A new proposal to pay the rent

TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – A new proposal to pay the rent
November 17, 2008

A man on welfare in Thunder Bay gets the same amount to pay his rent as someone in Toronto, where rents are far higher. That makes little sense. And what about a woman holding down a job but still living in poverty? She gets no help to pay the rent at all.

A welcome new proposal for a housing benefit would begin to address this inequity. It would be available to low-income adults, whether they’re receiving social assistance or earning a substandard wage. This is vital, given the prevalence of part-time, no-benefit jobs, which often leave the working poor no further ahead than those on welfare. As designed, the benefit would vary according to city size, family size, income and the rent being paid. That too makes sense.

As reported today by the Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten, the proposal has beeen put before the government by a coalition that includes non-profit housing providers, the Daily Bread Food Bank, and private landlords. It would target low-income singles and couples as well as families. It would cost the provincial treasury $240 million annually and provide an average monthly benefit of about $100 to nearly 200,000 low-income tenants.

That isn’t enough to transform lives, but when Ontario’s poor are increasingly forced to choose between food or rent, any help is welcome.

The coalition calls this a “housing benefit,” but really it’s an income support. It would give people more means to keep eviction notices from their door and food in the fridge. But it doesn’t negate two other needs: to build more affordable housing and repair what we’ve got.

This is always a more difficult proposition for government because the dollars don’t go as far. But Queen’s Park can’t simply adopt the coalition’s proposal and say: affordable housing crisis solved.

Boosting a tenant’s ability to pay rent to a private landlord – as has been proven elsewhere – can lead to unintended consequences. Without rent control, landlords can, over time, increase rents to the point of pocketing the entire benefit, leaving tenants no better off. Also, ghettos are created as people flock to the cheapest buildings.

By building affordable housing the government can create more stable mixed-income communities. There’s also no better time than now to build, as economists are urging infrastructure spending to boost the economy. Building new housing and fixing up the existing stock would create jobs and ensure truly affordable housing for the poor over the long run.

As one of the coalition’s members, Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association executive director Sharad Kerur, puts it: “It’s a three-legged stool.” This proposal is the beginning of one strong leg, but without the other two the whole stool will crash down.

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