There is almost nowhere to live on Prince Edward Island.
The Island has a 0.3 percent rental vacancy rate, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) annual survey—a quarter of the supply available in 2017, and a sliver compared to Canada’s overall rental vacancy rate of 2.4 percent.
Housing activists and politicians say the drought of available living spaces, along with some of the lowest wages in the country, are forcing a staggering number of people to pay far more than they can afford for often substandard housing, stay in dead or abusive relationships, or face life on the street.
“The market is effectively locked,” Green Party MLA Hannah Bell told VICE. “There’s nowhere to go.”
Recently, one of her constituents put up an ad for a reasonably-priced three-bedroom apartment in Charlottetown, she said. In the morning, she had over 250 applications.
Another constituent is continuing to live with her recent ex “in very uncomfortable circumstances, because there's literally nowhere the two separate households to split into."
And for people looking to escape violent relationships, the situation is dire. There is a single shelter for women and children fleeing abuse in the province, Bell said, and the amount of people on the waitlist for social or subsidized housing—1,300—is equivalent to the system’s total capacity.
"PEI has a very large population of people who are absolutely on the edge of poverty or in abject poverty,” Bell said, meaning any unexpected hardship can be all it takes to push someone into homelessness, or at least financial ruin.
Pamela Detlor was evicted from her childhood home in a Summerside mobile home park this summer along with 20 other residents, including her elderly mother, for whom she acted as a live-in caregiver. She said the challenge of finding a new place to live has been mentally, physically and financially exhausting, especially for the park’s many retired residents who had spent most of their lives in the park.
"There was a lot of time spent with elderly neighbours who were crying and saying they'd be better off dying," she told VICE.
Now facing a “mountain of debt” after purchasing a new plot of land for her mobile home—and abandoning any hope of the early retirement she had been working toward—Detlor said she feels like one of the lucky ones.
Many people who couldn’t afford a plot of land were forced to sell their homes—some for less than $5,000—and start over, Detlor said.
Detlor said her 82-year-old former neighbour was told there were more than 200 people ahead of her on the waitlist for a subsidized housing project, so her children chipped in to help her buy a small house—the only thing she could realistically afford that wasn’t infested with mold and rats.
She was able to get $6,500 for her fully paid-off and newly-renovated mobile home, which “doesn't even cover the cost of the furnace and the fibreglass oil tank" in the new house, Detlor said. "So she’s 82 years old with a mortgage now.”
Another woman, Detlor said, a 67-year-old double cancer survivor, had to move outside the city into a place that wouldn’t allow her to take her dog and cat.
"She loved them dearly,” she said. “That broke her heart a little bit more.”
On top of their houses, money and possessions, the residents also lost their community. Most had lived there for decades, Detlor said, raising children, forming relationships and memories in a place they were forced to leave because it didn’t make enough money.
Those who have managed to find homes now find themselves, and often their loved ones, buried in debt, stressed out, and living in a home they can’t afford, far away from the life they’ve spent decades building.
“Just because they’ve found homes,” Detlor said, “doesn’t mean the sadness is over.”
Bell said most of the constituents she’s spoken to are putting between 50 and 60 percent of their income toward rent, and sometimes even that’s not enough to remain securely housed.
"'Renoviction' is a popular term right here in PEI,” Bell said, referring to the practice of landlords upgrading their properties and evicting the existing tenants in order to charge more rent.
Housing activist Hannah Gehrels said she knows many people who have been victimized by “phony evictions,” where the landlord evicts the tenants under the pretense of performing renovations, then never does.
Often these tenants see their former homes listed on Airbnb as soon as the day after they leave, Gehrels said.
“Lots of tenants are afraid to challenge their landlord because, you know, you might be evicted,” she said. “And with a [point] three percent vacancy rate, where are you going to live?"
The crisis exists for myriad reasons, but Gehrels and Bell agreed the root cause is a lack of planning at multiple levels of government.
Federal cuts to social housing from as far back as 1993 are still hurting the province, Bell said, because no PEI government has been able to replace the investment.
The province’s aggressive population growth plan, along with the rural-to-urban shift that’s happened everywhere in Canada has also resulted in a slew of new people without an adequate plan to house them all, Bell said.
Government spokesperson Mary Moszynski said the province has a proud history of migration and accused Bell of suggesting "that we should close our borders," which she said in a statement was "disappointing and contrary to the values we believe Islanders and Canadians hold."
"We are tackling the needs of vulnerable populations by creating more affordable housing options and collaborating on solutions with community partners, municipalities, and private developers," she said.
The long-term solution, Bell said, is more supply—the government needs to remove as many barriers as possible for developers “and then get the hell out of the way."
For Gehrels, the answer lies in the government taking a more active hand in improving the market by creating new social and co-op housing programs, preserving land dedicated to affordable housing, regulating short-term rentals more tightly and improving tenant rights.
"We're looking for more government intervention as well, at all levels of government, to protect the affordable housing that already exists, and to create more," she said.
Any solution, Bell said, needs to start with honest conversations at the government level.
"There's a lot of shame around this," she said. “Housing challenges are not about being poor anymore.”
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