A shelter benefit called for by community advocates and developed in Manitoba is a model for the rest of the country. Rent Assist has offered new hope for low income people. It is an innovative housing policy for Canada to build upon.
The shortage of social and other subsidized housing means low-income people are often forced to turn to the private market. Renting housing on a fixed income in the private market forces many to choose between paying rent or buying food. Those renting privately have had to pay what the market demands out of eroding social assistance rates or fixed incomes. Assistance rates not indexed to inflation result in a decline in real dollars. This has left a large gap between shelter benefits and private market rents.
The Manitoba office of the CCPA documented growing community consensus on the need to address meager social assistance shelter allowances in the 2011 The Truth About Consequences. The report recommended indexing social assistance shelter rates to 75% of the Median Market Rent (MMR) as set by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
The three-year community shelter benefit campaign followed, led by Make Poverty History Manitoba. The call to increase shelter benefits was eventually supported in varying degrees by all political parties. In 2014 the Manitoba government under the NDP introduced Rent Assist. The communities’ call was answered in a new comprehensive benefit available to those on and off of assistance.
Rent Assist is indexed to 75% of MMR and increased to match MMR annually. The amount a recipient receives is set based on their income, family size and residence. Tenants pay a base amount and then Rent Assist tops them up to 75% of MMR. For example, the maximum amount paid to single individuals monthly is $563 and single parents by $787 (utilities included).
While Rent Assist is an improvement, housing advocates are finding it is still not quite adequate. The vacancy rate for units below MMR is very low. This results in tenants using food or basic needs budgets to cover market rent. However, it is a step in the right direction and federal support could bridge the gap. Rent controls in Manitoba keep the ceiling on rents so landlords cannot take advantage of increased benefits to tenants.
As a portable benefit, Rent Assist gives tenants choice as to where they wish to live. It is portable and follows you if you move off of assistance or onto assistance. This breaks down the welfare wall. Rent Assist is designed as a program outside of the social assistance system and therefore does not come with the stigma of “being on welfare”.
Social assistance recipients were automatically enrolled in Rent Assist and 24,000 received the benefit in 2017. Working poor and other low-income people must apply. When it was first introduced in 2014, 2,400 Manitobans applied, which has more than doubled to 7,000 recipients in 2017.
While in opposition, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party supported raising the shelter benefit for those on assistance to 75% of MMR. However once forming government in 2016 the PC-led government raised the base amount (what tenants pay) for Rent Assist from 25% to 28% and now 30%. This reduced eligibility for several hundred Manitobans in the program and cut shelter benefits to thousands of others.
Apart from this adjustment, the Rent Assist program remains largely intact after the change in provincial government and the program is even a point of pride. For example, the inflationary increases to index Rent Assist to MMR were cited in the 2017 provincial budget press release. This is a testament to the education done by housing and poverty reduction advocates of the need for a progressive shelter subsidy.
Housing advocates across Canada have long been calling for something like Rent Assist: increased shelter benefits as part of a comprehensive national housing strategy.
This past January the federal government responded with the long-awaited National Housing Strategy. Central to this strategy is the $4 billion Canada Housing Benefit. Scheduled to be launched in 2020, the Canada Housing Benefit has yet to be developed. The Rent Assist program could be used as a model across the country.
The federal government and provinces will negotiate bilateral agreements to implement the national housing strategy. In What does an actual housing allowance look like? Manitoba’s Rent Assist program, Hajer, Mendelson and Brandon argue that Rent Assist is an example of provincial innovation enabled by Canadian federalism. Manitoba has found a way to address the complexities of reducing core housing needs amongst private renters. This can be upheld if the federal government requires their benefit to boost affordability so that low income people are not spending more than 30% of income on housing.
Housing advocates are calling for a rights-based approach in the new housing benefit to redress systemic inequities. A coordinated approach between levels of government is needed to enhance existing benefits and programs. But when new benefits from one level of government are introduced there can be a temptation by the other to use this to save money. This would be a mistake.
When introducing the new federal benefit, provincial benefits should not be clawed back. The federal benefit should dovetail with provincial benefits so low income tenants renting privately can cover rent without using food or other basic needs budgets. The new federal Housing Benefit money does not let provinces off the hook. Moreover, cash benefits like Rent Assist do not obviate the need for investing in social housing, which remains a fundamental pillar of good housing policy.
An adequate shelter benefit is essential to ending poverty in Canada. This benefit must be well-designed so as not to subsidize, but rather complement, existing provincial programs in order to move people forward so that they afford good housing, healthy food & realize basic human rights. Canada and the provinces must get this right or we risk losing this important opportunity.
Molly McCracken is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba.