The housing situation in the Fraser Valley has changed dramatically over the last decade. From 2011 to 2021, house prices rose 137% in Abbotsford, the largest increase among surrounding areas. For those who are renting, the current vacancy rate is at 1.6%, down from 6.7% in 2011.
Home ownership is out of reach for many and rent prices are also increasing, leaving many struggling to afford housing on top of rising gas and grocery bills.
Staff among various Archway programs note that housing is a persistent challenge for their clients. New immigrants, those trying to get off the street, youth aging out of care, seniors on a fixed income and young families are among those most affected by rising costs and limited rental availability. After the flooding in November 2021, the housing supply became even more scarce as so many residents were displaced.
In this difficult context, and recognizing that stable and secure housing is a precursor to wellbeing, community participation, and a healthy life, Archway offers multiple programs to support clients in obtaining or maintaining housing.
For example, the Archway Homeless Prevention Program (HPP), funded by BC Housing, provides individuals who are identified as being at risk of homelessness with rental subsidies and other social support services. Their eligibility criteria include women escaping violence, people identifying as Indigenous, those transitioning out of hospitals or correctional facilities, as well as youth leaving foster homes.
Individuals can apply for up to a year of rental-assistance support from this program.
“If they’re receiving the subsidy for a year, I’m able to work closely and directly with them,” said Harleen Gill, the HPP Outreach Worker.
“Some need help finding a job or securing their Persons with Disabilities Designation. Many of our clients have been successful in reaching their goals and have been able to obtain stability on their own.”
The Homeless Prevention Program always has a lengthy waitlist due to budget constraints. If participants are not able to access the subsidy, Harleen offers support and referrals to other services or community agencies.
Sharon* connected with Harleen when she was having a hard time affording her current residence due to rising costs, including the price of gas. While she was approved for a small HPP subsidy of $150, she ended up finding a less expensive rental.
Together they created a plan and found other resources to help Sharon live on her current budget. They decided to defer her subsidy in case her income decreased in the future.
“It’s comforting to know that the help will be there if things change,” said Sharon.
Sharon is not formally employed but receives honorariums and she volunteers in the community with women experiencing homelessness.
“Since getting the help, I’m even able to help the girls more. A few days ago, I got this girl into a place through Elizabeth Fry. I go to the Warm Zone, and help the girls there with rides all over the place.”
HPP Outreach Worker Harleen Gill.
Alongside helping clients like Sharon, Gill mentioned that one of the hardest hit groups recently is seniors, especially those on a fixed income.
“There’s a lot of seniors that are falling through the cracks,” she said, “it’s really hard.”
Gill explained that there is often a technological gap that adds a challenge to helping seniors secure housing.
“I have to find phone numbers for them,” she explained, “or they have to come in multiple times in my office to look at places online.”
Gill isn’t the only one to identify seniors as particularly vulnerable. Ilena Candiani, who supervises Archway’s Community Legal Advocacy program says that seniors are seriously affected by the tight rental market.
The Archway Community Legal Advocacy program exists to protect people from having their rights violated and to support them in walking through the legal process in the case that their tenancy rights are violated – something that is increasingly important in a community where affordable housing has become one of the most pressing issues and landlords may take advantage of vulnerable renters.
One of the situations that Ilena has seen repeatedly is landlords evicting tenants who are not able to afford “pressured rental increases,” who then relist the rental units at significantly higher prices.
“It’s a common practice because it can be so lucrative. Fortunately, the Residential Tenancy Branch made a change to the legislation to help discourage this,” said Ilena.
Previously, landlords who issued a notice to end tenancy for landlord’s use of property, and then did not follow through with the stated reason could be liable for two months rent.
Now the penalty has been upped to 12 months’ worth of rent, which offers greater protections for renters.
Despite this positive change, there are many instances where tenants are still being taken advantage of. Ilena shares that “there are laws in place to help protect tenants in these circumstances so it’s important to speak with someone who has knowledge in area of tenancy law.”
Advocates like Ilena are funded by the Law Foundation of British Columbia. Advocates can provide information and assist in applying for and representing tenants at the Residential Tenancy Branch Dispute Resolution Hearings. Information is also available online or by telephone at the Residential Tenancy Branch and the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.
Community Legal Advocacy assists those living at or below the poverty line in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, and Hope. Ilena and Kim, another legal advocate, assist their clients with a range of services including income assistance and disability applications, housing and tenancy disputes, employment issues, and others. The need for assistance has remained high with the program assisting 1,802 people in the last fiscal year.
Ilena’s passion for her work, and commitment to justice is apparent and shines through in her day-to-day interactions with clients.
“People learning what their rights are and knowing how to go forward – I think that that is a highlight of every day. Just giving people that information.”
One of her clients, Jane*, expressed her overflowing gratitude for Ilena’s help during a challenging and emotional conflict with her landlord. After an altercation with her landlord, Jane contacted Archway to see if she could find any help.
“I left Ilena one voicemail, believe me, one voicemail. It was a very long voice message and I was crying, crying. Ilena called me two hours later and reassured me that ‘it’s ok, everything will be good.’”
Ilena agreed to help Jane file a Dispute Resolution against her landlord for trying to get her to pay for damages that she did not cause.
Not only did Ilena support the family practically, but she was also able to help the family manage the stress of two different emotional court hearing with their landlord.
Jane describes her interactions with Ilena as “God-sent,” sharing that when she had ongoing issues with her landlord she would call “Ilena, my angel” asking her help. “And she said, ‘of course, yes!’”
“Ilena made it easier for us. Because I never in my life went through the court. I’m really a peaceful person. I didn’t imagine how can I be in a court and in front of the judge! That’s very stressful for me; I didn’t sleep for two nights before the hearing. I was very stressed, very tension. It was me and Ilena, but she is strong and smart!” Jane stated.
Going forward, Ilena hopes the province will develop additional protection for renters and advises renters to “know your tenancy rights and responsibilities before signing any agreement.”
“These two programs are critical but the issues of housing affordability and income assistance extend far beyond Archway’s scope,” said Megan Capp, the Manager of Social Justice, Seniors and Housing. “We need to keep advocating for policy changes that will recognize the right to housing and for additional funding sources to be able to recognize that right.”
*Real name withheld
Legal advocate Ilena.