Canada's Housing Bubble

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Housing a new generation Print E-mail

Sep 21, 2011 Kelly Sinoski Vancouver Sun

The pressure is on as various levels of governments scramble to ensure there will be enough affordable housing options for our rapidly aging population

When Richard and Betty Atkins retired, they bought themselves a two-bedroom condo at Arbutus Village, where they wanted to "age in place" - or grow old in their own home.

But to do so, the couple - Richard suffers from Alzheimer's and prostate cancer, and Betty suffers from dementia - need four caregivers to provide round-the-clock care. They also need, it seems, a never-ending pot of gold.

Besides the $9,000-a-month for home-care support, the Atkins are being slapped with another $850 per month in HST for the semi-private care, even though other public caregiving arrangements aren't charged the same fee, said their daughter, Nancy Cleveland.

Add in that HST and it means the Atkins are paying about three times as much as they would if they were in a publicly funded residential housing unit, Cleveland added. But this is the only way they can stay together, because due to their different extended care needs, they would not be able to be in the same room in a residential care facility.

"For people who want to stay in their own homes and are being penalized, that's abysmal," Cleveland said, adding the tax was scrapped too late to help her parents. "I feel it's just so wrong on so many different levels, especially when we're willing to put money into their care."

The situation has presented the Atkins, and likely other seniors, with a dilemma, as the provincial government urges seniors - defined as those aged 55 or older - to remain in their own homes as long as possible. By 2032, more than 1.3 million people, including one out of every four people in Metro Vancouver, will be over 65.

The impending wave of aging baby boomers, as well as an explosion of those over age 80, has municipalities reviewing official community plans to ensure there's enough affordable condos, seniors' residences, rental units, granny flats and secondary suites to accommodate the changing demographics.

"We are definitely short of [seniors' housing] and it runs across the spectrum," said North Vancouver District Coun. Alan Nixon, noting half a duplex costs $800,000 on the North Shore. "This is the real problem we face."

Housing officials agree, noting many B.C. seniors spend 30 per cent or more of their income on housing. Households considered in "core need" are those unable to find appropriate housing without spending 30 per cent or more of their income on shelter.


Kara-Leigh Jameson, executive director of the Seniors Services Society, says there are "absolutely enormous waiting lists" for subsidized one-bedroom or bachelor suites in B.C. And as the situation stands now, seniors on low incomes, or pensions of $1,100 a month, are especially feeling the pinch.

Provincewide, slightly more than 21,000 low-income seniors live in independent social housing. BC Housing said 3,425 seniors were on the application list for subsidized suites - about one-third of those in Vancouver alone - as of June 30.

"You have to put your name on the waiting list five years before you're ready to leave home," Jameson said. "It's tough ... no one really thinks about where they're going to be in five years, health-wise."

Subsidized units have a rent threshold set at 30 per cent of the resident's income, which means residents typically pay about $330 to $500 per month.

Seniors also can access the province's Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) program, which offers them an average monthly payment of about $152 toward market housing, including apartments and basement suites.

More than 15,840 seniors' households use the program, which "makes it a little more affordable, but it's still quite expensive," Jameson said. "It leaves them with little or nothing for basic expenses."

Sylvia MacLeay, of the Council of Senior Citizens of B.C., said the high costs put a strain on couples, especially if one spouse is in care and the other is forced to sell the family home and move to a seniors' independent living unit. Such units, in which residents receive less than 1.5 hours of care per day, tend to be in high supply, partly because developers have anticipated the demand and offer meals, 24-hour call-bell service, on-site nurse service, transportation and exercise rooms.

But they don't come cheap. The average monthly rent for these units provincewide in February was $2,587, up slightly from $2,575 last year, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. In Vancouver, the average was about $3,238.

Those requiring heavy care pay an average of $5,290 in B.C., with extra charges for help in getting dressed, showered or taking pills.

"You need a lot of money," MacLeay said. "Ordinary people would never be able to afford that. We're going to have problems."

In North Vancouver District, a new housing development for "intermediate seniors" - those who need meals and light care - has a starting rent of $3,000 per month.

The high costs often lead seniors to stay in their homes longer than they should, struggling with stairs, big lawns, long driveways and rising property taxes, said Andrew Sixsmith, of Simon Fraser University's gerontology department.

"A lot of people tend to be asset rich and income poor," he said. "That can be a challenge."


Given the high cost of housing and rising demands for home support, various levels of government know they must do something.

A joint $125.5-million investment by the federal and provincial government in 2009 will create 1,300 affordable seniors' housing units in 40 communities around B.C., mainly in smaller, rural areas.

The B.C. government is also in the midst of a two-year, $750,000, Community Action for Seniors Independence pilot project with the United Way, offering housekeeping, home repair and yard maintenance to seniors remaining in their homes.

Five pilot communities - Maple Ridge, Vancouver, Surrey, Dawson Creek and Osoyoos - offer the suite of services to seniors aged 65 or over, using slidingscale fees based on income.

And numerous municipalities are looking at more multifamily housing and laneway homes - small one-and-a-half or two-storey units typically built above or next to detached garages - to help seniors stay in their communities.

In North Vancouver District, 10 per cent of large-scale developments must have affordable housing for seniors.

Nixon said he would love to see co-op housing, but this isn't viable with rising land costs.

At Abbeyfield House in Vancouver's Marpole, Christine Crooksley, 89, spends $1,400 per month for room and board at the communal home she shares with seven others. She pays extra for home support to help her cope with the effects of a stroke.

Settling into a chair in the corner of the large veranda, Crooksley said she enjoys the camaraderie of other seniors, who hold movie nights, share meals and play games.

The home aims to "balance privacy with companionship to meet the needs of those who are unable to live alone, but do not want or need the services of a residential care facility."

"It's the only place for me," said Crooksley. "It's so good, it's comfortable and the food is wonderful."

Cleveland, meanwhile, said she never realized how tough it would be for her parents to stay at home.

"My dad worked really hard," she said. "I don't care if I have an inheritance if he can stay at home. And the care is good and so loving."

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A five-part series on the challenges facing British Columbia and its citizens as the senior population soars over the next 20 years.

SATURDAY: Building age-friendly communities

MONDAY: Staying healthy and active

TUESDAY: The aging workforce

TODAY: Housing options

THURSDAY: Managing your money as you age

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