FOCUS: Nowhere to Rent — A Surrey perspective

"I am just so worried about being homeless right now," Whalley single mom says, as widespread rental housing crisis hits home.

Kristina Foley and her three children — from left

SURREY — Staring at her ceiling in the dead of night, Kristina Foley feels the walls are closing in. Soon, she dreads, she won’t have a roof above her head and her young family will end up under an overpass, or worse.”

The lease on her dingy two-bedroom Whalley apartment has expired and she says her landlord, Royal Providence Management, has jacked up her monthly rent to $1,100 from $950. She can’t afford it, living on a $1,300 disability assistance cheque.

“I’m desperate and scared,” she says. “I’m having a really, really hard time finding a place. Either they don’t want kids, or they don’t want income assistance people. And plus, everything’s way out of my price range. We’ve been looking all over. We went to New Westminster, we went to Burnaby, we went to Vancouver, we’ve been looking online, in Delta, it’s crazy.

“Everywhere is just completely out of my price range and if that’s not the situation then they simply don’t want someone who’s not working, or who has kids.

“It’s pretty bad out there,” Foley adds. “A lot of people are being displaced, and forced out of their homes.”

The single mom has three daughters. Victoria is 15, Natalie, is 2, Danica is eight months old.

Foley is pregnant with a fourth child due in December.

Bruce Ralston, NDP MLA for Surrey-Whalley, is trying to help her.

“She’s a victim of this fixed-term lease business,” he says. “She’s talked to all kinds of agencies. It’s tough, very tough – I’m going to do what I can. It’s quite frightening for her, she’s genuinely frightened. Who wouldn’t be? This is the most heart-wrenching case I’ve seen in a while. The way things are, there’s going to be more.”

A representative of Royal Providence Management declined to comment. Ralston has written to Shayne Ramsay, CEO of BC Housing, on Foley’s behalf, asking if her application is on a priority list.

“Can you also tell me how long her and her children will have to wait for subsidized housing?” he wrote. He has not yet received a response.

The local chapter of ACORN is also trying to help Foley, and people like her. ACORN, or Asssociation of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has roughly 84,000 members nationwide and 7,000 in B.C. It advocates for low- and moderate-income families and champions their issues.

Rick Hardy, co-chairman of North Surrey ACORN, says the affordable rent situation is “really bad” in Surrey.

“The City is not talking anything seriously,” he charges. “The government’s rolling the ball on down the line until the next election. Housing values are going up and landlords are taking their piece of the pie. The governments don’t give a damn.”

Hardy says his group has been lobbying Surrey city council members to require high-rise developers to reserve 30 per cent of their suites for low- to middle-income people, ranging from those on welfare to earning $45,000 per year.

“We’ve had a couple of them (meetings with city officials),” he says. “Of course, you can spend the rest of your life looking at options. What we’re trying to get the city hall of Surrey to do is inclusionary housing, inclusionary zoning. I can’t tell you the number of complaints and people living in fear right now over that.”

Hardy’s correct. It is difficult to arrive at a remotely accurate count of how many people in Surrey and neighbouring communities are finding themselves priced out of the residential rental market, though there is anecdotal evidence aplenty.

Anna Kowalewski, co-chairwoman of North Surrey ACORN, says “a lot of people on disability and welfare can’t afford rent prices.

“I’ve actually heard there are bidding wars in Surrey to get rental accommodations.”

Kowalski notes that while landlords are entitled to levy annual rent increases of 2.6 per cent, there’s a “loophole” in the Residential Tenancy Act that enables landlords to charge more when renegotiating expired fixed-term leases and ACORN wants the government to close it.

Provincial New Democrat leader John Horgan says his party has been speaking with people about finding a place to rent in their communities “and they’re telling us it’s harder and harder to find places that they can afford.

“Stable, affordable housing is intimately linked to the health and success of families, workers and the economy as a whole,” Horgan says.

“As Christy Clark continues to neglect families and communities by ignoring affordable rental housing, it’s become clear that her government is only interested in fuelling the out-of-control property market.

“People that I speak with in every part of B.C. are concerned about their ability to find affordable housing to rent or buy,” the NDP leader says. “They know it’s a crisis.”

Ralston says the Liberal government is “not worrying about solutions for people like Kristina Foley.

“They refuse to do anything about it.”

Not so, Surrey Liberal MLA Marvin Hunt says. Housing Minister Rich Coleman is having hotels converted into affordable housing and is increasing rent subsidies, he says.

As for rental bidding wars in Surrey, Hunts says, “I have only heard that by way of rumour. I guess I find that amazing.” When it comes to securing rental accommodations, he notes, it usually just involves a yes or a no.

Foley, of course, is desperate to hear a “yes,” and soon.

“I lay awake at night dreading that my children will be taken away from me, or that our family will be forced to live in separate apartments because we can’t find a suitable apartment within our means,” says Foley, 36.

“As a mother on disability, I can’t find a single place within my price range. Most market rental suites are out of the range for the housing portion of the disability benefit. I’ve been working with housing workers, but still can’t seem to find anything. The few suites we have found within our price range don’t want to rent to people who can’t work. They either don’t call my references, or they outright refuse to show the suite. BC Housing tells me that even though my family is at risk of homelessness, we still don’t get priority status.

“I am just so worried about being homeless right now,” she says. “At the end of August, I am losing my home.”

Foley says the provincial government needs to invest in social housing.

“My family is in dire straights, and we’re not the only ones…There are organizations out there fighting for more housing, like ACORN, but that change will take time and patience. In the meantime, families like mine are left in the lurch. If anybody out there with a space for my family and I can read this, please reach out. Don’t leave my family and I out in the cold.”

Foley hopes someone will see her story, “take pity” and offer her a place. She can be reached at 778-714-7143.

“The housing laws have to change,” Foley says. “Tenants need a lot more rights, tenants need more protection because landlords are able to just force people out of their homes, and raise rents, and do whatever they want to people.”

Meantime, Stephanie Cadieux, Liberal MLA for Surrey-Cloverdale, says it’s “not fair to say” the provincial government has done nothing. Since 2001, she says, the provincial government has invested $4.4 billion in building and funding affordable housing and in its most recent budget earmarked $355 million over the next five years for 2,000 more affordable housing units to be built.

Surrey last year received $48 million from the provincial government for shelter, affordable housing and rent assistance, she adds. Thousand of proposed affordable housing units are sitting in city and municipal planning departments, she says.

“Cities control that, where things are built and when, in their communities.”

Cadieux notes it’s no secret there it a lack of supply and huge demand for rental housing in the Lower Mainland but there are a “bunch of options” available to applicants for social housing, with their priority placement based on need, in Surrey.

As of June 30, there were 1,780 applicants on a waitlist for social housing in Surrey through B.C.’s housing registry and of those, 870 were families. On the other hand, Cadieux notes, low-income renters not drawing on any other form of government assistance, who are renting or are seeking to rent in the private market, can apply to the provincial government for rent subsidy through BC Housing.

“It’s a really good program,” she says. Three-thousand Surrey households are receiving subsidy, and of those, 1,400 are families.

Rajvir Rao, manager of public affairs and communications for BC Housing, says that while BC Housing offers housing options through the registry “there are many other housing providers who do the same so we’re unable to provide an accurate representation of the total number of housing offers.”

Rao says that in the last fiscal year BC Housing offered housing to 2,503 people through the housing registry. “Of those, 2,111 accepted the offer.

“In Surrey, 203 people were offered housing and 161 accepted the offer. People rejected the offer of housing for a variety of reasons, for example, they’d prefer a different building or a different floor, they’d found another housing option, etcetera.”

This past Monday, the government called a special sitting in Victoria to address B.C.’s white-hot housing market and the problems it is creating. It introduced a proposed 15 per cent tax on foreign nationals buying real estate here. If passed, Cadieux says, the proceeds would “allow us some flexibility” to provide more rental assistance to those who need it, and increase the supply of “affordable” housing.

“We’re hoping over time to address these issues,” she says. “Stay tuned.”

Horgan, however, says the new tax on foreign nationals is misguided in that it focuses on the citizenship of homebuyers rather than on speculative investment, which is “distorting” real estate prices here.

“We have the tools to tax people who are simply using homes as a safety deposit box for their wealth, but Premier Christy Clark is still refusing to use them.”

New Democrat housing critic David Eby echoes that.

“It’s a mistake to focus on citizenship status instead of foreign cash,” he says. “We need to link income data with real estate purchases to identify the international money at the root of the housing crisis.”

tom.zytaruk@thenow
newspaper.com

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