PEI·No Fixed Address

'It's a crisis': Lack of affordable housing leaves Islanders with no place to go

The problem of low supply and high demand is making it very difficult for people to find rental housing, a problem that's not expected to change in the next couple of years.

'We have people living in vehicles, who are parked in people's back yards'

70-year old Sally Ellis has congestive heart failure and needs a main floor apartment. She can't stay with friends much longer and says she's stressed out because she can't find a place of her own. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Sally Ellis of Montague, P.E.I., gets emotional talking about her struggle to find an apartment. 

"I'm basically what you would call homeless," Ellis said. "I just don't know what to do about it anymore." 

Anne Van Donkersgoed with Sally Ellis. VanDonkersgoed said provincial housing told them Ellis wasn't a priority, and provided them a list of private landlords. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Ellis has been living with friends for the past six months, but her room is now needed by family moving in.

She has been on waiting lists for provincial seniors housing for more than a year and can't find any private apartments either. 

"I need an apartment now," she said. "I am in a critical situation."

Ellis is on a limited budget and has congestive heart disease — meaning she needs a main floor unit without any stairs.

"A homeless senior with health issues should be considered a priority in this province," said Anne Van Donkersgoed, a friend of Ellis' through church who has been helping her — and others — try to find a place.

Sally Ellis stands at the doorway of her temporary home, which will soon not be available. (Laura Meader/CBC)

She said Ellis' health has deteriorated with the added stress. 

Ellis and Van Donkersgoed met with the province, but they say she was told she was not priority for social housing.

"She was not a priority and was handed a list of private landlords and told to go find herself a place," Van Donkersgoed said. 

They said there are vacant units for seniors in Montague not filled, which makes the situation more frustrating. 

The province confirmed it has three vacant units, which needed repairs and upgrades. They're being prepared to rent out next month. 

Social housing options

The province offers subsidized housing for seniors and families — there's a waiting list of about 1,300 households for 1,500 units across P.E.I., according to the province.

People living in subsidized housing contribute 25 per cent of their income toward their rent. The province recently announced rent supplements — funding that can be used in any building, once approved. It's currently offering supplements to 490 households.

Sonya Cobb, director of housing services, says government is working on solutions, from using short-term rentals to building new affordable housing. (Laura Meader/CBC)
Potential clients are assessed on income level, current housing situation, and medical needs, said Sonya Cobb, the director of housing services — adding some will never get in.

"We always have people waiting," she said.

However, Cobb is hopeful the province's housing action plan will lead to improvements. 

"There is a recognition of what the challenge is," she said. "We have a plan, we have a commitment from government to implement that plan."

Many struggling

Record low vacancy rates and a lack of available affordable housing means Ellis is just one of many people struggling to find a home.

Callum Beck, the pastor with Central Christian Church, says he's heard from a number of members of his congregation who are having difficulty finding housing.

"Even to just get a room is difficult and the rooms are so expensive," he said. "It just seems like the lower end there's almost nothing available anymore. It's terribly discouraging."

The church itself also had difficulty finding a home for a refugee family from Iraq it is sponsoring.

"We had no idea what we were going to do," Beck said. "There was almost nothing even on the market."

I have no idea what the solution is, but we need to be looking for solutions.— Callum Beck

He said they were able to find a rental, almost by fluke. They happened to be speaking to a woman whose mother owned a house and was willing to rent, but it needed a lot of work — about $12,000 worth.

Pastor Callum Beck stands outside the property a group of churches decided to invest time and money to renovate for a refugee family. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Dozens of volunteers pitched in to help with painting, floor installation and bathroom improvements. 

"It's been so difficult to find affordable housing. To me, this is the big issue. I have no idea what the solution is, but we need to be looking for solutions," said Beck.

'There's no apartments'

Housing was at the forefront of many of the municipal election campaigns earlier this fall, and has also been discussed at public meetings.

The house needed significant renovations, but the church was able to strike a deal with the landlord and mobilize volunteers. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"People living on low or modest incomes are being driven out," said Rosalind Waters, who works to find housing for people with intellectual disabilities and has worked in other provinces as a tenant advocate. 

"There's no apartments," she said. 

'It's a crisis'

Green Party MLA for Charlottetown-Parkdale Hannah Bell says she's received a lot of calls from people struggling to find a place to live — she said it's the number one reason people call her constituency office.

MLA Hannah Bell stands in front of an empty building that used to be a law office. She believes many vacant buildings could be converted into housing. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"It's a crisis," Bell said. "We have people living in vehicles, who are parked in people's back yards. We have people who are living three families in one two-bedroom apartment." 

Bell said one person who called has severe diabetes and was living out of her car because she couldn't find a place she could afford.

During that time she developed wounds on her feet due to poor circulation. 

"These wounds actually became so badly infected that when she went to change her dressings, they had maggots," Bell said. "It's one of the most disturbing things that I've had to deal with so far."

Not enough apartments

Vacancy rates hit an all-time low in P.E.I. last year, according to numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and the situation isn't expected to change significantly in the next few years.

Online listings show more 'want ads' than apartments for rent. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"Demand is exceeding supply," said Chris Janes, Senior Market Analyst with CMHC. "That's driven the vacancy rate to record low levels. It's effectively zero."

The 2017 Rental Market Report reports P.E.I.'s overall vacancy rate at 1.2 per cent — the lowest in the Atlantic provinces. Charlottetown is at 0.9 per cent and Summerside at 2.5 per cent.

The province's housing action plan says immigration, larger numbers of international students, seniors downsizing and a growth in short-term tourism rentals have all led to the tight housing market.

Waiting lists for apartments

Property management companies say it hasn't been difficult to find renters.

Killam Apartment REIT properties says it has waiting lists at all its buildings. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"Typically as soon as an apartment becomes available we're able to fill it very quickly," said Dan Sampson, director of property management for Killam Apartment REIT.

The company has 1,100 units in P.E.I. — none of which are vacant. Sampson said there are waiting lists for most of the company's properties.

"We get calls every day from people," said Trevor Bevan, an owner with Bevan Enterprises, which has 400 units.

He said when an ad goes online, he gets dozens of emails. 

'Nobody is going anywhere'

Anderson House, a short-term emergency shelter for women in Charlottetown, has also seen the impact of the housing shortage, with women staying at the shelter longer because they are unable to find somewhere to live.

The rental crunch is forcing women to stay longer at Anderson House emergency shelter even though they are ready to move on, says Danya O'Malley. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The maximum stay for the shelter is supposed to be three weeks, but many stay twice as long said Danya O'Malley, executive director of P.E.I. Family Violence Prevention Services. She said those longer stays mean the shelter is able to take fewer people.

"Every year it seems to get worse and more difficult," she said. "Nobody is going anywhere."

O'Malley added that because of the shortage, landlords are able to be more selective — she's had clients turned down because they have children or they're on social assistance. 

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Laura Meader is a video journalist for CBC P.E.I.