PENTICTON, B.C.—As home prices skyrocket in picturesque Penticton, its city council voted this month to shut down an emergency homeless shelter. This decision led to the mayor butting heads with the province of B.C.’s Minister of Housing David Eby, who has vowed to override their plans.
If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, 42 shelter residents could end up on the streets.
With its lakes, wineries, mountain trails and hundred-plus days of sunshine a year, the area has become a popular relocation destination for urbanites who can now work from anywhere. Penticton is the biggest city in the South Okanagan region, mostly made up of small towns, which saw the biggest growth out of all housing markets in the province with over $1 billion in sales last year.
Across Canada, the pandemic has led to a boom in home sales as well as rising rents in small and medium-sized cities, as those with the ability to work from home are seeking more space and a quieter pace of life.
Experts warn this means that less fortunate Canadians will struggle to cover their expenses, and become at risk of experiencing homelessness at a time of precarious job security.
The sudden housing price spikes are affecting cities that have been much more affordable than Vancouver and Toronto, which are the second and fifth most unaffordable cities in the world — but that gap is closing.
In Waterloo and Barrie in Ontario, year-on-year housing prices rose by a whopping 32 and 34 per cent respectively. In the Fraser Valley of B.C., which has the most intensive collection of farmland in Canada, housing costs increased by 25 per cent.
In Alberta, there was an overall jump of nearly 40 per cent in home prices. The city of Chilliwack, B.C., which may be best known for its corn production, saw home resale prices surge from a $110,409 average in October 2019 to nearly $620,000 by late 2020.
“I think everyone from (mortgage providers) to me personally were very surprised to see rapid acceleration in home prices nationally during a pandemic,” Eby told the Star. “It made more intuitive sense that when you shut down the economy, people would lose jobs and have to sell homes under duress and prices would go down.
“But we saw the complete opposite.”
Eby says Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki hung up the phone on him after doubling down on the city council’s decision to deny a BC Housing-funded shelter an extension of its lease in a converted church near the city’s downtown.
But Vassilaki accuses Eby of being a “bully” and explained the city wants the Crown corporation to build permanent housing, with full-time “wraparound” support for people who require additional help such as addictions treatment or mental-health services.
The mayor also expressed his concern that maintaining shelter beds would attract more homeless to the city, and the city just isn’t equipped to support many people with complex needs.
“You know what they say, ‘Build it and they will come.’ The more we house that population, the more will come. They know the facilities they require for housing and food and all that is here and given to them free of charge and that’s the reason they’re coming,” he told the Star.
However, that statement was contradicted by the city’s own social development specialist, who said part of his job involves tackling stigma and misconceptions about poverty in the community. The city had hired Adam Goodwin a year ago to work on emergency services as well as address social issues related to divides between the “haves and the have-nots,” said Vassilaki.
“We tell the public that 50 per cent of (the estimated 120) people experiencing homelessness have lived in the community for 10 or more years, and 30 per cent have lived in Penticton for at least one year,” Goodwin told the Star.
However, he agrees with the mayor that the best way to reduce homelessness is to have a “system of care” where individuals can be supported where shelters are only a temporary step in their journey of supported recovery.
The issue has been deeply divisive for city residents, who have been debating vociferously in recent weeks on a 23,000-member Facebook group. Vassilaki recently drew ire for a Tuesday statement at a city council meeting that residents said was deeply stigmatizing.
“Maybe they can get rid of their addictions and mental-health issues and make them somewhat normal,” he said, instead of having others “help them all the time.” At that meeting, city council also voted unanimously to maintain their position to deny the extension of the homeless shelter past March 31.
The controversy in Penticton is just one indication of how communities across Canada are struggling to cope, as reality sets in that housing crises aren’t just a big-city phenomenon, says Penny Gurstein, a UBC professor specializing in socio-cultural aspects of community planning.
Gurstein says homelessness has been rising across Canada for a while, but during the pandemic, the “hidden homeless” such as those who had been living on friend’s couches are becoming more visible to the wider public. Meanwhile, there is a clear trend of people leaving bigger cities to settle in smaller communities.
It is too early to draw precise conclusions on how the ongoing pandemic will affect homelessness rates outside of metropolitan areas. But Gurstein is concerned that hot housing markets are motivating landlords who previously offered rentals to put their homes up for sale, instead.
“In some places, we are losing rentals at a shocking rate. Municipalities and the provincial and federal government need to be building purpose-built rentals, but we’ve lost so much it’s hard to catch up,” she said.
“Bring in other precipitating factors, such as the opiate crisis, and there’s just a large mix of things going on that’s creating the homelessness crisis,” she said.
An August 2020 survey suggested the number of Canadians who had experienced homelessness in their lives is higher than previously reported. The survey, commissioned by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and conducted by Nanos Research, found that five per cent of Canadians have been homeless themselves, while another 31 per cent knew someone who has been homeless.
Eby says B.C. is working to collect data to inform new policies. He plans to work with city governments to open complex-care housing to support vulnerable people, such as those with complex health, mental health and substance use issues.
The rapid spikes in housing costs in smaller towns and cities have been challenging even for people in dual-income households and stable jobs.
Will Green, 34, had grown up in the South Okanagan area at a time when humble cottages, and not mansions, dotted lakefront properties.
In 2016, as an architecture graduate making a modest salary, he was able to find a comfortable two-bedroom rental in Penticton for $900/month. Last June, when he returned to Penticton in the middle of the pandemic, he and his fiancé were shocked at how the rental market had changed. The only apartment they saw that offered a small office space and a bedroom for future children went for around $2,500/month. Luckily, they found a better-value rental from a relative.
But Green says business has been going well. When he left his job in Vancouver to start up his own architecture firm in the Okanagan he was expecting a slow start, but his phone has been ringing steadily with calls from people requesting designs for custom luxury homes. Most are out-of-towners from big cities including Toronto.
“They are looking to retire or they enjoyed the lifestyle of living here during the pandemic and now want to stay for good,” Green said.