Housing Crisis Horrors
We gratefully acknowledge that Nanaimo renters live on the traditional and unceded land of the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
Boo! It’s Nanaimo’s rental market.
It’s the day after her highschool graduation, and Tianna Vertigan is taking on the world outside of her hometown. Guided by what is most affordable, Vertigan moves in with two other girls and lives happily ever after in Nanaimo’s housing market.
Not so fast.
Vertigan lives in the typical squalor associated with teenage girlhood for a few months before things inevitably fall apart and she is forced to find a new place in the middle of October. With most of the available rentals being taken up at this point in the semester, Vertigan’s most viable option is moving in with three guys—some more than 10 years older than her.
I think we can all see how this would be less than ideal: an 18-year-old girl living with older men, all while trying to navigate her first year at VIU.
After a year, her living situation got too creepy and too complicated and so Vertigan found herself back in the horrifying and difficult world of looking for a place to live.
Nanaimo has experienced a boom in population since 2016, increasing by 10.3 percent over the last census period (2016-2021). To put this in perspective, this exceeds both the regional (9.4 percent) and provincial growth rates (7.6 percent).
It’s not hard to understand why more and more people are starting to embrace the laid-back island lifestyle: Nanaimo is rich with wildlife, you get an amazing balance between nature and the city, and with increased connectivity to the mainland, Nanaimo’s a great place to live.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to live here?
Yet in recent years, it’s getting increasingly more difficult to find a place to live here.
Historically, Nanaimo has had lower housing prices compared to other urban areas, such as Victoria. However, rent has escalated rapidly over the past few years and there are not adequate housing options at a variety of prices, tenures, typologies, and sizes.
When demand increases, supply decreases, which results in a higher price for the good (thank you, ECON 211). This economic principle has translated to a significant increase for rent in Nanaimo. The 2023 Housing Needs Report assessed that from 2012 to 2022, Nanaimo’s median rent has increased by over 86 percent.
And, as though it isn’t hard enough to find affordable housing, prospective tenants must compete with hundreds of applicants.
In all fairness, and don’t boo me for saying this, landlords are not (always) the enemy. With property taxes and inflation, many landlords rely on tenants to support their mortgage—how else can anyone afford a house these days?
British Columbia recognizes the escalating rental crisis and has shown leadership in developing action plans to help alleviate the burden on renters. One mitigation from the province was the cap on rental increases, which has previously been maintained at 2 percent. However, new legislation permits landlords to raise next year’s rent by 3.5 percent. 🙁
Under the City of Nanaimo’s definition, housing is affordable when rent and utilities cost less than 30 percent of a household’s annual income.
According to the City of Nanaimo’s May 2023 Housing Needs Report, 39 percent of tenants are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. This means that over a third of Nanaimo tenants live in unaffordable housing.
Even worse, 10 percent of renters are identified as having extreme core housing needs as they are spending over half of their income on housing.
Did you think it would be more? It certainly is! The data for this report is not derived from students or those homeless so the data skewed to seem smaller than it is.
In actuality, most students are spending double or triple the affordable housing cost on rent.
Clearly, the current state of the rental market is unsustainable, and students are one of the primary groups struggling.
The rental market is even more gruesome for international students at VIU. Coming to Nanaimo from abroad is difficult because it’s a whole new housing market which takes time to navigate.
Maimouna Wild is an international student from Switzerland who initially moved into VIU residence for her first year at university because it was the most easily accessible rental option.
“It was such a big change coming to another country,” Wild says.
Wild was lucky to find people to move out of residence with, but the real struggle began when they started searching for a house.
“In 2021, finding a house was not easy at all,” Wild says, “and finding a house at a reasonable price was even more difficult.”
Another opposing factor for Wild was her tuition costs at VIU. The price for tuition that international students pay is significantly higher than that of domestic students, which results in a much tighter budget for housing.
The financial burden stems from the fact that a large portion of students aren’t able to work full time while in school due to their course work. It’s a trade off: either work full time to afford rent but take time away from doing school work, or focus on school work and then not have time to work full time.
When Wild and her four other roommates finally found a place which fit their budget, the problems didn’t stop there.
Screenshot of a random facebook marketplace listing i found. Yikes
We were all paying a couple hundred dollars a month for basically a paper house. There were times in winter when the house was colder inside than it was outside.
— Maimouna Wild
And then, Wild’s landlord tried to force an illegal rent increase on them. Luckily, Wild and her roommates were aware of their renter’s rights. Because the raise was bigger than the rent increase cap, Wild explained to the landlord that they weren’t going to pay it because they didn’t have to.
Although Wild and her roommates were successful in beating the rent increase, the landlord responded by doing everything he could to get them to move out so he could increase the price for future tenants. Wild says he would often claim there were problems with the house’s infrastructure to try to get them to leave.
Grateful for her roommates, and the new place she is renting this year, Wild is nonetheless concerned about where the housing crisis is going and she issues a call to action for legislators.
“Put [yourself] in the shoes of people who are not getting paid, go in the shoes of the real people who are suffering, the real people who are having to deal with this.”
Dhara Kuciel, a domestic VIU student, speaks out about her experience in Nanaimo’s housing market. In looking for a place to stay this school year, Kuciel applied to live in over a hundred different places—only hearing back from a handful.
“My experience in the rental market has been very frustrating,” Kuciel says. “You apply to one place and the next day the renter already has a tenant. There are so many applicants and so few places that most of the advertisements get sold immediately.”
Kuciel highlights the fact that even if you are able to afford rent, the struggle continues to simply finding a place that is available.
“It’s not just about having the money to rent—it’s also about finding the right fit where you can get it.”
Like Wild, Kuciel discusses the importance of knowing your rights as a tenant.
“Landlords recognize the vulnerability brought on by the housing crisis,” Kuciel notes.
“Because housing is so insecure, some landlords may take advantage of the hectic lifestyle of student life, coupled with the tough housing market, and try to make you put up with unfair, and perhaps, illegal circumstances.”
Kuciel’s former landlord requested an astounding increase of 20 percent of her rent during the middle of the semester. While Kuciel was aware this was illegal and was able to talk the price increase down significantly, she nonetheless had to pay higher rent despite not getting the legally required notice for the increase.
Because it was the middle of the semester and I didn’t have the time to look for a new place to live, I had to deal with it.
— Dhara Kuciel
Although legal action is an option for renters facing these situations, the stress and financial burden is a deterring faction. This highlights another issue: because many renters don’t have the financial resources to pursue legal action, they are often left powerless and remain in poverty.
Kuciel highlights the importance of having a realistic outlook while searching for a place to live. She said all you really need is a good roommate, a decent landlord, and somewhere to do schoolwork.
Struggling to find affordable housing is a primary concern for students, but it doesn’t end there. When renting, students are in a vulnerable position to be exploited by landlords.
“We’re all in it, we really are all in it, and it sucks,” says Kuciel.
So, what is VIU doing about this?
Michael Witcomb, VIU’s Off-Campus Housing Coordinator, endeavours to help alleviate part of the burden students face while searching for housing. Witcomb offers services which help students find housing and stay housed.
Witcomb points out that Nanaimo’s current vacancy rate is at 2.2 percent, reflecting how tight the market is as the ideal rate would be at least 5 percent.
One resource available to students is Witcomb’s Rent Wise course, which instructs students about the local housing market, how to budget, what the renting laws are, and much more. This course is free to VIU students and only takes a few hours.
To combat the competitive market, the Rent Wise course helps students make their rental applications stand out against others amidst a competitive market. Witcomb recalls that “[one] landlord was hesitant to rent to a student, but the Rent Wise certificate helped alleviate the concerts.”
“Planning is key,” Witcomb says. “How can you assure landlords that you’re an attractive tenant?”
Before renting, Witcomb suggests you ask yourself whether you’ve budgeted, planned for what happens if things go wrong, and made a list of people who you will contact in that case.
Ultimately, to distinguish yourself amongst the numerous applicants, you have to show evidence of good character, Witcomb says.
If you’re scared after reading this: I’m sorry (although I did preface that this is a horror story).
But we are not powerless. As democratic citizens, we are agents of change, and renters’ feedback helps create better legislation.
This has already begun to have an effect, as the City of Nanaimo recognizes the need for affordable housing to reflect the diverse needs of renters. Nanimo’s 2023 report identifies a need to build 1155 new units each year, 46 percent of which should be affordable with a $40k household income.
To achieve their target, the city has received housing permits for over 1000 units annually and has started on construction.
Witcomb is optimistic that, if Nanaimo is able to achieve its targets for housing development, part of the burden on renters will be alleviated.
Without this solution, however, renters will continue to be forced into substandard housing situations—like Vertigan, Wild, and Kuciel—and the horrors will be never ending.
Ella—short for Ellisif—is a passionate English and Liberal Studies student in her second year. She enjoys fashion and Lana Del Rey, and she spends her free time reading, writing, and thrifting.