Kieris O’Neill is scared that by the end of May she and her dog will not have a place to call home, because there is nothing available to rent in Maple Ridge. (Neil Corbett/THE NEWS)

Near-zero vacancy rate has disabled B.C. senior facing homelessness

79-year-old in a wheelchair will appeal to Maple Ridge council

Kieris O’Neill is staring homelessness in the face.

As governments try and address a near-zero vacancy rate and property prices that are seeing rental costs soar, the Maple Ridge disabled senior simply cannot find a new place to live, even though she can afford to pay $1,200 to $1,300 per month.

“I have leads, but I have been tracking for two and a half months… and it is just absolutely horrendous out there,” she said. “I’ve been in a fit for weeks.”

It’s ironic, because she used to help seniors find places to live. O’Neill was a volunteer for Ridge Meadows Community Services with the Seniors Connect program, which is about seniors helping seniors.

O’Neill received notice on March 9 that her landlord would be closing his 230th Street basement suite. It needs extensive renovations to be considered a legal suite by city hall, she told her tenant, including fire barriers, fans and the fact that it is larger than the city permits secondary suites to be. She has to be out by the end of May.

With no place to go, O’Neill is going to ask council to allow a tenants’ amnesty – basically saying city hall won’t enforce its secondary suites bylaws until tenants have someplace to go.

“The city turns a blind eye to senior rentals and low income people,” she said. “There never has been enough (apartments), but it has gotten far too low.”

“I always have difficulty finding a place to live because I am in a wheelchair and wheelchair accessible accommodation is hard to find,” she said. “In 2016 I was turned down nine times because of my chair. How do I know? because I asked prospective landlords what the problem was.”

Finding housing is hard for everyone.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported in October 2017 the vacancy rate in Maple Ridge was 0.6 per cent. It reported the vacancy rate for the entire Metro area was less than one per cent, and the average rent was up 5.9 per cent to almost $1,300. CMHC reported that the high cost of home ownership in the region is putting strong upward pressure on rents.

O’Neill has lived in Maple Ridge for 50 years, early in her career working as a labratory technician at Ridge Meadows Hospital. She went back to university for more education, then worked as a researched at St. Paul’s and Vancouver General Hospitals. She ended her working life working in partnership with her husband in real estate.

“I really don’t want to leave. I will if I have to,” she said.

She has been looking everywhere, including Vancouver Housing, B.C. Building Coop , Legion and Lee towers and many different apartment complexes, and private basement suites.”

She acknowledges that the province is trying to catch up with the problem, with proposed new affordable rental housing at 21375 Lougheed Highway – new homes for low-income families and seniors.

Community Services also has a complex of 94-units of affordable rental housing in the works on 228th Street. Construction could start this summer.

“If you turn the first shovel tomorrow we won’t be in it for two years,” she lamented.

She is still looking, but is approachign a dire situation.

“There is absolutely nothing I can afford on my pension, and so on the 31st of May, unless my luck changes, I will be homeless,” she said. “Not something I would expect to happen to a 79-year-old disabled person in a wheelchair.”

O’Neill said she has reached out to some friends, and may be able to impose on their hospitality for a week at a time. If not, she isn’t sure what to do.

“I really wish I knew.

“I know one thing – I’m scared stiff.”

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