Louann Johnson says with pride that she has never, ever been late with a rent payment.
The disabled 45-year-old single mother of four adds that she isn’t a partier and she takes good care of her rental homes, doing her own repairs, painting and redecorating.
“I’m a good tenant,” she says.
But after more than a month of trying and failing to find an affordable rental house in Abbotsford that will take a family of five with a dog, Johnson is starting to think her only realistic option could be fixing up her aging motor home and going to live in an RV park.
“Maybe we’ll go camping.”
Johnson was forced back into the rental market because the owner of her house decided to sell.
She says the buyers didn’t even ask to look inside until after they closed the deal.
Another Abbotsford resident, Gerald Matzner, was left scrambling to find a rental home for himself, his daughter Savannah and two grandchildren, 8 and 11, after a dispute with his landlord ended with a for-sale sign on the front lawn of the house they rented and their eviction on June 1.
Abbotsford resident Gerald Matzner was busy packing up the rental house he shared with his daughter and two grandchildren after a dispute with his landlord ended with the house being put up for sale and their eviction. The children were going to stay with a relative, while Matzner and his daughter searched for a new place. DAN FERGUSON
As the family packed up, Matzner told The News his grandchildren would stay with a relative, and a friend would store their possessions, but he had no idea where he and his daughter would end up.
“I really don’t know,” Matzner said.
“I don’t know what to do.”
They were paying $1,800 for the house – $1,200 for the upstairs where his daughter and her children lived and $600 for the basement suite where he stayed.
Their search for similar accommodations has failed to find anything under $2,500.
Many families in the Abbotsford-Mission area are in the same situation, based on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) figures that suggest more than 200 rental houses were sold last year, when the Lower Mainland housing market began to heat up and housing prices in Abbbotsford and Mission rose 30 per cent.
The CMHC figures show the number of single detached houses renting in Abbotsford and Mission dropped from 3,671 in 2014 to 3,443 in 2015.
That’s 228 – or about six per cent – fewer houses.
Of the 3,978 private apartment units in Abbotsford and Mission, there were only 36 units with three or more bedrooms that would have room for a larger family.
A CMHC report says Abbotsford-Mission has the third lowest vacancy rate in Canada, at 0.8 per cent, well below the average for the country at 3.3 per cent.
“The Abbotsford area, like much of the suburban area of Vancouver, is also becoming more desirable for its lower housing costs and strategic location,” the report says.
Richard Sam, market analyst with CMHC BC, predicts the Abbotsford-Mission vacancy rate will show a very slight improvement from 0.8 per cent to 1 per cent this year.
It means there is little likelihood of relief for people searching for family-sized rental accommodations in Abbotsford, which has become harder than ever.
Johnson says rents are skyrocketing, with some houses of the same age and condition as her current home going for more than twice as much.
She checks out online rental ads four or five times a day and says there is so much demand chasing so little available housing that some landlords are raising their rents within hours of posting.
“There would be one price in the morning, and by 8 at night, it goes up $400,” Johnson says.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun has heard that some renters are offering to pay more than the amount landlords are asking for.
“I’m hearing in rental housing, there is some bidding starting to take place,” Braun told the News.
As the deadline for her move-out comes closer, Johnson worries that her family could end up homeless.
“I’m just so frustrated,” she says.
“It’s a panic.”
Other families report the same kind of frustration and anxiety.
Chris Zacharias is looking for a larger place to house a combined family of five, consisting of himself, his girlfriend and their children.
“My family and I have been looking for a four-bedroom house for two to three months now,” Zacharias says.
“The prices are ridiculous.” A “basic four-bedroom” is going for $2,000 to $2,400 in Abbotsford, which is why they’re looking in the Langley area.
“Instead of a five- to 10-minute commute to work, it’s going to become 20 minutes to half an hour.”
Adding some urgency is the distinct possibility that Zacharias may lose his residence.
“The way the market has been going, I wouldn’t be surprised if my landlord put the house on the market,” Zacharias says.
“They have tried to sell in the past (and) they could pull the trigger again.”
Fraser Valley Real Estate Board graphic
Locating even a three-bedroom is proving to be a challenge for Stephanie Schoffelmeer Mason, who commented online in response to a News query.
“We are a family of six and have found it really difficult to even find a three bedroom for under $2,000,” she said.
“It is crazy and very unsettling.”
One family, who asked not to be identified, told The News that they’ve started looking to buy because of the high cost of available rental stock.
But they haven’t had much luck finding a place to own, either.
“When we couldn’t find something in Chilliwack, we started looking in Mission and Abbotsford, then Agassiz and we even considered Hope,” one spouse said.
“We are now down to less than a month to be out of our place with nowhere to go,” she said.
“It’s been the most stressful time of our lives knowing we will most likely have to put our stuff in storage and live in our travel trailer until something affordable comes up.
We never thought in a million years we would be where we are today.”
Last year, Jesse Wegenast helped a large family, who had been camping out in a rural area of Abbotsford for several months, find accommodation.
Wegenast, a pastor at The 5 and 2 Ministries who is in charge of the homeless prevention program at Abbotsford Community Services, says he’s been seeing more and more cases of families who can’t find an affordable place to live after landlords sell their homes – especially when the parents are on disability pensions, Wegenast says.
“What we’re seeing more and more of is folks who are on assistance, have lived independently for 20, 30 years (who can’t find a place to rent within their budget),” Wegenast says.
“For no other reason than the low disability rates and the high cost of housing. It’s kind of a perfect storm.”
He says one measurement of how things have changed is a “junky” rental building he says used to be a last resort for people with limited means.
The building used to have no cars in its parking lot; now the lot is full.
“There’s been a very clear demographic shift.”
Cure for rental woes? Restore federal funding cuts for social housing, report says
A report commissioned by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says all levels of government must work together to reverse the shrinking stock of lower-rent dwellings and restore long-term federal subsidies for social housing.
Researcher Steve Pomeroy warned that by 2023, federal spending on social housing will have dropped by almost $1 billion a year and more than half of federally assisted housing will have lost subsidies that keep rents within reach of people on lower incomes.
The Pomeroy report calls for federal tax credits to encourage construction of new, affordable rental units and restoration of federal funding for social housing as well as creation of a national strategy on homelessness and affordable housing.
By one estimate, it would take $2 billion a year just to support existing social housing units.