Landing : Athabascau University

Supportive Housing Workers are not Exempt from BC’s Homelessness Crisis

By Meghan Harms

Under the institutional florescent lights common in supportive housing facilities, a young single mother named Andrea sits with me to lament over her housing concerns. Faced with an exit from her current residence, she fears imminent homelessness or financial collapse. Even if she can secure a unit in a city with a near-zero vacancy rate it may cost her over 50% of her income.

Today could be any day working with marginalized individuals in British Columbia’s cataclysmic housing market, except today I am not a case manager, I am a co-worker. Andrea is not a person plagued by substance use or street entrenchment – she herself is a housing social worker.

In Penticton and the Okanagan, market rental rates have shot up to an average of $2,200 for a three-bedroom apartment sufficient for a family and around $1,600 for a two-bedroom apartment. Census data shows that the average after tax income for a Penticton resident is $33,199 – or $2,766 a month. A social worker in supportive housing may do a bit better with a monthly salary of around $3,800. However, for Andrea this still puts housing costs at 58% of her income, 28% more than the shelter cost-income ratio (STIR) recommended by CMHC.

How could a fully employed, educated person, who is herself a trade expert in housing, be facing such circumstances? Is there not low-income housing, provided by BC Housing, for these exact situations?

Yes, of course – but as Andrea reminds us there is “absolutely not” enough units of BC housing inventory for everybody who needs it:

There's also supposed to be low-income housing for single parents, for seniors and middle-income housing. There isn't enough because I know I can't get into it and, and a number of my friends can't either.

Accessing low-income housing in BC is not a realistic safe haven for low- and moderate-income individuals. With wait lists as long as two years in some catchments, the reality of ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets realizes itself long before a subsidized rental becomes available.

So how did Andrea save herself from homelessness? She was forced to get creative, and make some hard choices:

I had to leave my cat at my mother's house. I had to leave my daughter at my mother's house. I ended up getting a fifth wheel trailer to live in. That fifth wheel trailer parking spot costs me $700 a month. So that's well within my price range, but it doesn't accommodate my child or pets.

Hearing this story and many like it has called into question the sustainability of our housing market and the dysfunction of unbridled capitalism. The runaway train of rental market inflation stops for no one, unencumbered by guilt or a second thought about those left in the dust. After all, says capital, it is their fault they cannot keep up. Andrea speculates on this sentiment:

The demand for housing has risen along with our population. I believe that people are turning their basement suites into AIRBNB’s at an alarming rate. That's for a profit. It's profits over people. They're using AIRBNB as an income supplement, to supplement their mortgage. But what I'm seeing is they're asking for rents that would potentially be higher than their actual mortgage. It's a supplement for their income as well. I think either the wages need to go up so people can afford expensive housing, or we need to really limit how we're going to offer AIRBNBs. Nobody should owe a landlord, 70% of their income to keep a roof over their head.

The housing crisis is no longer an abstraction reserved for substance users or the mentally ill – it is a potential reality for every individual and family living paycheque to paycheque in our province and beyond. People are having to make survival-based decisions between food and shelter. People are having to divide their families. People are having to work exponentially more hours, longer hours, and be away from their children so that they can afford housing. Landowners are so committed to getting the maximum the market will bear they refuse to examine the fallout of unsustainable increases. I asked Andrea, how do we let people know they do not have to charge the maximum of market value?  How can we let landlords know that they can incorporate community thinking and inclusion into price setting practices?

I don’t believe that you can make people think that way. What I think is that once it's gotten to this point, and far before it got to this point, as it was rising and rising, we should have implemented rental caps. You know, I think the government really needs to step in and say, it is not only unethical, but illegal to charge rent higher than your mortgage. I do not believe that anyone should profit off of those in poverty.

Meghan Harms is a Sex-Work Advocate and Supportive Housing Worker in Penticton, BC. Her co-worker Andrea Fossum is also a Supportive Housing Worker and Executive Director of the City Wide School Supply Drive.

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