A month after a series of North Shore apartment fires left over 100 families homeless, many are still desperately searching for a new place to call home.
Now those families will get a temporary reprieve, after the province agreed to extend emergency financial support to families still living in local hotel rooms while they search for affordable housing.
Crisis support extended
North Shore Emergency Management requested additional help and received the good news Friday that the province will extend crisis support, including payment for hotels, until Feb. 1.
Usually, emergency support for those displaced by fires, floods or other disasters is only provided for 72 hours. In this case, financial support had ready been extended to Jan. 15, given the number of families displaced, timing of the fire shortly before Christmas and extra challenges presented by recent snowfalls.
Families who weren’t sure where they would end up after the weekend now have an extra two weeks to try to find more permanent housing.
“We’re hoping the extension to Feb. 1 will at least be able to bring people into the next housing cycle,” said North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma, who is also Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Relations.
A total of 170 people were displaced from their homes on the North Shore in December as a result of four separate fires. The two largest fires involved apartment buildings – one at the International Plaza on Marine Drive and one at a 66-unit apartment building on East 12th Street in Central Lonsdale.
Eleven families had to leave their homes as a result of the International Plaza fire, while the entire apartment building on East 12th was deemed uninhabitable due to structural damage to the core of the building which contained most of the building’s key systems.
The local emergency management office is now working with 79 families to try to find permanent, affordable housing to replace the apartments they lost.
Among the supports being provided by the provincial government is funding for two “community navigator” positions to work with the emergency management office for two months specifically to help those people find homes, said Ma.
That task isn’t easy, acknowledged Emily Dicken, director of North Shore Emergency Management.
Tight rental market, high costs create challenges
“The rental market on the North Shore and across Metro Vancouver is really tight and cost of living is really high,” said Dicken.
Dicken said NSEM is working on a “family by family” basis, along with BC Housing, local property managers and developers to identify all opportunities.
“We’re trying to support people with decisions that make the most sense for their families,” said Dicken, which includes taking into account their workplaces, children’s school arrangements, medical needs and other factors.
Dicken said she expects to see between 20 and 25 families move into housing by the beginning of February.
But others are still searching.
Filipino community impacted
Lailani Tumaneng, local nurse and community leader who was recently elected to the North Vancouver School Board, has been helping several families try to find new homes.
A significant proportion of those living in the building on East 12th were members of the Filipino community, and many of them work at Lions Gate Hospital and at nearby North Vancouver care homes, she said.
In one case, a family who had applied to BC Housing two years ago was offered a subsidized apartment in Vancouver when one came available, she said.
But in another case, a family of five has been hitting dead ends in their search. “For the families with five and up, they will have a hard time,” she said.
In the interim, families have had to rent storage lockers to store their belongings and take things “one day at a time.”
Even if they are lucky enough to find permanent housing, families are also facing much higher costs for rent.
One former resident of the apartment building, who asked not to be named, said he and his partner had been able to find new housing in North Vancouver, but at a cost that’s $1,000 a month more than they were paying previously. “Other people are going to be struggling a lot more,” he said.
Few families in the building had tenants’ insurance.
$17,000 in donations raised
In recognition of that, St. Andrew’s United Church in North Vancouver has been accepting donations from community members to help the displaced residents.
So far, $17,000 has been raised, said Minister Judith Hardcastle, and will be shared among the families.
“People have been very generous,” said Hardcastle, adding the church collected donations on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Ma said unfortunately the situation has become as much about the current housing crisis on the North Shore as it has about the actual fire.
“The sad reality is even with these extensions of emergency support, they’re not long-term solutions,” said Ma.
She worries it’s a situation that will become more common as rental stock ages. In the case of the East 12th apartment building, units provided affordable housing, but the building also didn’t have sprinklers because of its age, when Building Code regulations didn’t require them.
“That makes them susceptible to emergencies like this,” she said. “It’s a conversation I’m having with my ministry.”