West End social-service providers scramble to help seniors face housing challenges

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Donald Allison has helped low-income earners find affordable housing in Vancouver for more than 25 years. He told the Georgia Straight he never thought he would need the same kind of assistance.

“And I’m not the only one in my building,” the retired chef and housing advocate said in a telephone interview. “Even though I’ve been here 20 years, soon I probably will have to move.”

Allison explained that for many older West End residents, fixed incomes have remained stagnant while rents have significantly increased.

“There are a lot of people who are really upset,” he said. “Not only are we going to have to leave the West End—which is a pretty great place for seniors—but we’ll be leaving the people we know. And no matter where you look in Vancouver, it’s hard to find a place. Where do we go?”

Rev. Jim Smith told the Straight that the housing crunch for seniors is one of the primary reasons his church at the corner of Thurlow and Pendrell streets is developing its property to include 45 affordable housing units.

“Our interest started with seniors getting screwed with renovictions,” he explained by phone. “We’re trying to help provide a place for people to age. You’ve got people who have been here for 50 years having to move out of the only neighbourhood they know.”

Smith described Central Presbyterian Church as one of the busiest social-service providers in the neighbourhood. He revealed it will close for an estimated 18 months beginning this December.

“The building is in use from 6 in the morning until 10 at night, seven days a week,” he said. “So we’re hoping to take the whole gang with us wherever we go.”

Upon completion, the church will occupy the first three floors of a new 22-storey tower. In addition to 45 units subsidized for seniors, the complex will include 168 market-rate apartments. City council approved the site for rezoning and development on July 15.

Upon completion sometime in 2016, the church at the corner of Thurlow and Pendrell streets will be replaced with a 22-story tower with a place of worship occupying the three lower floors.
Travis Lupick

According to a 2012 “community profile” prepared by the city, 13 percent of West End residents are 65 or older and 34 percent are between the ages of 40 and 64. The report notes the proportion of seniors may increase as that second group of residents grows older.

B.C. Housing refused to grant an interview.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, NDP MLA for Vancouver–West End, told the Straight that since he was first elected to the legislature in 2008 he’s repeatedly written to Housing Minister Rich Coleman about the challenges seniors face.

In April of this year, B.C. Housing finally provided for small increases to rent-assistance cheques offered through the Shelter Assistance for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program, Chandra Herbert noted. But he said that was the first increase since 2007, which means even revised SAFER allowances remain behind rent increases.

“Having the rent go up every year while your income stays the same, that often means residents have to make choices like lowering the amount of money in their food budget in order to put it into housing,” he said.

According to an email supplied by B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, more than 2,800 Vancouver households received SAFER assistance during the 2013 fiscal year. With the April program change, the average monthly payment increased from $150 to $190.

Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson argued that a plan that city hall adopted in November 2013 was designed to protect and add to existing rental stock to accommodate the 7,000 to 10,000 additional people projected to join the neighbourhood over the next 30 years.

However, the long-time West End resident added that the combination of aging buildings, renovations, and rent increases is “always a problem”.

Sharon Isaak, a seniors community planner for United Way of the Lower Mainland, said that so-called renovictions are less common than they were in the late 2000s. But she added that there remains “a fear” in the neighbourhood.

“People don’t think that they’re going to be able to stay in the West End and age in place in their community,” she said. “They fear that the landlord is going to try and up their rent.”