British Columbia

Victoria's affordability gap keeps tenants on edge — and sometimes pushes them over it

Evictions, disrepair, high rents challenge housing security for Victoria renters.

Evictions, disrepair, high rents challenge residents of B.C.'s capital

Nikki Sanchez said she sent a letter asking her landlord for some repairs to her rented home and the only reply was a two-month notice ending her tenancy. (Brittney Kwansey)

As the municipal and provincial governments scramble to house Victoria's homeless population, many renters in the city are finding their own accommodation precarious as they struggle to keep a roof over their own heads in the pandemic. 

A series of interviews on CBC's On the Island with renters, tenant advocates, rental owners and developers highlights an acute shortage of safe and affordable housing that will remain after the tents are gone from parks following the City of Victoria's ban on daytime camping that starts May 1. 

Tenant advocate Gavin Torvik says reports of renters losing their homes have not declined with the pandemic, and many of those people are over the age of 55.

"I know somebody who had to ditch all his possessions and is living out of a backpack on his friend's property. There are people in the city who are having their very first-in-their-lifetime experience of homelessness during the pandemic," Torvik said. 

Homeless tents in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, in March. While the City of Victoria and B.C. government pledge to provide homes or shelter to everyone camping in parks by May, Gavin Torvik of the Victoria Tenant Action Group says more people continue to lose their housing during the pandemic. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

Eviction follows repair request

Filmmaker Nikki Sanchez said she sent a request for some home repairs to her landlord in late October, and in reply, received a notice ending their tenancy on New Year's Eve, so a family member could move in.

Sanchez described a fruitless hunt for a replacement for the three-bedroom home she shared with three housemates. It had cost $2,500 a month. The scant listings offered one-bedroom suites for $1,700-plus. 

Most demoralizing, Sanchez said, was that in response to her social media appeals for rental leads, people offered tents so they could join the homeless residents in nearby Beacon Hill Park.

As a working professional in her mid-30s who is currently pursuing a PhD, "it kind of blew my mind that that's the reality in the city right now," she said. Unable to find another rental, Sanchez moved in with her mother. 

Cold house a hot commodity 

Meanwhile, in a city where even a rundown house with no heating is a hot commodity, a long awaited bylaw that sets minimum standards for rental housing is bringing little comfort. 

The Rental Property Standard of Maintenance bylaw's purpose is to ensure the quality, safety and livability of rental units. 

But one tenant says the new statute leaves her family in a tough spot.

The woman, who spoke to CBC on condition she not be identified, lives with her husband and young child in a home with no heating system. They heat the space with a half-dozen portable space heaters, which strains the outdated electrical system — and violates the new bylaw. 

While she supports the bylaw, she fears the outcome if they apply for its enforcement through the province's residential tenancy branch.

"My concern is that it would be such a big renovation that they would evict us to do the renovation," she said. "And where would we go? I have a toddler. I have a dog. The vacancy rate is so low."

A number of flat buildings along a street in Victoria.
Thousands of apartments in older low-rise buildings such as these in Victoria's Cook Street area represent a large share of the city's rental housing stock. Rising in value, they have become favoured acquisitions by real estate investment trusts and institutional investors, according to Colliers Canada. (Google Maps)

Doug King, executive director of Victoria's Together Against Poverty Society, predicts an increase in "renovictions" with the dramatic increase in sales of Victoria's stock of aging low-rise apartment buildings to real estate investment trusts and large institutional investors. 

King said he recently completed negotiations to compensate tenants being evicted from two buildings for renovations. 

While it's possible to delay the process, "the law, as is currently written, if a landlord does want to engage in that type of renovations … they will be able to get the tenants out of the building," King said.

Housing, reforms coming, mayor says

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says eight stories of affordable housing atop the new downtown firehall under construction is just one of several projects that will bring at least 800 affordable units to the city within the next two years. 

It's still not enough, Helps told On the Island host Gregor Craigie. At least 1,500 affordable units are needed over the next five years. 

Helps said further measures to support renters include plans for licensing rental owners and appointing a "tenant ambassador" to help enforce maintenance standards.

With files from On the Island