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Zona Hudson, 79, sits with her cat Misty at her home at the Jubilee House tower on Richards Street in downtown Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail)
Zona Hudson, 79, sits with her cat Misty at her home at the Jubilee House tower on Richards Street in downtown Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail)

Real estate

Seniors: The ‘invisible’ renters in Vancouver’s housing boom Add to ...

A West End resident named Diana recently balked at a rent increase that would have meant an extra $50 a month – which is a lot when you’re living on a fixed income.

So, she wrote her landlord a letter and politely asked for a break. At first, her request went ignored, and then, several weeks later, to her surprise, the landlord reduced her rent increase.

“It’s not something I’m going to expect every year, but I thought, ‘Dammit, I am going to be 85 in May, and it’s time I spoke up.’ ”

Diana didn’t want to give her last name, in case the landlord has a change of heart. She’s been renting five years, after a lifetime of home ownership. But when she became a widow, she moved back to the West End, where she’d lived when she was young and single. She now volunteers at a seniors’ centre, giving them advice on how to deal with rent increases, food costs and isolation. In the past couple of years, rents have shot up, and it’s put many elderly people living on assistance or fixed incomes in serious financial trouble. She calls them “the invisible seniors,” because their poverty flies under the radar.

“We have a lot of men who’ve come on hard times. They were in the business world, then they lost their job, got sick, and compensation doesn’t pay much.

“Some of the gals that come in, even five years ago, they were well dressed and everything. Now, they come in a little unkempt. They are losing faith. They say, ‘I only got four hours sleep.’ It’s on your mind all the time. It’s very sad,” she says.

“But around the West End, there are a lot of free lunches, at the churches or whatever. They can get a little help here and there, free baked goods from Starbucks, the little things that help.”

Diana is one of the luckier seniors. She is on a budget, but she doesn’t need assistance. And she’s a self-starter by nature: She learned to fly at the age of 60. She has discovered a vibrant, supportive community in the West End, and she can see why so many have been living there for decades. She’s encouraging those facing rent increases to hang in there.

“They say they can’t afford it; they have to move. I say, ‘Remember, it costs that much to move. You’re not gaining anything. You’ve just got to fight.’”

Seniors are a group with specific housing needs because many don’t have income-earning potential, and also because they are dependent on their surrounding community. Having to relocate at 80 is far different and more stressful than having to relocate at 30.

The West End has for many decades offered an intense concentration of affordable rental housing – highly livable, and walkable, too, with beautiful tree-lined streets, and amenities and shopping. For those reasons, many people opted to live life as a renter instead of becoming a homeowner. About half the city rents. But, as many of the older affordable West End buildings undergo redevelopment, seniors are finding themselves displaced at an age when they thought they’d never have to move.

“Our seniors are being forced out,” says Karsten Kaemling, assistant manager of support and information services at the West End Seniors’ Network (WESN). “Not everybody got onto the real estate ladder. There is a certain segment of boomers that did incredibly well, but a lot of seniors didn’t think of getting into the real estate boom at all, so they are being affected.

“Also, we find a lot of cases where women tend to outlive their husbands, so we have a lot of women seniors overwhelmed with what they are going to do. They are suddenly single, and money isn’t quite what it used to be,” she says.

“They are finding ways to pay these rental increases, but they are cutting back on nutrition. We are seeing this trend, where they ask us where they can find a food bank, or where they can go for a meal.”

And yet, it was hard to find mention of the demographic in the city’s major new report on housing, called Emerging Directions for Housing Vancouver,released this week. The report rightly looks at the growing gap between incomes and housing. It’s a refreshingly different tack from the usual idea that market forces should dictate what’s available for the resident. And it states that we don’t just need supply, but “the right supply,” as in affordable supply for local incomes. But the report focuses almost entirely on people of millennial and Gen-X age, or “the missing middle.”

“The word ‘seniors’ is not mentioned once,” says Michael Geller, who spoke last week as part of a Simon Fraser University panel discussion, titled Aging, Design, and the City. Mr. Geller is a developer and consultant who has spoken frequently on the seniors’ housing issue.

“When I saw the [city] slide presentation on Tuesday, it made me feel like I was in a Mount Pleasant brew pub, because everybody was 28 years old. It’s important to target that demographic, because they are being neglected … but we mustn’t ignore all those older people, especially the poor older people – and there are a lot of poor older people. We tend to generalize and say, ‘They all have a $3-million house.’ But they don’t.

“The fact is, there are a lot of people who are invisible. Their family is away; their friends have died off. The whole issue of overcoming isolation is critical.”

Near the end of the city report, in an appendix, there is a table that shows the age groups that grew or didn’t grow between census 2006 and 2011. The biggest is the 60- to 64-year-old cohort, at 43 per cent. People who are older aren’t included in the table, but census data show that all senior age groups are growing in Vancouver.

“Our concern is that older adults are largely absent from this report,” says Anthony Kupferschmidt, executive director at WESN. “Given the aging population, this is significant, as many older adults on fixed incomes are being squeezed out of the rental market as the cost of rent increases. This is especially the case in the West End.”

The city has responded that seniors might not have been mentioned by name, but they will benefit from actions – such as increasing affordable rental and social housing, and pushing the province to take action on rent increases.

David Hutniak, chief executive officer for rental housing association LandlordBC, says the report’s focus on income-based housing, along with recent contributions from other levels of government, has made him optimistic that we’re finally getting somewhere.

Mr. Hutniak was one of the committee members who gave his input to the city.

“They could have been stronger on [the seniors’ demographic],” he says. “But with the analysis they’ve done, it does address everybody.

“This analysis will effectively provide some really good help with some decision making, and in making sure the right product gets built. Doing a gap analysis based on incomes, and carving out these different thresholds, I think that’s really clever, really creative and informative – because the term ‘affordable,’ what does that really mean?”

Still, Chanel Ly, an outreach worker for seniors in Chinatown, says needs are unique for the older demographic, which is a diverse group. Ms. Ly, who is also an organizer of Youth for Chinese Seniors, is helping an elderly woman who’s been evicted from her home and living in a shelter the past two weeks. She will call around to non-profit groups and single-room occupancy hotels to find the woman a home. But it won’t be easy.

“I haven’t been very successful finding other seniors housing, but I am hoping,” she says.

She says when a few units of seniors housing do come available, they are snapped up, and the waiting list for housing is long. Many are living in single rooms, which are isolating, and not suitable for elderly people. They need housing that takes into consideration their interaction with family, community, health care and culture, she says. They need connection if they’re to stay healthy, perhaps more than any other group.

“I don’t know why, but maybe it’s a western thing, where it’s easy to forget and neglect our seniors. But in my culture, for example, we think of seniors first. We think of our elders first. So it’s kind of disappointing that seniors’ housing is constantly being neglected – and not just for Asian seniors, but all seniors. Everyone is aging.”

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