[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.]
For the past eight years, Carolyn Goss has paid half her income to a series of mostly absentee homeowners in West Vancouver. She’s lived in four different rentals and been evicted twice. The places have gotten progressively smaller.
In the last two basement suites, the 60-year-old nurse and her two daughters improvised a third bedroom by using the living room as a sleeping area at night, or arranging shelving units to create a tiny sleeping space.
“It’s not what a family would normally have to manage,” Goss said. “It’s scraping, with these small places, to have everybody get a good night’s rest so they’re prepared and able to be at their best for their work, for their school.”
Goss works as a nurse in a hospital in Metro Vancouver. In the time of COVID-19, she's an essential worker, risking infection every time she goes to work. Every evening at 7 p.m., city dwellers thank health-care workers like Goss with applause and cheers. But when it comes to housing, Goss is barely hanging on.
It's an arrangement that has become familiar to many Metro Vancouver residents, even professionals with good jobs. The housing crisis has hit all residents — but it has hammered families.
Just more than 50 per cent of Vancouver households rent, and half those renters are families. Homeownership rates are higher in the suburbs; for Metro Vancouver, 36 per cent of households rent, while 63 per cent are homeowners.
Life has become increasingly difficult for renters. Renovictions forced them from their homes, and rental buildings were knocked down at the same time that real estate prices and rents were soaring: between 2015 and 2019, average rent rates rose by 28 per cent.
And it’s become especially challenging for parents with kids. If pushed out, parents tend to want to stay in the same neighbourhood so their children can develop friendships, attend the same school and have a sense of stability and security. They also need to find a place to rent that has enough bedrooms to provide some privacy and keep sibling conflicts from escalating.
Without good options, a forced move can disrupt everything, from commuting to work to spots in scarce daycare and after-school care.
Trying to find such stability is becoming impossible for families who rent in Metro Vancouver, said Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.
“In the past, people often organized that security of tenancy by becoming a homeowners,” said Kershaw, who founded Generation Squeeze, a lobby group for younger generations of Canadians.
“But that ability to say ‘I want my child to go to the same daycare or school for the next number of years’ is now out of reach… because their tenancy depends on the preferences of their landlords.”
COVID-19 restrictions are now keeping most residents at home, with families trying to find space for parents to work and kids to complete school assignments. And if residents do get the virus, they're supposed to find a way to self-isolate at home, keeping away from the rest of their family as much as possible.
The link between housing and health has never been more stark, Kershaw said.
Kershaw argued that Canadian cities with huge gaps between local incomes and housing costs were already in the grip of a kind of "plague," before the advent of COVID-19.
In Vancouver, a historic home price and rent rate spike in 2016 drove the issue to the forefront. But the gap between home prices and incomes has been growing over the past 20 years, Kershaw said. At the same time, governments almost abandoned construction of new social housing and developers switched from building rental to almost exclusively focus on condos.
People who in the past would have been able to buy a house or condo are now priced out of the market and continuing to rent, Kershaw said.
They tend to have relatively higher incomes and are crowding out lower-income families who were once able to afford the private rental market but increasingly need subsidized housing. (Families who rent span a wide range of income levels: 42 per cent of families who rent make under $50,000; 23 per cent make between $50,000 and $80,000; 27 per cent earn between $80,000 and $150,000; and seven per cent make more than $150,000, according to a City of Vancouver housing analysis from 2017.)
This spring, as tens of thousands of renters saw their incomes diminish or disappear because of COVID-19 restrictions, the B.C. government stepped in with the unprecedented step of halting evictions and offering a $300-$500 rent supplement.
But not even that assistance, combined with a $2,000 a month wage replacement benefit from the federal government, has been able to bridge the enormous gap between earnings and rent in Canada's most expensive rental markets, Vancouver and Toronto.
"I think that we're at a moment now where our governments are experiencing what individuals have been feeling for long periods of time now in our urban settings: 'Whoa, it's really hard to manage these housing costs when we're on the hook for the earnings to pay them,'" Kershaw said.
"I think we've reached a moment where the provincial and federal governments say… we're only going to get there if we no longer say home prices are 'unhealthy' when they're not rising, they're healthy when they're closer to people's incomes."
Here’s how some Metro Vancouver families have been affected by rental market pressures, how new government policy changes could help and what else needs to be done.
Evicted to make way for condos, or rent increases
In 2018, Lotfi Fetoui was living in a one-bedroom apartment near Metrotown in Burnaby with his wife and daughter and paying $900 in rent. Then the aging building, where they had lived for five years, was sold to a developer who planned to tear it down and replace it with condos.
The new owner hired a tenant relocation firm to help residents find new apartments. At first, Fetoui ignored the offers of help — and the developer’s offer of a $4,500 payment to leave, plus $500 to cover moving expenses.
But as neighbours moved out, Fetoui stepped up his efforts to find a new place.
Now Fetoui, his wife and three-year-old daughter are living in another one-bedroom apartment, but are spending $350 more on rent and about $150 more on transit and gas because they no longer live near a SkyTrain station.
Fetoui makes around $50,000 a year. Renting a two-bedroom apartment, which would cost at least $2,000, is out of reach for the small family.
"Every time we think to plan for a new child, we see that it’s really tough,” Fetoui said. “It’s not easy.”
Fetoui and his family were part of a massive eviction of hundreds of renters from older apartment buildings in the Metrotown area to make way for new, taller condo buildings. Between 2010 and 2019, Burnaby lost 1,144 rental apartments, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s annual Rental Market Survey.
That’s a much higher rate of loss than any other municipality in the Metro Vancouver region. Most other municipalities have increased the number of rental units through incentive programs that encouraged developers to build new rental buildings, or a mix of condos and rental. Vancouver led the region, creating three times the new rental units Burnaby lost in the same period.
But demoviction and renoviction — where tenants are displaced so developers can build or renovate — is a problem across the region.
Between February 2018 and August 2019, Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam and Vancouver put new policies in place to protect renters facing demoviction or renoviction. But depending on which city you live in, those policies offer very different levels of protection.
Burnaby, once known as “demoviction central,” has the most protective new policies. Under the city’s new plan, which council approved in 2019, Fetoui’s family wouldn’t be paying that extra $350. Instead, the developer would be required to provide a monthly top-up to cover the difference in rent while the new building is being built, and would then have to allow the family to move back in at the same rent rate they were paying before.
The city is also requiring developers to replace any lost rental units in their new buildings, and plans to take steps to control how much rents can be raised between tenancies.
New Westminster and Port Coquitlam were facing problems with renovictions, not demovictions. Owners weren’t knocking buildings down. But they were evicting tenants with the claim they needed to do renovations, or required a suite for a family member.
Metro Vancouver’s low rental vacancy rate, high demand for units and provincial rent control limits offer a powerful incentive for landlords to evict long-term tenants. Rent increases were limited to the inflation rate plus two per cent under the BC Liberals, and to the inflation rate under the NDP.
But market rental rates have increased at a much faster rate. Evicting tenants — or persuading them to leave through buyout offers — and then renting an apartment to new occupants can bring huge windfalls to landlords. When longtime tenants leave, landlords can often double the rent.
While renter advocates have been pushing to introduce vacancy control — rent control tied to the unit, not the tenant, which eliminates the temptation to evict longtime tenants to get higher rent. But the province has so far not been willing introduce vacancy control because of the concern that it would dampen developers’ interest in building new rental.
New Westminster and Port Coquitlam both passed bylaws to address the renoviction problem in 2019. The bylaws use the cities’ business licensing powers to fine landlords who attempt to evict or persuade tenants to take a buyout because of renovations that don’t actually require vacancy.
Also in 2019, Vancouver increased the amount developers have to pay tenants in compensation when they move out, and promised to create a city-staffed hub for tenants to get information about their rights under provincial rent laws.
Renter advocates say Burnaby and New Westminster’s policies have been effective, but have panned Vancouver for offering the weakest changes.
“Burnaby's new tenant protection policy is groundbreaking [because] the focus is on tenants not developers or landlords,” said Murray Martin, a community organizer with ACORN. “In every other city in Canada… when tenants face eviction due to development, they are paid to leave. This usually means leaving the city or neighbourhood they live in because market rentals are too expensive.”
Meanwhile, the landlord lobby group LandlordBC has said it supports Vancouver’s changes, but has warned that the policies passed by Burnaby will stifle new rental construction.
The case of the mysterious landlord
By the time Garth Yule and his wife Cori had their first child, they’d already cycled through numerous apartments and shared houses on Vancouver’s east side.
But in 2009, they had managed to find a two-bedroom suite in a house in East Vancouver, with a yard and a big deck, for $1,450 a month. They had two kids, Eira and Astrid, who are now nine and six. Garth is a management consultant, while Cori works as a chef.
In 2014, their landlord sold the house and the new owner immediately gave them an eviction notice, saying he intended to move into the property.
The Yules wanted to ask the new owner if they could stay longer. Just two weeks earlier Eira, then four, had been hit by a car and had serious leg injuries, including a broken heel and a gash that required 25 stitches. She was in a wheelchair. It wasn’t a great time for the family to pack up and move.
The realtor who delivered the eviction notice said she couldn’t help them get in touch with the new owner. When Yule looked up the address on the eviction notice, it was for an empty house under construction. Registered mail he sent there was returned.
The Yules moved out, but they continued to fight the eviction, spending more and more time spent chasing down the landlord, learning about B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act and starting a case in B.C.’s small claims court.
The landlord hadn’t moved into the house — the basis for the eviction. When Yule knocked on the door, he found it had been rented to someone else for $500 a month more. The new tenant showed him their lease. It included a Whistler address for the landlord.
Yule took the landlord to arbitration at the Residential Tenancy Branch. The landlord didn’t show up for the hearing, so the arbitrator awarded Yule two month’s rent. But the landlord still wasn’t paying up, so Yule started a small claims case and won a $2,900 judgment. (The Tyee has reviewed the court documents.)
Yule hired a process server to deliver a summons to a small claims payment hearing to the Whistler address. The landlord ignored that. Only when Yule put a lien on their former home did the landlord pay.
The Yules had found another suite in a house for $1,850 a month, 28 per cent more than they had been paying. Two years later they were once again evicted, again because the landlord said he wanted to use the property.
That's when the Yules gave up on Vancouver. The family decided to move to Kitchener, Ont., where Yule’s parents live. They were able to buy a house of their own, and now pay $1,700 a month in mortgage payments.
Yule is frustrated by how easy it was for the landlord to ignore the Residential Tenancy Branch process. The family ultimately collected the $2,900 — but spent at least that in enforcing the ruling.
“At the end of it all, he didn’t even care,” Yule said. “When we finally pinned him down, he sent a cheque in three hours, because the entire way along, the only thing he had to do to frustrate the process was ignore it, and in three months he’d made back much more in a net increase in rent.”
It’s a common experience, especially for families renting in the secondary rental market — which includes rented houses, suites in houses, and rented condos.
They have fewer protections than tenants living in purpose-built apartment buildings, said Robert Patterson, an articled law student who works with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.
And families are especially vulnerable. They’re drawn to the secondary market. Renting a house — or a suite in one — can mean access to a yard where children can play, and more bedrooms.
Landlords evicting tenants based on the claim that they, or a family member, want to move in is one of the most abused reasons for evictions, Patterson said.
In October 2017, the B.C. government changed B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act to increase the amount of compensation tenants can get — from two months of rent to 12 months — if they can prove their landlord didn’t actually use the rental for their own use after the eviction.
That’s a positive change, Patterson said. But the onus is on the tenant to provide evidence the landlord didn’t move in. Even if the Residential Tenancy Branch rules in their favour, tenants often need to go to small claims court to collect the money that is owed to them.
“There needs to be more asked from the landlord when they’re both giving the notice, and when they’re trying to enforce it and get an order of possession — or when the tenant’s fighting it,” Patterson said.
While cities like Vancouver have introduced new requirements that require developers to include “family-sized” two and three-bedroom units in new condo and rental buildings, the three-bedroom units in new buildings tend to be very expensive — upwards of $3,000 a month — and Patterson is skeptical the average family can afford them.
“They’re priced at a certain number of income earners per bedroom, which does not work for children,” he said.
But Evan Siddall, the CEO of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., said continuing to build new purpose-built rental is the best long-term solution to the instability renters like Yule faced.
“I think the solution to all this stuff is increased densification, and densification has got to include two and three bedroom units,” Siddall said.
Living in the basements of empty mansions
Goss moved to West Vancouver from Whistler in 2012 after a divorce, when her daughters were 11 and 15. Because she’s a nurse who often starts work early in the morning, Goss based her housing decisions on whether her daughters could walk to their school.
When the family moved to West Vancouver, they were able to rent a three-bedroom house for $2,400 a month. The rent took 50 per cent of Goss’ income, but it was a five minute walk to the girls’ school.
But within a few years, they were evicted because the owner wanted to move back in. Goss found a basement suite for $2,900. The owner lived in the rest of the house for two months a year. The rent was too high, but the unit was large enough that she could rent a room to a student.
Goss was evicted from that suite, again because the owner said he was going to move in, although a few months later she found the suite for rent on Craigslist.
The next place was an illegal two-bedroom basement suite with no stove, just a hot plate. Her oldest daughter slept on a mattress on the floor. The rent was $2,100.
“There was no ability to have friends over,” Goss said. “If my daughters had to do homework, they would go to the library or school or use my bedroom — we would just have to juggle.”
Goss now rents another two-bedroom basement suite in a house owned by an absentee homeowner for $2,600 a month.
The experience has pushed Goss to get involved in politics. She campaigned for NDP candidate Mehdi Russell in the 2017 provincial election, wrote to the mayor and councillors of West Vancouver and is part of a citizen focus group on housing on the North Shore.
West Vancouver had some of the most jaw-dropping housing price increases during the 2016 spike and Goss witnessed her neighbourhood changing around her. Houses were constantly being flipped, torn down, replaced with bigger ones. The municipality has the second highest rents in Metro Vancouver, second only to the UBC endowment lands, according to CMHC.
Goss marvels at the large homes that sit empty for most of the year, and imagines how they could be split up and house three or four families.
But she’s leery of any housing solution that involves private developers building multi-family buildings.
“It has to be a by-the-people, for-the-people movement, because if you allow the developer to rezone and build multi-family, prices keep going up,” Goss said. She’d like to see more rentals, but provided by housing co-ops or municipally-owned apartment buildings.
Starting with the first foreign buyer tax introduced by the BC Liberals in 2016, provincial and municipal governments have tried to reign in speculation and reduce the number of empty homes. When the BC NDP formed government in 2017, they introduced the foreign buyer tax and a provincial speculation and vacancy tax and increased property tax on homes worth over $3 million.
The City of Vancouver also tried to tackle speculation with its own empty homes tax and regulations on short-term rental listings on sites like Airbnb.
That’s a big change, Kershaw said. Over the past few decades, housing has been seen as a solid investment and as a way for middle-class Canadians to grow their wealth. But there’s now a recognition that viewing housing as a commodity, not a place to live, has created deep problems.
“Starting in 2016, we have begun as a society to question to question the balance: is housing a place to call home, or is it a place to get rich?” Kershaw said.
“We have tried to clamp down on the most problematic examples of people using housing too much as a way to get rich, compromising it serving as a home for people.”
But Kershaw also believes Metro Vancouver residents can’t let their trepidation over runaway home prices stifle new building in the region, because the region also desperately need more of all kinds of housing, and especially rental.
To Kershaw, that means low-density areas need to be opened up to denser development, and cities also need to make sure family-sized housing — not just two-bedrooms with a tiny second bedroom — are being built.
A generational ghost town
If Metro Vancouver municipalities can’t find a way to attract and keep families, cities risk becoming “generational ghost towns,” warned Kershaw.
That’s already happening in places like West Vancouver, where young families with children have dropped, from 21 per cent of the population in 2011 to 14 per cent in 2016, according to the district’s Official Community Plan.
The share of children in West Vancouver under the age of 14 has fallen from 30 per cent of the population in 1961, to 14 per cent in 2016, according to the OCP.
“We’re leaving families having to think creatively about how they turn the dining table into the baby change table… how they have the closet function as a place where they might have a child sleep,” Kershaw said.
“These are fine, we expect to have younger generations and newcomers make those adaptations. But let’s be clear, these are major adaptations. It’s changing what we as a society expected and hoped would be the reality for many middle class [Canadians].”
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.