Newfoundland and Labrador's housing crunch has been hurting students, seniors and people below the poverty line, but the head of a St. John's non-profit that helps people experiencing homelessness says another demographic needing help is emerging.
A lack of availability and affordability are two problems facing prospective renters right now, with the rising cost of living taking larger chunks from peoples' paycheques, to a degree St. John's hasn't seen before, says Laura Winters, CEO of Stella's Circle.
"They're seeing a huge rise in family homelessness, which has not historically been an issue in St. John's, and this is not just within our agency. This is across the sector locally, and I think that really says we're seeing something different here," said Winters in a recent interview.
"There's a huge amount of need and an inability of the system to respond to these issues of availability and affordability just being so prevalent right now."
Winters said no agency exists in St. John's right now that specifically deals with family homelessness. There isn't a shelter serving families either, she said.
Winters said there hasn't been an increase in income support — received by most people who Stella's Circle supports — and there's still a stigma associated with renting to those who avail of the program.
"I think the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt. The cost of living is increasing, people are choosing between paying their power bills, getting their groceries or having a cellphone to be able to do housing searches," she said.
"Some folks who were at one point scraping by are now not able to do that and I think it's really laying bare the need in our community."
Winters said housing needs to be viewed a basic human right.
'It's about to get worse'
The province's capital city had a rental vacancy rate of about seven per cent in 2020.
Housing advocate Hope Jamieson said that number was unusually high, landing St. John's in the top five among larger jurisdictions in the country. Since then, that number has fallen to 3.1 per cent — a "healthy" vacancy rate, said Jamieson, but the steep decline in a short time has tightened up the market.
"If you think about it in raw numbers we have 3,900 — give or take — units in the entire rental market universe in the St. John's area," she said.
"That means the 3.1 vacancy rate, that's 120 units, which relative to the number of people looking for housing is quite a small number."
Jamieson said that data was current as of October, and reflected a rise in rents that began happening before an increase in interest rates.
"There's a six-month notice period for rental increases, so we can expect that all of this is, if it hasn't already gotten worse, is about to get worse," she said.
"There's all these little things impacting a big problem here in the province."
Sherwin Flight, administrator of the Facebook group Newfoundland Tenant & Landlord Support Group, said renters didn't have a problem finding rentals two years ago. But images of long lines of prospective renters waiting for their turn to view a home have recently started circulating on social media.
"I'd say specifically in the last year or so we've seen a lot of posts in that group where people are really desperately looking for a place," Flight said.
"People are really struggling, compared to the past, to try to find something."