Rent Assist improvements to make housing more affordable

New provincial subsidies provide Manitobans living in poverty more money to pay their rent. Starting December 1, 2015, Manitoba will increase Rent Assist benefits for low-income families and individuals.

Community groups, including Right to Housing and Make Poverty History Manitoba, have been working towards this change for several years. Access to quality housing is a right and a necessity of life in Manitoba. However, rising rents and low vacancies have put housing out of reach for many Manitoba households.

Thanks to community efforts and pressure from opposition parties, this increase is being implemented two years earlier than initially promised. This will mean more families will be able to avoid having to choose between putting food on the table and paying their rent.

Housing is an important social determinant of health. Lack of quality affordable housing can increase exposure to debilitating chronic and infectious disease, reduce educational attainment and limit employment opportunities. Meanwhile, investments in housing pay off for everyone: for every 100 people kept out of homelessness, society realizes over $3 million in savings in health, justice and child welfare.

There are two major components to the Rent Assist program, both of which will receive top ups next month. For individuals and families who rely on Employment and Income Assistance (social assistance) benefits  will increase to 75 per cent of median market rent depending on family size. For example, a single individual on EIA will receive $511 per month for rent, a $51 increase. Recipients of the non-EIA stream of Rent Assist, including working poor, will also receive an increase. For example, a single parent with two children working full-time on minimum wage will be eligible for a $320 per month subsidy on her rent, a $50 increase.

The new program will provide more autonomy and choice for recipients, giving better access to private market housing. It promises to be simplified, making it easier for families to apply for and maintain their benefits. In the past, difficulties accessing the program have limited its take up, with less than 5,000 people receiving the non-EIA stream of benefits out an estimated eligible population of at least 20,000. Also, by tying the level of benefits to the median market rent, families will have security that their benefits will not be eroded by inflation – a positive change from previous programs which failed to keep up with skyrocketing rents.

One family who is very pleased to receive help from Rent Assist is that of Anteneh Tefera and his wife, Rahel.  Anteneh and Rahel arrived in Winnipeg from Ethiopia this last September with their two children. Both worked professional jobs back in Ethiopia – Anteneh as a Professor of Microbiology, and Rahel as an Assistant Manager of a bank. They were able to find a small house to rent, but neither has yet been able to find a job. They said that their preference is “to find a job and live by their own”. As they spend their days searching for work, Anteneh and Rahel are living on their life savings. About receiving Rent Assist, Anteneh said, “Now I have money to buy the things we need, and our savings won’t drain as fast.”

These new Rent Assist benefits are part of a series of investments by the provincial government in recent years to make housing more affordable.  EIA Rent Assist rates have increased by between $146 and $291 per month since 2013. Previously, EIA benefits in Manitoba were among the lowest in the country; now they are above average in many categories. Manitoba has also been a leader in the construction of new social housing, with 2,000 new subsidized units over a seven year period.

There is no question that Manitoba has far to go towards the eradication of poverty. Indigenous Manitobans, both on and off-reserve, often suffer from poor housing, lower employment opportunities, and high rates of children in the care of child welfare system. Newcomers to Canada, often struggling to adapt to life in their new home, are at a disadvantage when they lack access to secure and affordable housing. The Child Poverty Report Card released by Winnipeg Harvest and Campaign 2000 showed that as of the latest data in 2013, Manitoba had the second highest child poverty rate in the country.  Regardless of how we measure poverty, no child should be dealt an impoverished future of curtailed opportunities.

Eradicating poverty will require systematic and comprehensive change. No single policy change will meet the generational investments required. The announced changes in Rent Assist will however make a down payment towards this goal.

Josh Brandon is chair of Make Poverty History Manitoba; Sally Nelson is the Executive Director with New Journey Housing

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