Broke, overworked, and lucky

Despite high rent and low pay, Victorians still consider themselves fortunate

As we strolled through bustling Blanshard Street one day, my friend Kevin Shepheard turned to me and said, “You know, I’ve never heard someone who lives in Victoria say, ’I’m really happy with the amount of rent I’m paying and I’m totally good for money.’”

Kevin, a 27-year-old former New Democratic Party (NDP) staffer relocated to Victoria from Edmonton in search of a better quality of life, and it’s easy to see why.

Victoria boasts some of the friendliest weather in Canada (with just 46 days a year below zero), and a booming tourist population that supports glittering waterfront architecture.

“We all seem to have the drive to stay here. For decades, Victoria’s economy has been firing on all cylinders,” he emailed. “I think that attracts a lot of people.”

However, for those settling in Victoria, this postcard city isn’t a picture-perfect reality with the median household income at just $53 288 a year supporting an average rent of $1 224 a year.

Kevin feels this reality acutely, now earning minimum wage bartending and renting short-term sublets while searching for secure and affordable accommodation.

“Even working in politics at a fairly high level, I still found all I could find was short-term contracts and precarious work [in Victoria] . . . I’m renting an overpriced room in a house in the middle of nowhere, but I’m lucky to have it,” Shepheard said in an email.

CJ Baker is also crippled by Victoria’s rental market and B.C.’s unforgiving minimum wage.

Baker, 24, relocated to Victoria from Calgary after she was impacted by the local economy crash.

“My old job closed (restaurant industry) and there was no other steady work,” Baker said in a text message.

To survive in Victoria, Baker works four part-time jobs to cover $1 400 in rent and $300 in bills for her Royal Oak apartment every month.

“I was very lucky to find this place I’m in. It’s not even close to ideal. It’s old and in need of repair, and I’m way overpaying for this space,” texted Baker. “It’s incredibly hard to maintain rent with a minimum wage and 0.5 per cent vacancy rental market.”

Greater Victoria’s rental vacancy rate dropped to an all-time low of 0.5 per cent in October 2016, according to the latest figures provided by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The organization noted the national average at 3.3 per cent.

In addition to inflated rent, Baker points out the 12 per cent B.C.’s sales tax on day-to-day living expenses (Alberta, for example, operates on just 5 per cent tax).

“I would only be able to survive on one job if I worked 12 hour days, 6 days a week on $17 an hour” estimated CJ.

On Sept. 15 of this year, the minimum wage in British Columbia rose to $11.35 per hour, a 50 cent rise from $10.85 an hour.

Emma, a third year UVic student, Emma (who requested her surname be withheld), divides her time between school, study, volunteering and waitressing over the weekend at a chain restaurant.

Emma learned of B.C.’s wage increase when her manager tapped her on the shoulder mid-shift and said — with sincerity — that she was the recipient of a raise. A whole 50 cents an hour.

“I’m not sure I would say it’s helped me all that much, but it’s a nice little boost,” said Emma in an email, “Maybe enough to cover half of my phone bill. So not life changing, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Still, this doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of living in Victoria, and even an increase in minimum wage expunges the hope of those aspiring to settle down in Victoria.

Victoria’s rental market will spike again, as demand is fair outpacing supply. According to British Columbia’s rental advocacy group, LandlordBC, 1 300 condo units will be completed across Greater Victoria by 2018, with one-bedroom apartments in downtown Victoria selling in excess of $400 000.

“It’s a slap in the face,” wrote Baker of the recent minimum wage increase, “Why even bother. Do they really think 50 cents is gonna make a difference?”

Shepheard is more optimistic: “I think it is a wonderful step in the right direction. If you ask me, no full-time worker should have to stop at the food bank on the way home.”

Provincial-wide fixed rental legislation may be the solution to the growing cost of living in Victoria.

On October 26, B.C.’s provincial government vowed to close “a major loophole” that allows landlords to circumvent rent controls that allow affordable housing prices to be fixed. Under the current system, landlords can inflate a rental price with each new agreement.

B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson told CBC that the new laws are designed to protect renters who are vulnerable to “unfair and unjustified rent increases”.

Recently, following “months of scouring Craigslist”, Emma and her roommate “lucked out” and found suitable accommodation. “I feel like our place was a blessing,” she said, “and [that] we got very lucky”.

But she isn’t optimistic for the future.

“It’s hard to imagine being able to support myself here post-grad for very long, which sucks because it feels like home.

“But even if most people don’t know what should be done, I think we can all agree that something needs to be done. I think that a living wage is a good place to start.”

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