The unaffordable housing market in Greater Victoria is forcing people into extreme situations
Amber Powell is no stranger to how unaffordable living in the greater Victoria area can be – after all, she has been going to university part-time for the past five years to work and pay for her degree.
But when she ended up homeless last year, she found herself in an impossible situation as she couldn’t afford rented accommodation.
Across Greater Victoria, renters, homeowners and those struggling or on the verge of homelessness say an increasingly unaffordable housing market is driving them to go to extremes just to make ends meet.
Several residents told CBC News they are concerned about what this means for their future – and their ability to afford to stay in the South Island.
tenants in crisis
When she was suddenly left without a place to live, Powell says, the rental deals were grim: $600 a month to rent the walk-in closet in someone’s bedroom. Another person offered a free room if they sent nude photos of themselves.
An elderly man rented out the trailer he was staying in for shared use for $500 a month, where she was expected to cook, clean, and share a bed. Powell reported the listing.
Average Two-Bedroom Rent 2022 by Metro Area, Purpose-Building Units
She says she finally found shelter in the unfinished basement of a friend’s 100-year-old house, in moldy conditions, with no heating or walls.
This took a toll on her mental health.
“It instilled fear,” Powell said. “Luckily I didn’t live on the street – because that probably would have been the other option.”
After seven months in the basement, she says, she was able to move into her grandfather’s apartment and share it. After graduation, she doubts staying in Victoria.
And she is not alone.
Third most expensive market in Canada
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Greater Victoria is the third most expensive rental market in Canada after Toronto and Vancouver.
Izzy Adachi, Campaigns Manager for the University of Victoria’s Student Union, says every tenant she’s met has a horror story about housing.
A December 2022 student union survey found that 24 percent of students feel their housing is unsafe and 38 percent have previously lived in housing they consider unsafe.
“People have this idea that students are really entitled to housing,” she said. “I think if people saw the conditions that many of us live in, they wouldn’t call us that.”
According to Caitlin Jarvis, a community nurse and liaison for the British Columbia Nurses’ Union, the lack of affordable rental housing has prompted many healthcare workers to consider opportunities off-island.
She and her partner would like to move in together, but couldn’t find a two-bedroom apartment in the greater Victoria area on their $2,200 budget. Several of her colleagues shared similar stories about wanting to move out of their parents’ house, have children, or buy a house — but can’t afford it in the current housing market.
“A lot of nurses, including myself, have been debating, ‘Do I need to look elsewhere?'” Jarvis said. “I love living in Victoria and I love my job as a nurse practitioner … but it just might not be feasible in the long term.”
According to Pershing Sun, a senior analyst at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, just 1 percent of Greater Victoria’s rental units are affordable for households in the lowest 20 percent of income.
At the end of 2022, the median price for single-family homes and condos combined was just over $1 million. The average rent for a bedroom was $2,073 per month.
Victoria homeowner Clint Lalonde was so concerned his two teenage children wouldn’t be able to live in the neighborhood they grew up in that he decided to build a one-bedroom garden suite in his backyard – a project by which he hopes will be completed by the end of this year – in time for his 19-year-old daughter Maggie to move in.
Maggie Lalonde says she and her brother are so grateful for the opportunity but fear they will eventually have to leave.
“Unfortunately, I still have in mind that I’ll have to move away from here at some point.”
Recovery from the crisis
Zac de Vries, the chairman of Capital Region Housing Corporation, says they are developing a new affordable housing supply program that they hope to launch in 2024. Hundreds of shelters and nearly 2,000 affordable rental units have been created in the region since 2016 through the Regional Housing First program, which includes partnerships with the province, the federal government and the Capital Regional District.
“Really, the only way out is partnership and accountability at all levels of government,” he told CBC News.
The Department of Housing says it is investing in hundreds of new below-average dorm beds for students at UVic, Vancouver Island University and North Island University.
At UVic, only 10 percent of students can live in on-campus housing.
The ministry also highlighted two recent announcements: the creation of a Rent Protection Fund, allowing nonprofits to purchase older rental buildings in BC rather than allowing the buildings to be sold to developers, and the Housing Hub, which is designed to be a single application to create process to simplify housing permit approval for developers.
Marc Lee, senior economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, says investor behavior needs to be curbed and housing supply increased before Victoria’s housing problems can begin to ease.
The NDP pledged to build 114,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade when it was elected in 2017, but six years later, he says, only 31 percent of the housing is completed or under construction.
Lee says partnering with the provincial and federal governments to build a significant number of non-market units per year would go a long way toward boosting housing affordability. He says it will take a generation to get out of this crisis and hopes the province will make a renewed commitment to building affordable housing at scale in the coming budget.