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Seniors giving up quality of life to pay rent

Healthy food and social activities first to go as seniors struggle to keep up with rising rents
Janet Gere
Senior Janet Gere says it's hard to keep up with rising rents in Vancouver. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Seventy-five-year-old Janet Gere describes Vancouver’s rental market as “scary.”

“It’s very scary.”

Gere moved to Vancouver from Sudbury, Ontario nine years ago. She was visiting her daughter and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to move. Gere had lived in the West End for a year in her mid-20s and remembered it as a fun, vibrant neighbourhood. So when she returned to Vancouver four decades later she settled back into the area.

“The West End, it hasn’t changed too much,” she says with a smile.

Gere has always been a renter. Before she left Sudbury, she was renting a large one-bedroom apartment with a balcony and a view — it was less than $600 a month at the time. When she first arrived in the West End, she settled into a one-bedroom apartment. She was there for about five years, but as the rent continued to climb she started looking for a smaller, more affordable place.

For the last few years, Gere has been living small. Really small. In an effort to save money on rent, she moved into a bachelor suite in an older three-storey building. She estimates it’s about 300-square feet. She had to get rid of most of her furniture, keeping just a few antiques, a chair, a small dining room table and chairs, and a twin bed. She doesn’t have room for a couch. The ground floor unit faces the neighbouring building and gets little sunlight.

It currently costs nearly $900 a month.

“That’s a lot when you’re on a fixed income,” she says.

Gere said it was pretty good for the first couple of years, but the rent at this place is also on the rise. Last year the increase was only $5. However, this year the landlord raised the rent by $35. It was reduced to a $25 increase after the property manager negotiated with the building owner on her behalf.

She recently put her name on the waiting list at Haro Park Centre, a facility in the West End that offers independent and assisted living, as well as residential care for seniors. But until she gets a room there, she’ll have to stay put.

“I’ll just have to bite the bullet and see what happens with the rent.”

She’s had to get creative with her finances to make it work.

“I do everything I can for free,” she says, adding that Barclay Manor, run by the West End Seniors Network has many activities that are free, or very low cost.

“You really have to pick and choose what you do.”

She also keeps busy by volunteering with the network. She’s taken some courses, done senior peer support and currently teaches an acting class at Barclay Manor.

Gere is not alone. West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert says he sees seniors struggling with rent on a daily basis.

“I’d say my office probably gets inquiries probably every day.”

While the area doesn’t have a particularly high population of seniors — seniors make up about 13 per cent of residents — 81 per cent of housing in the area is rental.

“We’ve seen quite a few people have to leave the neighbourhood because they can’t find an affordable place,” he said, adding that he knows of many seniors who have started working again to help supplement pension payments.

It’s a cause the long-time politician is particularly passionate about.

Five years ago, Chandra Herbert helped start the Vancouver Rent Bank after coming across a senior who ended up living in her van because she got sick and couldn’t work anymore — subsequently she couldn’t afford her rent.

“That has managed to help hundreds of people so far,” he said.

The rent bank isn’t just for seniors; it’s available through the Network of Inner City Community Services Society to low income families and individuals who are at risk of eviction or having essential utilities cut off, due to a temporary shortage of funds.

Seniors struggling to afford rent can also apply for subsidies through B.C. Housing. The agency’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program provides monthly payments to eligible residents. However, it doesn’t cover everyone. In order to qualify, a resident must be 60 or older and have lived in B.C. for a full 12 months prior to applying, be renting in the private market and paying more than 30 per cent of their pre-tax monthly income in rent. The funding is available to couples and people sharing a unit, as well as singles. It is not available to residents receiving income assistance or disability payments.

More than 21,000 households across the province currently receive the grant, which must be re-applied for on an annual basis. In Vancouver, as of March 31, 3,190 seniors were receiving funds through the SAFER program.

The payments are determined on a sliding scale based on income and rent and are only available to seniors spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.

“SAFER grants are the best route to take,” said Karsten Kaemling, assistant manager of support and information services at the West End Seniors Network.

He added it’s the first thing staff at the network suggests when a senior comes in with concerns about paying rent.

While the WESN doesn’t have any concrete statistics on the number of seniors who come in with concerns, Kaemling said the group often sees an influx of housing-related inquiries when development signs go up around the neighbourhood as smaller buildings are purchased and demolished to make way for larger developments.

“Seniors are being displaced,” Kaemling said, adding that this is when many run into trouble.

Many senior renters have been in the same building for decades and when they're forced to find new accommodations, rental rates are much higher than what they’ve been previously paying. Annual rent increases can also start to put a squeeze on seniors’ limited incomes.

“What’s happening is there’s always been a big population of people who rent,” Kaemling said. “Unfortunately many of the seniors that we see didn’t step into the housing market.”

Increasing rents mean many seniors have less and less money for other things — cable, food and other expenses often fall by the wayside in an effort to pay for housing.

“What complicates a lot of things as well is they become isolated,” he said, adding that some end up forgoing a proper diet or withdrawing from social or recreational activities, as a larger percentage of their income has to go to housing.

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