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Ignored and Ignited: Affordable housing crisis has some Canadians feeling trapped

WATCH: Affordability is a key issue in the federal election for many Canadians who rent their home.

Terry O’Connor is the new face of Canada’s affordable housing crisis. He may have a full-time job as a truck driver in Pemberton, B.C., but he can’t afford to rent an apartment for his family.

O’Connor says they’re stuck living in an old trailer.

“We’re five people living in 540 square feet,” he says. “I’ve got two animals. I can’t go anywhere.”

For a special election series called Ignored and Ignited, Global News asked people to send in issues they feel are being ignored in this federal election campaign, or that have them excited.

The shortage of affordable housing was once a big city problem, but has now spread to small and medium-sized communities. With demand far outpacing supply, rents have skyrocketed in towns and cities across the country.

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Andy Yan is a housing analyst with The City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

“As housing prices and rents have gone up, incomes have remained relatively flat,” Yan says.

What that’s meant is Canadians are spending more and more of their income on rent.

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According to a study released by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association last month, 1.8 million Canadian households are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing. Thirty per cent is what housing experts suggest as a budget threshold for rent. 

Some go much higher. Some 800,000 Canadian households spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent.

“Paying too much for rent has become the new normal,” says Jill Atkey, the association’s CEO.

Atkey says the higher the percentage of a household’s income spent on rent, the greater the impact on lifestyle. When it hits 50 per cent, people have to forego basic necessities — they’ll cut back on groceries and activities.

“That takes a real toll on health, on time and quality of life.”

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There are several causes that led to the crisis. Atkey says in the ’90s, developers turned away from building rental properties and focused instead on condos. While supply dried up, demand kept rising.

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It hasn’t stopped.

Halifax Regional Council to accept cash payment from developer instead of building affordable housing units
Halifax Regional Council to accept cash payment from developer instead of building affordable housing units

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in 2015, 37,000 new rental apartments were built in Canada. Over that same year, demand jumped by 50,000 units.

The lowest provincial vacancy rates in the country are in Ontario and B.C. at 1.8 per cent and 1.4 per cent, respectively.

But there are cities where the problem is even worse. In Charlottetown, PEI, the vacancy rate dropped from 0.9 per cent in November of 2017, to just 0.2 per cent 12 months later.

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In Vancouver, Atkey says renting an apartment has become a competition.

“We’ve had people outbidding each other on rental homes,” she says. “They show up with a bottle of wine or flowers for a landlord. That’s how quickly rents have escalated.”

Atkey says she was disappointed the crisis didn’t get more attention in the leaders’ debate. Major investments are needed to get construction projects started as soon as possible.

“Even after you get projects lined up and approved, it can take upwards of seven years to get those homes built,” she says. “We’re not going to dig ourselves out of this crisis overnight.”

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Where the parties stand

The Liberal Party is promising to build 100,000 thousand affordable homes over 10 years. It says it would also open up housing and cut back on speculation by taxing vacant residential properties owned by non-Canadians.

The NDP plan would see 500,000 affordable housing units built over a decade. They would also create a rental subsidy to support families.

The Conservative Party platform lays out a plan to help first-time home buyers by extending the maximum amortization period to 30 years.

The Green Party says it would make housing a “legally protected fundamental human right.” It would appoint a federal Minister of Housing and increase the National Housing Co-Investment fund by $750 million for new buildings. It would also provide rent assistance for 125,000 households by booking the Canada Housing Benefit by $750 million.

Ignored and Ignited: your federal election issues
Ignored and Ignited: your federal election issues