A mother with three children and her spouse are asking for help as they struggle to find housing in an overheated Vancouver Island rental market before March 1.
Their story highlights the difficulties faced by renters in Campbell River – especially families who rely on social assistance – amid a long-simmering housing crisis marked by low vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents.
“It’s not just our family that’s struggling right now,” said the mother of the family, who spoke on conditions of anonymity.
“There’s so many families going through similar predicaments,” she said. “I hear about it quite a bit now…. We personally know a few.”
She said her spouse lived in a small house in Campbell River for nearly 20 years without being late on rent payments. She moved in with her children about four years ago.
In late November, the landlord served the family with an eviction notice because he needed the property for business-related storage, after his two previous eviction attempts were rejected in arbitration, she said.
Now they’re struggling to find a place to live. The John Howard Society is helping, but an application for social housing filed months ago has gone nowhere, she said, adding that her file with BC Housing only became “active” late last week.
“They keep saying, ‘Sorry, there’s lots of people facing homelessness,’” she said.
She has tried to push government officials for help, even contacting the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which in turn put her in touch with the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
“I’m not playing around,” she said. “I have kids that I care deeply about, and they’re not going on no streets.”
During the weekend, the family was packing boxes, finding extra storage for furniture that didn’t fit into a rented storage unit, and figuring out temporary housing for the kids.
Dealing with their garden is a big task – much it is frozen – with details that include thawing a pond to retrieve a pair of goldfish.
Hanging over everything is the stress of imminent homelessness.
The family has considered renting a motel room, but the only options are unsuitable for a family, said the mother. The situation is causing the kids’ grades to suffer in school and generating stress.
“It’s breaking them down,” she said. “We didn’t have the nicest little place but we made it home, and they were stable, and that’s really paramount in a child’s life.”
The couple searches daily for rental housing, with a maximum budget of $1,600 a month. By Sunday, there was at least one promising lead.
But they’ve probably applied for 100 places, according to the mother, and the constant rejection is gruelling.
No kids allowed?
Some landlords who rejected their applications said they don’t rent to families with kids. That’s especially hard to hear after going through the trouble of applying at places that don’t advertise restrictions on age.
Under the BC Human Rights Code, landlords can’t discriminate against potential renters for having children, with some exceptions, including buildings reserved for people aged 55 and up.
Landlords also have the right to limit the number of people living in a rental unit.
In at least one case, a realtor told the family that a landlord rejected their application because their income comes from social benefits, and because they don’t have credit history.
“The landlord said it was because they want someone working, and they want credit,” said the mother. “We don’t have credit – not necessarily bad, but we don’t have any.”
The family relies on disability benefits received by her spouse, child benefit cheques and some income from odd jobs. Mental health issues related to stress make it hard for the mother to work these days.
“I don’t know if it was discrimination or not, but that was the one that stuck out,” she said. “The other people, it was just they didn’t call you back.”
Landlords have the right to assess the suitability of tenants, including their ability to pay the rent, according to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
But the ministry noted that landlords can’t refuse to rent to a tenant based on physical or mental disabilities or the fact that they are on income assistance, under the BC Human Rights Code.
Whatever the reasons behind the rejections, the bottom line is that this family is facing homelessness on March 1, and they’re looking for help.
The mother said they have a golden reference from their last landlord. People can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org, the email address of someone helping the family.
Friend reaching out
Crystina Johnson, a close friend of the family who lives in Merritt, has been reaching out through social media to help raise awareness about their situation – and about housing problems affecting people throughout B.C.
“I know people out in my area that have children that are sleeping in vehicles, in dead of winter, because it’s a housing crisis,” Johnson said.
She said the Campbell River family is trustworthy and she chalked up the string of rejections to housing discrimination.
“I’m just hoping that somebody out there has something that they’d be willing to rent to this family,” she said, noting that options may include basement suites and temporary accommodations.
“Anything. At this point they’re willing to go into a two-bedroom if someone will let them use the living room as a bedroom,” she said, noting that two of the children would share a room.
BC Housing swamped
There are several avenues for applying for social housing, including BC Housing’s housing registry.
There were 20,000 households registered in that database by the end of last year, according to Melanie Kilpatrick, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
“As of Dec. 31, 2018, there were 20,666 applicant households on the Housing Registry in B.C.,” she said in an email. “When someone applies to the registry, they are offered housing based on need.”
She said that when a rental unit becomes available, women leaving a violent relationship have priority. Other considerations include health concerns of applicants and the stability of current housing, she said.
People who submit an application with BC Housing’s registry should also apply to other non-profit and cooperative housing providers to increase their odds of securing subsidized housing as soon as possible, she said.
Asked if she had a message for people struggling to find housing, she said “too many people in B.C. still can’t find an affordable place to live” and “our government is taking strong steps to tackle the housing crisis by increasing supply, curbing demand and bringing in protections for renters.”
Kilpatrick pointed to a variety of initiatives that she described as “the largest investment in affordable housing in B.C.’s history, with more than $7 billion over 10 years.” On the Island, 1,500 units of housing are planned, including 40 mixed-income rental homes on Fir Street in Campbell River.
A report on regional housing needs released last year by the Strathcona Community Health Network said that rent in Campbell River had increased by 42 per cent over the past decade, while the vacancy rate fell from seven per cent to 1.3 per cent.