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City extends housing grant to families displaced by apartment fires

The money will top up housing budgets while providing help to find permanent affordable homes

The City of North Vancouver is throwing a $360,000 lifeline to families displaced by two recent apartment fires who still haven’t been able to find permanent homes.

The municipality announced Wednesday it is making a one-time grant to help families who are still looking for a place to live.

The money – which comes from the city’s contingency budget and was approved in a special council meeting Wednesday morning – will directly top up family housing budgets to get them into rentals which otherwise be unaffordable. It will also provide help finding permanent affordable housing.

Of the over 150 residents who lost their homes in recent apartment fires in the city – including an apartment fire on East 12th Street and a fire at a house with rental suites on East 2nd Street - about half have still not found permanent housing and are still living in hotels.

Two months after the fires, 58 people from 22 apartments affected by the fires in December were still receiving government assistance, according to Emily Dicken, director of North Shore Emergency Management.

Money to pay for the hotels has been provided by the province’s emergency program, which has been extended several times. Normally, the program only provides emergency help for residents displaced by emergencies for up to 72 hours.

The provincial funding is scheduled to run out Feb. 15.

For the remaining displaced families “the challenge of record-low vacancy rates and an increased cost of living creates an unprecedented need for continued support,” said City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan.

Buchanan said the city was providing the one-time grant, which will be administered by Hollyburn Family Services, because “a crisis of this magnitude has not been seen in our community in recent memory.

Buchanan said while helping people recover from emergency situations is normally a provincial responsibility, the recent apartment fires have highlighted a gap in “medium term” assistance between the immediate aftermath of a crisis and longer-term recovery.

“Helping our neighbours transition into housing and rebuild their lives is the right thing to do,” she added.

Buchanan didn’t comment on why the city decided to step in with a grant for this group of residents, while other tenants who have faced displacement due to renovictions and redevelopments of their buildings have not received similar funding from the city.

“The city has many policies to support people with many housing challenges,” she said. “This happens to be a significant number of people. It’s hard to find housing given the crisis they were in.”

The grant program will be in place for a maximum of one year.

Bowinn Ma, North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA and B.C.'s Minister of Emergency Management, said the 72-hour emergency support was originally intended as a stopgap measure until supports usually provided by insurance kicked in.

"Unfortunately, what we are seeing more and more of is when older rental buildings go through this kind of disaster when the residents are very vulnerable and lower income, there's a very low rate of insurance. And as a result, they are more dependent on emergency support services for longer, which is why the emergency support services that we've provided have been extended several times now," she said.

"One of the problems that we're seeing is that when some of these residents land on emergency support services, they become dependent on it in large part because there's nowhere else for them to go."

Ma said the province has so far provided $360,000 in support for residents displaced by the fires.

Ma said she worries that as rental apartments age, there could be an increase in similar types of residential building fires.

"So it is an active conversation within my ministry that we would like to take a deeper dive into these scenarios and better understand where the gaps are and what the role the province should play in filling it," she said.

One group of tenants will not be getting help from the city's grant funding. Those are residents of a fire at the International Plaza apartment building which happened Dec. 28. That building is in the District of North Vancouver and not within city boundaries.

Many families displaced by the fires are facing rents significantly higher than the amount they paid previously for apartments.

A recent report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. indicated when new tenants move into apartments on the North Shore, rents can shoot up 24 per cent.

The challenge is particularly acute for residents with larger families. CMHC data indicates rents for three-bedroom apartments in North Vancouver range from about $2,500 to $3,400.

An investigation has revealed the fire that ripped through the 61-unit apartment building at 260 East 12th Street on Dec. 13 was likely caused by an electrical problem connected to a bathroom light or fan in the ceiling of a first-floor apartment. The fire on East 2nd Street was caused by an e-bike charger.

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