'You feel ashamed': Despite tighter rules, struggling British Columbians still embrace payday loans

Downtown Eastside poverty advocate Elli Taylor has seen many desperate people struggling with payday loans.

She's been that person herself.

In 2014, while working as a part-time convenience store clerk in Williams Lake, Taylor took out what she thought would be a manageable $250 loan to buy a bus pass and Christmas presents for her 14-year-old twins.

Her take-home pay was about $250 every two weeks, but monthly instalment payments of $50 became a problem with then-legal interest rates of over 20 percent.

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"You're snowballing into not being able to afford your groceries," Taylor said. "You feel ashamed. It's dehumanizing."

It's stories like that that make it clear why B.C. has tightened the rules for payday lenders starting in 2016: lowering how much can be borrowed and the interest rates allowed.

But while the number of lenders has declined under these new rules, data show British Columbians are actually borrowing from them more. 

New rules, same problem

Payday loans offer quick cash but demand interest and fees greater than other loan types especially if not repaid quickly — perhaps six to seven times the cost of an equivalent amount from a credit card cash advance or line of credit.

Advocates say many low-income people can't access those cheaper options, and payday lender regulations are missing the point: too many British Columbians just aren't making enough money to get by.

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Isaiah Chan, director of counselling of the Credit Counselling Society, said the fact that there aren't fewer people seeking help with those debts speaks to bigger problems with affordability.

"Something's triggered it: either some sort of disruption like a family emergency or job loss, illness, something where they have to quickly resort to borrowing money at a higher cost," Chan said.

"The story that we hear from clients [is] they had nowhere else to turn."

Since 2016, the province has taken a series of steps to tighten payday lending rules: the maximum fee for every $100 borrowed is now $15, limits have been placed on information collection and the amount that can be loaned has been lowered to half a paycheque or half the earnings of one pay period.

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Chan welcomes those changes but isn't seeing an impact.

The society helped over 20,500 Canadians from B.C. to Ontario through its debt management program in 2019. About 30 percent had payday loan problems, numbers similar to 2018.

Chan said the people who rely on these loans tend to be poorer, have few credit options and are "desperate."

By the numbers: 

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'I was suicidal'

Taylor remembers that desperation.

Falling behind, unable to afford groceries and without other options, she took out more loans to stay afloat. The lenders would send people to her house and call her employer.

Taylor also has clinical depression. She blames the stress of the loan for making her illness worse until she could no longer work. She became homeless.

"I was suicidal," she said. "I just felt like, what the f--k is wrong with me?"

Taylor says she's doing better now, but it took time.

She moved to Vancouver where there are more supports for her mental health, and found work with organizations Raise the Rates and Carnegie Community Action Project.

She was able to pay the loans off eventually, after getting tax refunds from previous years she had not filed for, but to this day her credit rating is shot.

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More regulations coming

Alan Evetts of the Canadian Consumer Finance Association, an industry association for payday lenders, said payday lending provides much-needed cash, quickly, to people who normally wouldn't be able to get it.

He said it's unfair to compare the higher rates of payday lending with lower-interest options like lines of credit, likening it to comparing the nightly price of a hotel room to monthly rent.

"They're intended to be used very differently."

A provincial spokesperson said further regulations are coming that will stop lenders from issuing further loans to a borrower who already has a loan with that institution and put in a waiting period after a borrower has paid off a loan before they can take on another one.

Economist Iglika Ivanova of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said regulations typically show governments don't understand payday lending.

"Payday loans are pitched as a sort of last resort," Ivanova said. "A lot of people are actually taking these loans for utility bills and for groceries ... that are expected but they can't pay for."

Ivanova said banks and credit unions need to provide alternatives. Vancity's Fair and Fast Loan is one positive example, offering small, short-term loans at an interest rate about one-twentieth that of a payday loan. 

For Taylor, the answer is more affordable housing, food security and a basic income.

"No amount of changing interest rates of loans is going to help," she said. "We need equity."

Treading Water is a series from CBC British Columbia examining the impact of the affordability crisis on people in Metro Vancouver and across the province, including the creative solutions being used to make ends meet.

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