Retiring into uncertainty

As low-income seniors in Nanaimo struggle to find affordable housing, community groups step up to help.

This story is part our series on rental affordability in Nanaimo, Making Rent. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates on this reporting. If you appreciate this work, please support it.


At age 75, James spends his retirement shuffling around downtown Nanaimo until nightfall when he can discreetly park his motorhome somewhere to sleep. 

“I am constantly being woken up in the middle of the night by street riffraff or being bothered by bylaw officers,” he says. 

James cashed in his newer vehicle to afford his 45-year-old motorhome when he wasn’t able to find a place to live. He’s been searching for more than eight months to find a home that’s not on wheels.

James is one of the growing number of low-income seniors who are struggling to find an affordable rental in Nanaimo. 

More than 700  applicants were waiting for affordable housing in the City of Nanaimo as of December 31, 2020, according to the provincial housing registry. Of those applicants, 304 are seniors—almost half. BC Housing cautions that these statistics can be misleading as applicants can remain active in the database if they’ve already found housing, but haven’t yet updated their status on the housing registry database. What is crystal clear, however, is there is a significant need in our community for affordable housing for low-income seniors. 

“What we are seeing and what we will continue to see is a growing number of unhoused seniors and vulnerable seniors,” says Deborah Hollins, executive director of the Nanaimo Family Life Association (NFLA), a community service provider that’s been serving Nanaimo since 1967. “If we are not prepared to deal with this, it will continue to spiral out of control.”

Nanaimo’s most recent homelessness survey found that the number of men between the ages of 45 and 54 experiencing homelessness doubled from 2018 to 2020, from about nine to 15 per cent of an estimated 600 people. Another 14 per cent of people experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo are over the age of 55. These figures do not include those without a home that are living with friends or family, and the city estimates a further 6,000 people in Nanaimo are living on the edge of homelessness.

As Nanaimo’s population continues to grow and age, and as rents continue to rise, it’s no surprise the region sees some of the highest demand for affordable living spaces for seniors in B.C., according to the city. 

 When asked what stories weren’t being told about renting in Nanaimo, a number of senior respondents to The Discourse renters’ survey described the “general atmosphere of worry” when it comes to renting and living on fixed incomes.

Here’s why low-income seniors like James are struggling and what community groups and government decision-makers are doing about it

How many seniors are in need of affordable housing in Nanaimo?

According to the city, 24 per cent of the population is already over the age of 65. By 2030, there will be 6,755 more people over 65 living in the region. 

Due to its mild climate, Vancouver Island is experiencing a boom in seniors retiring here. Though many newcomers over 65 may be affluent, lower income seniors are facing higher housing costs on fixed incomes, which significantly increases the demand for affordable housing. It’s for these reasons the Regional District of Nanaimo lists low-income seniors as a top priority group in its recent housing needs report.

There was zero vacancy for single bachelor independent living units for seniors in Nanaimo last year, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) latest data, though vacancy rates were a bit higher for larger, more expensive units. (Independent living units provide medical support and/or housekeeping and meal preparation). The overall vacancy rate in Nanaimo has dropped to one per cent.


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A sign reads no vacancy in front of an apartment rental building.
With a vacancy rate of less than one per cent for some types of units in the Nanaimo region, low-income seniors are being squeezed out of the rental market. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther

The average price of a one-bedroom independent living unit designated for seniors is $3,092 per month, according to CMHC. The average price for a private one-bedroom unit is $1,010 per month

These averages include long term renters. A deeper look at market rents for those who are actively looking for a place to live reveals that rents are much higher

“Anyone looking for a rental currently can tell you that number is extremely low,” says Kirsten Brooker, seniors housing navigator at NFLA. “One bedroom suites that I saw on the market a few years ago at $800 to $900 dollars are now listed at $1,500 to $1,600. People that have been renting the same place for the past five years are likely locked into a moderate rate, but with vacancy rates so low, landlords know they can charge more and are doing so.”   

As a result, 59 per cent of people over the age of 65 in Nanaimo are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, which is considered “unaffordable.” 

A bar graph shows that 59 per cent of seniors over 65 are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
Source: Canadian Rental Housing Index

What unique obstacles do low-income seniors face?

Seniors have even greater difficulty trying to search for those limited available rentals due to the digital market, says Brooker. “The biggest obstacle I am seeing for seniors is the lack of digital literacy and safety.”  

James says he thought he had finally found a suitable place to live after corresponding with a “landlord” online but was instead scammed out of a significant sum of money. 

Scammers will often use photos from a house previously listed for sale and pass it off as a place looking for tenants. The thief will demand rent to be paid upfront and/or a security deposit to “secure” the fake rental. 

For some people desperate to find a place to live, they don’t think twice about handing over cash. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, scams like these are on the rise since the pandemic, and seniors are an incredibly vulnerable target.

“For seniors dealing with mental health issues or early dementia, that is another added challenge in finding housing,” Brooker adds. 

In its latest health and housing implementation plan, the City of Nanaimo says it aims to improve digital navigation capacity for vulnerable groups like seniors through community partnerships.

How is the lack of affordable housing affecting seniors’ mental health?

The Nanaimo Family Life Association’s Seniors Housing Information & Navigation Ease Program (S.H.I.N.E.) supports seniors in navigating the digital market and advocates for them in their search for affordable housing. 

Brooker has anywhere from 30 to 50 clients at a time that she supports in a variety of capacities. James was recently referred to the NFLA, who immediately supplied him with grocery gift cards donated by Country Grocer. 

In my first interview with James he was obviously distressed from his situation. He commented about how he’s considered ending his life because he was so fed up with the systems in place. 

Hollins says that they are seeing an increase in distressed seniors, including those like James who have contemplated suicide. In B.C., the age group with the largest percentage of deaths by suicide between 2008 and 2018 were people between the ages of 50 and 59. On Vancouver Island and across Canada, men account for the vast majority of suicides. “For a lot of people, that is their retirement plan, unfortunately,” says Hollins.

Brooker says the topic of suicide is commonly brought up during her calls with seniors. “Seniors have been very open of how they feel that they only have so much economic value. Those without good pensions in reliable industries feel like they don’t matter and feel guilty they are not contributing to the economy. And these are people who have worked hard their whole life.”

James retired from truck driving and spent most of his life as a member of the working, middle class. With no significant savings, large assets to cash in or family support, he relies on government social assistance to help with living expenses. 

For a single individual like James, they would likely receive income from the Guaranteed Income Supplement, Canadian Pension Plan and the provincial senior’s supplement, which works out to between $1,300 to $1,600 monthly. 

The provincial government temporarily added a benefit for people on disability or income assistance in April, 2020 that provided $300 a month, however this was later clawed back to $150. The province recently announced that starting in April, 2021, a $175 monthly boost to income and disability assistance rates will permanently replace this emergency benefit.  

In other words, a person like James is likely earning less than $30,000 a year and paying more than half of their income on rent. This is precisely the demographic that the city warns is “on the edge of homelessness.

Around 12 per cent of seniors in Nanaimo were living in poverty in 2018, about five per cent more than in 2012, according to the Nanaimo Foundation’s most recent Vital Signs report

“A lot of my job entails informing my senior clients that they need to change their lifestyle. They have been middle income their whole life and now they are going to have to start using a foodbank,” says Brooker. “That is a hard message. There is a lot of stigma to that.”

How are different groups of low-income seniors affected by the housing crisis?

“Affordability is a sliding scale. As far as seniors go, it can vary considerably,” says Andrea Blakeman, Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society’s executive officer. “For example, a homemaker whose spouse has passed away will bring very, very low income in, so that can be extremely challenging to find a place to live.”

Women are in an increasingly more vulnerable position when entering retirement as they tend to earn less.

Historically, women have been underpaid for their work and continue to earn 30 per cent less than their male counterparts in Canada, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.  

“Imagine being a working woman in the 1950, 1960, 1970’s and now looking at the last phase of your life and not having the opportunities you probably should have had,” says Hollins. “These seniors are dealing with issues of financial security, and likely trauma from sexual harassment in the workplace or discrimination. We don’t talk about these issues often, but as women age they become extremely important.”

For Indigenous seniors living in Nanaimo, affordable housing can be even more out of reach due to the ongoing impacts of colonization such as systemic racism and economic inequities. Single parents and recent immigrants also face additional barriers, according to the city’s latest housing action plan.

How is the private market responding?

Some private developers are stepping up to provide rental housing for middle class seniors. A representative of the proposed Telus Living Nanaimo development in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter says rental rates are projected to range from $1,000 to $2,300 monthly and are geared at all kinds of renters, including seniors.  

Seniors are viewed as an important piece of the future Telus Living Nanaimo community; accordingly, we have included 15 adaptable units to encourage aging-in-place and four accessible units in addition to all accessible common spaces,” says Pablo Yuste, project architect.  

Many more market rental units are proposed or under construction as the City of Nanaimo works to encourage more rental housing development, particularly in the higher-density “urban nodes” of Woodgrove and Downtown Nanaimo, according to a 2020 report.

What housing for low-income seniors is available in Nanaimo?

For low-income individuals, finding affordable housing options are few and far between though. 

There are currently 1,858 subsidized rental housing units in Nanaimo funded by BC Housing. Of those units, 729 are specifically for seniors, mostly consisting of one-bedroom private dwellings.

It seems concrete can’t be poured quick enough, though the provincial government with local partnerships is making an effort to do so. Since 2018, BC Housing says it has helped build 432 new affordable housing units in Nanaimo, with an additional 353 currently under construction. 

The City of Nanaimo says it’s “imperative” to address the growing demand for seniors’ housing in its latest demographics and land inventory. In an email, a city representative told The Discourse that municipal land and various rebates are used to support affordable housing projects. The city is also reviewing additional affordable rental housing incentives, like density bonuses, to encourage more affordable units.

Though the increased supply in affordable seniors’ units is a “positive trend,” the Regional District of Nanaimo notes that “low-income seniors have few rental, non-market housing, semi-supportive, and supportive housing options in the RDN that are accessible, suitable, and affordable” in its most recent housing needs report

“There were about twenty years that we built so little housing and now we are playing catch up,” says Blakeman. “By us helping the people on the lowest end of the economy, we are helping everybody. Our tax dollars are supporting these people in one way or another, so we should be supporting them to have a good quality of life. Everyone deserves that.” 

An seniors apartment complex is shown under construction with light coming in from the side.
The expansion of the Buttertubs Place complex will create more affordable homes for seniors in Nanaimo. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther

What about the new seniors’ housing at Buttertubs Place? 

The latest expansion for seniors’ housing is at Nanaimo’s Buttertubs Place on 10 Buttertubs Drive, which is a collaboration between the province, the City of Nanaimo and the Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society.  

The facility currently has 82 older patio home units and another 159 units are slated to be completed by late 2021.  

“That project has 200 people on the waitlist,” says Blakeman. “Saying that, the number of applicants continues to increase.” Blakeman adds that some on the waitlist may have already found housing elsewhere and haven’t updated their information.

Monthly rental rates for the Buttertubs Place complex are expected to go for $706 for a studio and $1,147 for a two-bedroom unit. Although this building is not subsidized, residents can apply for the province’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Seniors (SAFER) program, which provides assistance to people over the age of 60 and whose income does not exceed $2,446 for singles and $2,666 for couples in the Nanaimo area. 

There were 840 recipients of the SAFER subsidy in Nanaimo since last December, according to BC Housing.  

Buttertubs Place is one of many complexes that is managed by the Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society. A grassroots organization started by the United Church 30 years ago, the society has grown into an integral service of developing and operating affordable housing throughout the Nanaimo area. They currently manage 12 multigenerational complexes consisting of 518 units for low to moderate income individuals who are income tested annually, according to Blakeman. 

‘We knew this was coming’

Almost all baby boomers will turn 65 or older in this decade.

“We knew this was coming as a society, and we failed to respond. One of the solutions is to stop failing to respond,” says Hollins. “We need to push our federal, provincial and municipal governments to be responding to the homeless crisis in multiple ways that requires financial investment, creative partnerships among nonprofits and government agencies, and listen to the front-line workers.” 

Although there are various social assistance programs to support seniors to pay for their accommodations, Hollins says those supports are not enough. “When we have these social programs, it gives us the excuse to rest on our laurels believing that we have these programs to fall on, but these supports are not often adequate,” she says. “There are limits and probably for good reason because of demand.” 

“The most I have ever seen someone benefit from the SAFER supplement was $275 monthly towards rent. For seniors on a very limited income, that simply isn’t enough,” adds Brooker, whose clients’ average monthly income is anywhere between $1,300 and $1,600. 

We need to get creative with how we live’

Hollins says building more apartment complexes isn’t necessary the solution to affordable housing in the community. “We need to get creative with how we live. We don’t all need to live in our own separate houses side by side,” she says. “We need to start looking at practices similar to how they are adapting in Europe with cohousing or community living.” 

Although cohousing is gaining popularity in Canada, there is currently no federal or provincial funding for this style of living accommodations, which brings the costs to more or on par with traditional housing. 

Other creative affordable housing solutions like infill or laneway suites are also lagging behind, though the City of Nanaimo says it intends to introduce an adaptable housing policy for seniors and support increased density in existing neighbourhoods as a pilot in coming years.

After a long road to find affordable housing, James has finally found the light at the end of the tunnel. With the support from the NFLA and NAHS, he will be moving into a safe and affordable one-bedroom unit beginning April 1. 

“For me, having a place to call my own, to sleep somewhere at night without being disturbed, means I can finally relax and enjoy my days,” he says. “It means everything.” [end]

Where to find support:

Mental health supports 

  • Vancouver Island Crisis Line & Chat

Toll Free (24 hours): 1-888-494-3888

Crisis Text: (250) 800-3806

Crisis Chat:

  • Seniors Services Society 

Mental health resources for seniors 

Housing and housing supports

  • Seniors Service Society 

List of rental housing for seniors in Nanaimo

  • Regional District of Nanaimo 

Housing resource for seniors 

  • Seniors Housing Information & Navigation Ease Program 

Provides information on housing, operated by the Nanaimo Family Life Association. 

Contact or call (250) 754-3331 EXT. 716 for more information

  • Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society 

Details on how to apply for seniors housing.

  • Tillicum Lelum

Offers rental housing for elders and youth.

Call 250-716-3438 for rental information.

  • Rental assistance 

Apply for B.C’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER)

Have a resource to include here? Contact us.

This story is part of our series on rental affordability in Nanaimo, Making Rent— original reporting made possible by the monthly members who support this work.

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