This first-person column is the experience of Paula Hudson-Lunn, who lives in Nelson, BC. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, see the FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS.
As a renter for almost 50 years, I have moved around a lot. I have crossed the country five times and lived in four provinces. When I was 20, moving was about going to school, following a lover, or working. Back then, moving was on my terms. Rentals were plentiful and my needs were flexible.
Things changed when I became a mother. With four children and a dog, cheap rentals on busy roads or in dodgy neighborhoods were no longer suitable. Safety became a priority, as did proximity to neighborhood amenities such as schools, playgrounds and daycares. At the same time my rental needs increased, my options in Calgary narrowed. Apartments generally did not allow dogs. Owners of single-family homes and multi-unit homes, concerned about the impact of children and pets on their properties, apparently preferred other rental applicants.
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It took us a while, but we managed to rent an older house in a perfect community. When the landlord sold the house and gave us 30 days notice to vacate, I came face to face with how insecure and vulnerable rental life can be.
Fortunately, we qualified just in time to move into a federally subsidized housing cooperative, and I raised my children to adulthood there.
An empty nester in my mid-50s, I loaded up what I hoped would be my last U-Haul and headed back west. I found a wonderful little house in Nelson, BC that was built in 1910 and had been rented for over four decades. Its walls were not insulated, its windows were still the original single-pane corrugated glass, and the basement, with an underground stream that regularly flooded, was better suited to a Stephen King novel. And yet, it has a certain charm. It is surrounded by a beautiful courtyard, ornate door frames and a lion’s claw bathtub. The view from the bedroom was of mountain views. A local family owned this building and other rental properties as part of a long-term investment plan. Normally, rentals like this are pretty safe.
“I love it,” I told the landlady, and I’ve lived here for the last 17 years. I thought I would be here until I died.
It seems that maybe I thought wrong.
A recent email from my landlord informed me that the family had sold one of their homes and is considering selling more next year, starting with those that “don’t generate enough rent.” Having lived here for so long, with the province’s rent control laws in place, I know my days are numbered.
Here I am, at 71 years old, looking for housing in a 0.6 percent of the vacant rental housing market. Nelson is a highly desirable resort town where property values have skyrocketed and long-term rentals have disappeared to become more lucrative Airbnb-type vacation rentals.
I haven’t faced anything like this since that owner in Calgary sold me the house 40 years ago. I can’t stress how different my situation is. Having lived in the same place for so long, provincial rent controls have protected me from market prices. Even so, I have had to supplement my pension with part-time income to pay the rent. In the current housing situation, even if I could find something similar, I would expect a minimum 75 percent increase in rent. A smaller or less suitable place will cost me more than I can afford. I may have to look for full-time work in what should be my retirement years.
As an adult, I also have other considerations. Rentals in the mountains could be dangerous for me due to ice and snow. The second floor suites have many stairs and although I am fine now, my future mobility is not guaranteed. The basement suites, often damp and dark, are not conducive to my mental well-being. I have to weigh my access to groceries and healthcare, as well as the impact of social isolation if I move to the outskirts of the city. If I have to leave Nelson completely, I will lose my GP at a time of national doctor shortages.
I don’t know what I will do when circumstances force me to leave my house. I’ve thought about packing away all my belongings and trying to live in a caravan while I look for accommodation. My 73-year-old friend lived in his truck for three years before finding something he could afford. He ended up in the hospital several times. I’ve considered becoming a roommate, a house sitter, or just couch surfing. I’ve thought about standing on Nelson’s main street with a sign saying “senior renter needs affordable housing”.
For now, like I did with my friend, I am submitting applications to be on waiting lists for seniors, subsidized housing, or co-ops. I ask everyone I know to keep me in mind if they learn anything. Unlike many tenants I have read about in the news, they have at least given me time to try to find a solution.
I hope this is the last U-Haul I pack.
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