[This story originally appeared in the July 14, 2016 edition of the Chilliwack Times]
Barry and Christina relax in camping chairs, later afternoon sun hitting Vedder Mountain in view as the rushing of the Vedder River just metres away can be heard.
Hummingbirds flit about. The couple’s fishing roads lean up against a large tent. Their four kids are off riding bikes.
And while this may sound like an idyllic holiday setting, it’s just lucky that it’s summer. The reality is the family of six Chilliwack residents are camping not for vacation but because they can’t find a place to live.
“We like to spend weeks camping every summer,” Christina says during a visit by the Times to their site at the Vedder River Campground in Yarrow. “But we eventually get to go home.”
Home. An increasingly alien concept to many folks teetering on the edge of homelessness in what is undeniably a rental crisis in Chilliwack and indeed across the whole Fraser Valley and beyond.
The couple were living in a “dumpy” house on Promontory that their landlord said he had no intention of selling. But on May 1, the landlord gave them a 30-day notice saying he was going to renovate. Then he sold it out from under them and their $1,100-a-month place was gone.
Then the reality of higher and higher rents and fewer and fewer available places in Chilliwack hit them.
“We’ve rented for so long we couldn’t believe how the market has changed,” Christina said.
Barry works full-time in construction and they spent the month of May unsuccessfully looking for a place.
“Then it was push comes to shove and we said, ‘let’s go camping,’” Barry said.
At least there are hot showers and laundry, but they are still looking for a place to call home and it’s not easy with four kids and two cats.
“We go and look for a place and the landlords are like ‘your kids are going to trash the place.’”
One landlord on Chilliwack Lake Road was worried they would use too much water. Another in Greendale was worried they’d fill up the septic too fast.
“We’ve heard it all,” Christina said.
One young man looking for a place to rent posted a poll on a Facebook page dedicated to rentals in Chilliwack asking how many people can’t find a place to live and are on the verge of being homeless.
Before the administrators for the page deleted his post, it had 237 likes and dozens of comments from people in similar boats.
“A lot of people are going homeless due to all of this,” Joey Wight said.
There are stories of so-called “renovictions” when a landlord evicts tenants under the guise of renovation only to significantly increase the rents.
Others tell stories of bidding wars for rental accommodations, and more difficulty for people with children, especially single parents and definite challenges for those with pets.
Penny Robinson was evicted from a home after it was sold, had a new house to rent on Prest Road for July 1 but the previous tenants, evicted by bailiffs, refused to leave the front yard until this week.
“I’d love to walk away but there is nothing out there,” she told the Times. “We called one place and they are taking bids on the rent, up to $2,400 now.”
The federal government has said it’s loathe to implement levers to address the concerns about skyrocketing real estate prices—which is in part fuelling the rental crisis—because what could benefit the Vancouver area might damage other areas.
The provincial government has done little, but released some limited data on foreign ownership, and since that has said it will give the City of Vancouver the power to tax empty homes.
The City of Chilliwack is closest to the problem and well aware of what’s happening, but has few things it can do. Mayor Sharon Gaetz said according to 2011 data, more than half of Chilliwack renters were spending more than 30 per cent on housing, which increases the risk of homelessness.
But it is the provincial government that is responsible for funding construction and operation of affordable housing projects.
“They provide rent subsidies to assist low income households, employment and income assistance, shelter allowance, and a range of health and social services, including mental health and addictions,” Gaetz said. “In contrast, the city’s role is one of advocacy for senior government funding for projects in Chilliwack.”
She said they are actively engaging with the area’s two MLAs and MP Mark Strahl with the hope they will advocate for funding.
The city’s 2016 Homelessness Action Plan identified the need for more affordable market housing as well as increased subsidies for affordable housing.
“Our Homelessness Action Plan also identifies the need to remove barriers to access for low rent housing, by providing support to tenants and to landlords,” she said.
There are few incentives municipalities can implement to help with the problem, but there are lower development cost charges for small units, revitalization tax exemption in the downtown core and supportive zoning.
“We are also going to embark on a city-wide review of secondary suites as another form of affordable market housing,” Gaetz said.
Meanwhile, Barry and Christina will continue to search for a place to live while spending their summer in tents with their children.
And they are not alone.
While she has since found a place to live in Chilliwack, Stephanie Reimer of Abbotsford couldn’t find a place and was living with her daughter at the Vedder River Campground until recently.
“We can’t afford a hotel and our friends don’t have room,” she told the Abby News.
“When it’s forced on you, it’s not fun. I just felt helpless and like I was a failure as a mom.”