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Chris Boyles, back left, his wife Melinda, back right, and their five children sit at the picnic table outside their current home a camping trailer at the Cavendish KOA campground in Prince Edward Island on August 22, 2021. The family does not know where they’ll live when the campground closes for the season next month. Photo by John Morris/The Globe And MailJohn Morris/The Globe and Mail

Most of the campers who flock to Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, every summer come for the beaches, amusement parks and fish ‘n’ chips joints that line the tourist strip. The Boyles family came because they had nowhere else to go.

On P.E.I., where chronically low vacancy rates have long made it hard for tenants to find affordable housing – soaring housing prices and the return of tourists have only increased pressure on the rental market.

Chris Boyles, his wife Melinda and their five children say they’re among those being displaced. After being evicted from their four-bedroom rental home in July, they moved into a camping trailer at the Cavendish KOA campground, and say they don’t know where they’ll go when it closes for the season next month.

The Boyles say they’re stuck in limbo – their income is too high to get on a waitlist for subsidized housing, but they also can’t find a home for less than their budget of $1,800 a month. For now, the family of seven is squeezing into a trailer where they’re almost living on top of one another.

“It’s like taking a whole bunch of sardines and sticking them in the same can,” said Mr. Boyles, who works on a construction crew and provides the family’s only income. “It’s pretty stressful. I haven’t been sleeping. But we just can’t afford to go anywhere else.”

Prior to COVID-19, P.E.I. had the lowest vacancy rate in the country, bottoming out at 0.3 per cent in 2018. The pandemic brought some relief, but only temporarily, and was coupled with rising rents. As landlords convert their properties back to into more lucrative short-term vacation rentals, opposition politicians say the island is once again in a full-blown housing crisis – one that shows no signs of easing any time soon.

“We’ve always had people leaving for economic opportunities elsewhere. Now they’re leaving because they can’t afford to live here,” said Peter Bevan-Baker, leader of the Green Party of P.E.I. and the Official Opposition.

“It’s not just an urban problem, it’s in rural areas, too.”

He blames part of the problem on successive provincial governments’ “aggressive” pursuit of population growth. P.E.I. is the fastest growing province in the country, passing 160,000 residents for the first time this year, but housing has not kept up with the demand, Mr. Bevan-Baker said.

The island’s small size, and comparatively lower wages, only amplifies the problem, he said.

“We’ve had a very significant increase in our population, at a time when government has not put in the funds, or even applied for available funds, to increase the housing we need,” Mr. Bevan-Baker said.

“The rest of the country may be surprised that little old P.E.I. has some of the same problems going on in larger urban centres. But it’s magnified here, because we don’t have that wiggle room here that larger places may have.”

Connor Kelly, coordinator with P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing, a tenant advocacy group, says short-term rental properties such as Airbnb have removed thousands of multiple-bedroom homes and apartments off the rental market, and dramatically inflated the cost of rent on the island.

A recent study prepared for the City of Charlottetown by McGill University researchers suggested nearly 40 per cent of all rent increases in the municipality since 2017 could be blamed on the growth in short-term rentals. There were 635 short-term rental housing units in the city in 2019, an increase of more than 18 per cent from the year before.

Mr. Kelly and Mr. Bevan-Baker argue P.E.I.’s municipal and provincial governments are hesitant to regulate an industry that generates millions in revenue for property owners – even though it is also causing significant problems for long-term tenants.

“The government prioritizes the money from tourism over taking care of the people who actually live here,” Mr. Kelly said. “They don’t want to make any choices that would interfere with tourism, because we’re a tourism island.”

A recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation report shows rents are rising at a rate well above the maximum allowed by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission, but Mr. Kelly and others argue there’s little enforcement to keep some landlords from exploiting holes in the system.

The governing Progressive Conservatives say they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on affordable housing, trying to fix a problem that they say previous governments neglected. The department of Social Development and Housing also says it’s modernizing the Residential Tenancy Act, a piece of legislation more than 30 years old, to address common complaints from tenants and landlords.

The planned updates to P.E.I’s rental legislation, however, won’t deal with short-term rentals, Social Development and Housing spokesperson Rebecca Gass confirmed.

Mr. Kelly says without any restrictions on the number of vacation rental properties that people can own, families like the Boyles looking for long-term rental options will continue to be squeezed out. So-called “renovictions,” used to remove tenants to convert homes into short-term vacation properties, are common, he said.

“I don’t see any solutions coming from the P.E.I government, unless they really change their approach,” he said.

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