Portable Housing Benefit Would Help

By Kirk Winter

In a 2018 report prepared for the Ontario Association of Food Banks, researchers believe they have discovered one sure-fire way to lessen the number of people accessing food banks: reduce the amount they are currently spending on housing with a government housing benefit.

The single biggest expense that every family must pay regardless of where they live in Canada is housing. Some pay it in the form of a mortgage, while others pay rent to a landlord.

From 2012 to 2016 housing prices increased 18 percent, while the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment increased 12 percent. As more and more people have found themselves priced out of homeownership, they have turned to renting. In Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver the increase in rental stock has been stalled for a variety of reasons for the last four decades.

This lack of privately-owned rental housing has been exacerbated by the federal and provincial governments getting out of the social housing business by the year 2000. Social housing, or geared to income housing, is now the responsibility of municipalities who have the least ability to raise money through taxation. Research shows that from 2014 to 2020 the municipalities would have had to build 10,000 new units a year just to keep up with the current demand. Unfortunately, only a fraction of what is needed is being built by Canada’s cash strapped towns and cities.

The Toronto Community Housing Authority, who own the largest stock of geared to income housing in Canada, have raised the spectre of the situation even worsening as the apartments built originally by the federal and provincial governments reach the end of their useful lives. The TCHA stated that by 2023 three quarters of their existing apartments will be in poor to critical condition, and 7,500 units will have to close because they will no longer be habitable. A net loss of units available will have a profound impact on the already unconscionable 10-year wait that exists in Toronto for geared to income housing.

Ninety percent of food bank clients live in rental or social housing. The average food bank clients spend 70 percent of their income on housing, and are monthly at a high risk of homelessness. After paying the rent and utilities, 45 percent of food bank clients have only $100 a month left for food, transportation and medicine. Two-thirds of food bank clients are either beneficiaries of Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

The maximum payout for a single person on Ontario Works is $721 a month. Researchers showed in their study that in Toronto an average one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,300 a month, Ottawa $1,100 a month, Sudbury $950, Lindsay $900, and Windsor $750 a month. There is no significant urban centre in Ontario where an Ontario Works cheque would cover the rent.

Financial experts suggest that the maximum an individual should have to pay for housing is 30 percent of their monthly income. The majority of food bank users are paying well in excess of that number and cutting back on heat, hydro and food. It is not surprising that in Metro Toronto, Canada’s most expensive city, from 2008 to 2017 there has been a 24 percent increase in food bank usage.

The Ontario Association of Food Banks is supporting a portable housing benefit that would be paid directly to the tenant to ensure that rent is not more than 30 percent of income. Research has shown that this housing benefit will actually save money in the long term by:

  1. Decreasing the need for the government to build and maintain social housing as these people would now have greater flexibility and choice to rent from private landlords.

  2. Creating stability and lower criminality in low-income housing communities where the average tenancy is less than two years. Currently, any non-budgeted expense can render these individuals homeless in a matter of months. Long-term tenants typically take better care of their properties and take a greater interest in their communities being safe and secure.

  3. Reducing familial stress, and charges to the health care system.

  4. Increasing the ability to acquire and hold employment.

  5. Improving affected children’s growth, development, and educational outcomes.

  6. Ensuring that people do not become homeless and find either sick and hospitalized at the cost to the government of $10,900 a month, or involved in criminality and jailed at the cost of $4,333 a month.

Using the worst case scenario of Toronto as an example, the typical housing benefit would be about $1,000 a month per individual. In Windsor the benefit would be about $500 a month.

The ultimate goal of Canada’s food bank network is that someday they will be no longer needed because their former clients will have found a way to pull themselves out of poverty and end the vicious cycle of having no income left after the rent is paid.

In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, perhaps it is time that we join the Ontario Association of Food Banks to look at poverty eradication as they have, an issue directly connected to the cost of putting a roof over your head on a daily basis.