In search of an answer

Homelessness situation getting better, but it will always continue in a city where rents are too high

Annette Sharkey’s comments were almost prophetic.

The Social Planning Council executive director recently told Vernon council of how the homeless situation has gone from “chaos” to almost manageable since 2006 through a multi-agency approach.

But as she wrapped up her report, Sharkey warned that Vernon isn’t out of the woods yet when it comes to tent cities popping up.

“We need to keep working around the affordable housing issue,” she said.

And within about an hour, the situation was facing council head on.

Council was considering rezoning so a seniors-oriented development can take place on the west end of 30th Avenue. Presently, about 36 people rent space in the old motel and three houses on the site.

“Where do all of these people go — the disabled, the seniors?” Kim Merlow, one of the tenants, asked council a few weeks ago.

No one should fault the property owner for wanting to develop the site — that is the right of anyone who holds title on land. It also appears that they are well aware of provincial legislation outlining obligations to tenants impacted by development — providing one month’s rent and advance notice for eviction.

But this situation highlights a scenario that will occur more in the future. As investors pick up properties in areas designated for redevelopment, the existing residents — many of them lower-income — will have to pack their bags.

There are few technical reasons for council to veto rezoning, and while it has no influence over what happens to the current tenants, the city is doing what it can.

Specifically, the city will ask the developer to consider increased compensation for the tenants to assist with moving costs.

Opposition to approaching the developer came from Coun. Mary-Jo O’Keefe, who believes the city should not create roadblocks for developers during a recession.

“We should not be encumbering people when they are investing in the city,” she said.

O’Keefe also pointed out that the availability of rental suites is quite high.

That is true. The vacancy rate in June was 7.7 per cent, up from 5.5 per cent during the same month in 2010 and a dramatic departure from a low of 0.3 per cent in October 2007.

But what O’Keefe didn’t mention was the fact that while there are rooms to rent, no one can afford them.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation shows the average rent for a bachelor suite in Vernon was $514 this spring (down from $524 in April 2010), while it was $781 (down from $787) for a two-bedroom apartment and $809 (down from $840) for a three-bedroom unit.

If someone is on a disability pension, is a senior on a fixed income or someone struggling to survive on minimum wage, these rents are out of reach.

In some ways, the city isn’t helping ease the  crunch facing many residents.

The recently adopted city centre neighbourhood plan calls for redevelopment of downtown but also in adjacent areas such as those near Seaton Secondary or lower Hospital Hill. It is in those established neighbourhoods with older homes that rents are often the most attainable.

There are no easy solutions to expanding low-income residential units, and as a result, elected officials, social agencies and the public will continue to encounter homelessness.