Rising prices create housing crunch

Gulf Islands Driftwood (front page) | 2002 | Circulation: 4,200

Faced with major housing shortages, people looking for affordable lodging on Salt Spring are being forced to choose between homelessness and losing their support network, says a Community Services housing coordinator.

According to Rona Robbins, coordinator of mental health housing for Community Services, the lack of housing on the island even poses a hazard to those with mental health problems. She said the island desperately needs a low-income housing facility.

“Every time somebody calls me to find something for them, I cringe,” she said. “There is no low-income housing on the island at all.

“A lot of people with problems of mental illness are not able to defend themselves. Add to that the stress of no housing, and the next thing you know is you’ve got clients in the hospital because of the stress.”

Community Services has already looked into options for affordable housing, for instance in the old RCMP building on Ganges Hill. But with those options not panning out in the end. Robbins said the island still needs a facility offering housing specifically for low-income tenants.

Unfortunately the market isn’t geared towards those who need cheap hosing, said Bruce Mills, co-owner of Island Explorer Property Management.

He said more and more rich people are willing to pay higher prices on Salt Spring, which pushes up the property values for everybody.

“The problem really is the demographics,” Mills said. “The rich people want to move here and they drive prices up.

“It’s a big vicious loop. It changes the fabric of the island.”

It’s supply-and-demand economics, essentially, and Mills said there’s not much people can do about it. On top of that, he asked, what exactly does “affordable housing” mean?

“I have a problem with the term ‘affordable housing’,” he said. “If affordable housing is $600 per month, then there’s a shortage. If affordable housing is $1,000, there’s not a shortage.

“If you’re a single mom on welfare it might be getting a little pricey here.”

For Robbins, however, the threshold is closer to $325 to be affordable – and even that is hard to find.

The Driftwood talked to one renter who is having to stay in Bittancourt House, a low-cost housing project operated by the non-profit Victoria Human Exchange Society (VHES) on Salt Spring.

Like many others, she had a touch time finding affordable shelter on the island, and being a renter is “really a stigma,” she added when insisting she remain anonymous.

“Many people here think that a lot of renters are laid-back or don’t take care of the place,” she said. “Some renters are not good renters, but some people are tidy and responsible. It’s good to hear from that side.”

According to the Bittancourt source, lacking stable housing can lead to social problems, especially since few rental situations are long-term.

“It’s too debilitating to live always in an insecure way, always trying to find a place,” she said. “Because they never are grounded in a solid house, they end up having social problems.

“Their children have a lot of difficulty from never having a solid home. It’s absolutely absurd that people can ask for $900 to $1,100 while they’re away. That’s a form of usury.”

In fact, Island Explorer doesn’t even carry properties below $600, Mills said. The market is pricier – a three-bedroom house rents for between $850 and $1,200. He said that even $850 won’t get you much.

Patricia Fitzgerald is a facilitator for the Victoria Human Exchange Society (VHES), a Victoria-based society that operates several houses in the Gulf Islands, including two on Salt Spring.

Fitzgerald said she has seen first-hand the need for housing on the islands.

“All over the problem is that people are finding it harder to get places to rent,” she said. “There are a lot more children going to shelters.

“It just breaks my heart.”

There are many factors that cause homelessness, she said. Near the top of her list are high rent, unemployment and cuts to the government’s housing allowance.

The allowance was slashed last month as part of a package of cutbacks to social assistance. While the rate for two family members held at $520, the amount for each additional child was scaled back to only $35.

And while part of the solution to these problems lies in larger economic and political arenas, for now the answer is in the community, she said.

“We try to inspire people to share life’s gifts,” she said. “Anyone can lose a job. Anyone can have bad investments.

“It’s getting back to families and community taking care of those in need, and knowing they could be there themselves, to get people to look after one another.

“It’s becoming more and more important.”

She said there are many ways people can help VHES – they need everything from volunteers to people offering rides to Victoria.

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