British Columbia

Comox Valley outreach workers make plea for affordable housing

Outreach workers in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island say an affordable housing shortage fueled by low vacancy rates and rising rents is turning into a crisis situation.

Rising rents, low vacancy rates putting more people at risk of homelessness, advocates say

Advocates say there are no supportive housing units in the Comox Valley to help people who are homeless because of mental health or addiction issues. (CBC)

Outreach workers in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island say an affordable housing shortage is turning into a crisis situation.

The plea for more affordable and supportive housing comes a year after voters in the region agreed to a new property tax to help fund solutions for homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless.

The new levy showed the issue is a priority, but the roughly $200,000 per year it raises isn't enough to make a significant difference on its own, said Grant Shilling with the Dawn to Dawn: Action on Homelessness Society.

"It reflects the attitude of the people of the Comox Valley. They want to see homelessness solved here," he said.

Low vacancy, rising rent

Dawn to Dawn provides rental supplements to help keep people from falling into homelessness, but a low vacancy rate and the hot real estate market in the Comox Valley are driving up rents, Shilling said.

"I have a good relationship with the property management companies here and they can no longer find any units for me," he said. "Rental units are now being sold and are no longer rental units."

The shortage of affordable housing is something Stasia Hasumi also deals with as a support worker at the Comox Valley Transition Society, which helps women and children who are escaping violence.

The tight rental market makes it difficult for vulnerable people to move on from the society's transition house, Hasumi said.

"I'm getting an increasing number of calls where people are just terrified to leave because they don't want to end up on the street," she said.

'A real crisis situation'

About 65,000 people live in the Comox Valley, which includes Courtenay, Comox, Cumberland, Denman and Hornby Islands and several unincorporated areas.

The province said it spends approximately $5.2 million a year on subsidized housing and rent supplements for more than 1,025 households in the region.

BC Housing also purchased an apartment building in Courtenay last fall to ensure that all 120 units remained as affordable housing.

But there are no supportive housing units in the Comox Valley to help people who are homeless because of mental health or addiction issues, said Sarah Sullivan with AIDS Vancouver Island in Comox.

"It's very disheartening, and we've reached a real crisis situation in our community," she said, adding an estimated 150 people are currently homeless or on the verge of being homeless in the region.

Homelessness and affordable housing have proved to be tough issues for smaller communities with limited tax bases to grapple with, said Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula.

​"I'm quite proud of what we are doing in the community," he said. "We have bent over backwards to work on this file. We can't fix this problem ourselves."

Local politicians hope to see more provincial and federal investment in housing, but they realize many B.C. communities have similar struggles, Jangula said.

"We always hope that they can do more. We also realize there is not an unlimited pot of money out there."

The B.C. government plans to spend $855 million to create thousands of new affordable rental units across the province over the coming years.

Shilling hopes some of those new units will be coming to smaller B.C. communities such as those in the Comox Valley.

"Homelessness is not just an urban issue. It's a rural issue and we would like the [province's] attention," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Thomas

Reporter

Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.

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