“Nothing in life is permanent, not even our troubles.”
Christal McFadden keeps this quotation from Charlie Chaplin close at hand.
A single mom of four children, one who is in university, McFadden had to give up the home her family had lived in for five years because the owner needed a place for a family member to stay.
She searched and searched and searched for another home.
She checked out co-op housing but was told “I was too low-income to be in there.”
McFadden receives a disability cheque as well as a child benefit, bringing her total monthly income to about $2,000. She says she was told she would need $2,500 to live there.
“So I’m too low income to get into low income.”
She would like to see the people in three-bedroom units who have raised their kids move out to a one-bedroom, leaving the larger units for those with children.
Fiona Jackson, communications director with the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, says some co-op housing receives a subsidy from the federal government, but it doesn’t subsidize all the units like BC Housing can.
“They’re mixed-income communities. A big chunk have to pay full market price.”
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McFadden looked at motels, but couldn’t afford them. She went to a bank to see about buying a trailer.
However, her mortgage and pad rental would have been 51 per cent of her income, and the rule is 40 per cent, she says. She would have been paying about $1,000 a month for shelter and she had no co-signer.
Ironically, she is now paying $1,300 per month for the temporary rental she is now in. Even though it’s a lot for her and was only available till June, she took it.
“When you’re sitting there thinking you’re going to be living in a hotel or a campground over the winter, you don’t say no.”
Something of a go-getter, McFadden volunteers in order to help her girls participate in extra-curricular activities.
“I go to the food bank, I use Jumpstart, I go to Second Harvest, because I have to pay $1,300 for rent. I do whatever is necessary to feed my kids.”
Her face colours with emotion as she talks about her children and the effects of the housing shortage.
“A lot of stuff goes on as a parent. How is this going to affect them in six months to a year? Are they smiling because they know mommy is scared? Kids are smart.”
At a local campground sits a motorhome, a tent, a picnic table, a barbecue. Children bike down an adjacent lane, laughing.
At first glance, the Drain family’s campsite looks like a typical family vacation spot.
Closer perusal reveals it’s more than that. Outside, under an awning, sits a full-sized fridge and a microwave. Next to it is a wire-enclosed climbing area for two cats. A small storage shed by the picnic table is stuffed with belongings.
In reality, this campsite is evidence of the ‘nearly homeless’ predicament that so many people in Salmon Arm and the Shuswap are facing.
The campground has been the family’s home from May to October this year. The parents and two younger children sleep in the motorhome. Two teenage boys sleep in the tent.
With winter approaching and the campground closing, last month they moved into a temporary home where the $2,200 a month lease payment will eat up every spare dollar. They have signed a contract in order to stay there until mid-April, with no option to sublet.
Why? “Because there’s nothing else and my kids are going to freeze in the tent,” Rob says.
Then they will head back to a campsite that better meets their budget. If the campsite isn’t available until May, they may have to find something, somewhere, for a few weeks to fill in the gap.
Both Rob Drain and his spouse Niki work. He commutes to Vernon to work as a kitchen designer at a cabinet shop while she has a permanent part-time position with Interior Health.
Although previous homeowners, the Drains were renting a house in Gleneden for a couple of years. They were planning to rent to own a property in Salmon Arm but the owner became ill and the property was sold.
Rob developed some credit issues and so, at this point, the couple will need two to three years of tax returns in order to get a mortgage. They found themselves going back to renting.
The couple began looking – and looking.
“A family of six, a working professional couple making a decent salary combined…, four children, two dogs, two cats. We found ourselves in this position where there was literally nothing,” says Rob.
On some of the threads online about housing, “you see dozens and dozens and upwards of hundreds of comments. The desperation is off the wall.”
He said his family was one of the lucky ones because they have a 30-foot motor home, about 10 years old.
Rob says it’s risky to owe $2,200 a month just on accommodation.
“What happens if I get sick or my wife gets sick? How do you come up with $2,200?
“And how do you save? That’s my biggest issue. How are people able to save money to buy a house when you have to pay so much to rent?”
He said during the rental search they’ve heard “no kids,” as well as “no pets.”
“Our oldest dog came from our oldest kid’s dad who passed away. Our youngest kid got a dog for his birthday. What, I’m supposed to give away my animals to get a place to rent?”
He points out one landlord said dog owners make the best tenants because they’re scared they’ll lose the place and not find anything else if the pet misbehaves.
As for solutions, Rob would like to see longer-term mortgages – a maximum 40 years rather than 25 – so payments could be smaller. He said that would benefit both homebuyers and developers building housing. If the developers pay less, so do their tenants.
Nicole Smith is an aboriginal support worker by profession, but she has been busy advocating for housing of late.
“This has gone from a municipal problem to a federal problem and nobody seems to be addressing it,” she says.
She knows of 20 to 30 families who are moving between family members, RVs and tents.
“You see 40 or 50 people going after some dingy little apartment, offering more money so they can have some place to live… There are basement suites I wouldn’t want my children walking into, let alone staying for $1,300.”
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She sees the extreme lack of housing as a silent problem.
“So many people are ashamed and embarrassed. It’s automatic, you’re not working enough,” she says of others’ reactions. “It’s time this was solved. So many people are silent because they’re afraid.”
She says people are afraid of losing their children because they can’t find adequate housing.
She, too, has seen places that won’t take kids, or won’t take pets.
“That’s narrowing the market for them even more… There are so many barriers put in front of people on low income,” she says.
She knows Christal McFadden well.
“To me, she is one of the greatest moms ever.”
Smith would like to see more compassion in the community.
“I’ve always felt we were such a lovely small town that cared so much for each other. Right now I’m not seeing it or feeling it and I’d like to see and feel that again.”
Organization receives constant phone calls for housing
“Desperate” is how Dawn Dunlop describes the housing situation in Salmon Arm.
Executive director of the Salmon Arm branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Dunlop oversees 150 units of affordable housing operated by CMHA and SILA, the Shuswap Independent Living Association.
“I know that housing continues to still be desperate in this community. We get calls constantly from people looking for housing. We have a wait list for all our housing.”
Dunlop sits on the city’s Social Impact Advisory Committee, which has made a recommendation that city council develop an affordable housing strategy.
On the provincial level, Dunlop says BC Housing has an open call for housing units right now, but it requires municipalities gifting or providing land. Then BC Housing will put modular houses on it and provide 24-7 support services for the hardest-to-house individuals.
Two thousand modular units are being built across B.C. Once a municipality provides the initial investment of land, BC Housing will provide support services and operate them.
“The ongoing operating costs, the ongoing subsidy cost, staff support, BC Housing will fund on a move-forward basis,” Dunlop says, no
ting that cities are putting their submissions in and getting in queue.
“I have been working with some developers, community members and the city about if there is an opportunity for this to happen but the city must give land for this to move forward.”
Mayor Nancy Cooper said at this time the city doesn’t have any suitable property available, nothing close to a bus route, shopping and other amenities.
“Certainly we have looked at properties in the city, but right now we don’t have one. We have discussed it a number of times, but we will be discussing it again if a call has gone out.”
Dunlop said when a window opens for housing, it’s important to be ready in order to be considered.
“How do we create an environment in the Shuswap that will encourage affordable housing development? How do we get ready? If we can’t move forward with this call, how can we move forward when the next calls come?”
She says the need for affordable housing stretches across a continuum.
“There’s very much a need for seniors housing, people with disabilities housing and also family housing.”