moving and losing schools and friends.”
This article is part of a series produced with financial support from SFU Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Support for this project does not necessarily imply endorsement of the findings nor content of this report. Funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this series, contact us here.