Greater Victoria’s unaffordable housing market is forcing people into extreme situations | CBC News

Amber Powell is no stranger to how unaffordable life on Greater Victoria can be—after all, she has been going to university part time for five years in order to work so she could pay her way through to her degree.

But when she wound up without a place to stay last year, she found herself in an impossible situation, with no available rental units she could afford. 

Across Greater Victoria, renters, homeowners, and those struggling with or on the verge of homelessness say that an increasingly unaffordable housing market is driving them to take extreme measures just to make ends meet.

Several residents told CBC News they are worried about what it means for their futures — and their ability to afford to stay on the south Island.

Renters in crisis

When she suddenly found herself without a place to stay, Powell says the rental listings were bleak: $600 a month to rent the walk-in closet of someone’s bedroom. Another person offered a free room if she sent naked photos of herself. 

An older man was renting out shared use of the trailer he lived in for $500 a month, where she would be expected to cook, clean, and share a bed. Powell reported the listing.

She says she finally found housing in the unfinished basement of an acquaintance’s 100-year-old house, in mouldy conditions with no heating or walls. 

It took a toll on her mental health.

“It was anxiety-inducing,” said Powell. “Thankfully, I wasn’t living on the streets — because that probably would have been the other option.”

After seven months in the basement, she says she was able to move into and share her grandfather’s apartment. After graduation, she doubts she’ll be able to stay in Victoria.

And she’s not alone.

3rd most expensive market in Canada

According to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Greater Victoria is the third-most expensive rental market in Canada, after Toronto and Vancouver.

Izzy Adachi, campaigns director for the University of Victoria’s student society, says every renter she’s met has a housing horror story. 

A December 2022 survey by the student society found that 24 per cent of students feel their housing is unsafe, and 38 per cent have previously lived in housing they consider unsafe.

“People have this idea of students being really entitled around housing,” she said. “I think that if people saw the conditions that a lot of us were living in, they wouldn’t be calling us that.”

A lack of affordable rental housing has pushed many health-care workers to consider opportunities off island, according to Caitlin Jarvis, a community nurse and liaison for the British Columbia Nurses’ Union.

Izzy Adachi, UVic student society’s director of campaigns, stands in one of the university’s new student housing facilities. She says only 10 per cent of students live on campus. (Emily Fagan/CBC)

She and her partner would like to move in together, but they haven’t been able to find a two-bedroom apartment in Greater Victoria within their $2,200 budget. Several of her colleagues shared similar stories of wanting to move out of their parent’s house, have children, or buy a house — but can’t afford to in the current housing market.

“A lot of nurses, including myself, have debated, ‘Do I need to look elsewhere?'” said Jarvis. “I love living in Victoria, and I love my nursing job … but it might just not be feasible long term.”

According to Pershing Sun, a senior analyst for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, only one per cent of rental units in Greater Victoria are affordable for households with the lowest 20 per cent of incomes.

At the end of 2022, the median price of single-family homes and condominiums combined was just over $ 1 million. The average one-bedroom rental was $2,073 a month.

Victoria homeowner Clint Lalonde was so worried his two teenage children wouldn’t be able to live in the neighbourhood they grew up in he decided to build a one-bedroom garden suite in his backyard — a project that he hopes will be finished 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.

“It still is, unfortunately, in my head that eventually, I will have to move away from here.”

Building out of the crisis

Zac de Vries, the chair of the Capital Region Housing Corporation, says it is developing a new affordable housing supply program it is hoping to roll out in 2024. The region has seen hundreds of shelter units and close to 2,000 affordable rental units created since 2016 through the Regional Housing First program, involving partnerships with the province, the federal government, and the Capital Regional District.

“Really, the only way out of this is partnerships and accountability at all levels of government,” he told CBC News.

A tablet shows a model of a future bungalow.
Lalonde shows the plans for the garden suite on his tablet. He hopes his daughter, Maggie, will be able to move into it by the end of this year. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The Ministry of Housing says it is investing in hundreds of new student residence beds at below-market rates for students at UVic, Vancouver Island University and North Island University. 

At UVic, only 10 per cent of students are able to live in on-campus housing.

The ministry also pointed to two recent announcements: the establishment of a Rental Protection Fund to enable non-profits to buy older rental buildings in B.C., rather than allowing the buildings to be sold to developers and the Housing Hub, designed to create a single application process to streamline housing permit approvals for developers.

Marc Lee, a senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says that investor behaviour has to be reined in, and housing supply needs to increase before Victoria’s  housing issues can start to ease.

The NDP promised to build 114,000 new affordable housing units over the next decade when it was elected in 2017, but six years on, he says, only 31 per cent of the housing has been completed or is underway.

Lee says that a partnership with the provincial and federal governments to build a significant number of non-market units a year would go a long way toward housing affordability. He says this crisis will take a generation to build out of and hopes the province will recommit to building large-scale affordable housing in the upcoming budget.

On The Island12:26We often talk about the impacts of the housing crisis – but in a series starting today, we’re taking a closer look at the factors and solutions behind this issue.

Gregor Craigie spoke with CBC’s Emily Fagan about the struggles people have finding housing in Greater Victoria.

On The Island9:34No place for home – inside Vancouver Island’s housing crisis : How did it get this bad?

Gregor Craigie spoke with the CBC’s Emily Fagan about the housing crisis on Vancouver Island.

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