An old adage says that the more things change the more they stay the same. The rental housing market in Winnipeg is a prime example of this idea, but that might change if current initiatives from Make Poverty History and the Right to Housing Coalition calling for renewed government involvement can help.

The struggle to find affordable housing isn't new — in fact, you can see it's been happening for a very long time if you look back to Jane Austen's 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, in which the  newly widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters scrambled to find housing that they could afford with almost no money. 

John Dashwood and his wife Fanny were not necessarily evil people when they drove the Dashwoods out of their home; they were just looking at the situation from their own perspective.

Similarly, the Manitoba government's recent cuts to the Rent Assist program could be seen as a good business move, but groups like Make Poverty History Manitoba and the Right to Housing Coalition disagree.

Anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the news knows that homelessness is a growing problem in Canada, but they might not realize that the national phenomenon is a relatively recent problem. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, homelessness in this country spiked sharply in the 1990s when the federal government under Jean Chrétien ended its involvement in housing and handed it over to the provinces.


'With rising rents and limited access to jobs or other help, low-income people like me have few options except to move to progressively smaller homes or to cut costs another way,' says Susan Huebert. (CBC)

Now, this province's government is pulling back on housing spending for low-income Manitobans with changes that took effect on July 1. For years, the Rent Assist program has helped to mitigate the effects of rising rental costs, which have been increasing at increments often three or four times the rate of inflation.

The recent changes cut 150 households from that support, because their incomes are higher than the program now allows. 

While rates for people on social assistance remain unchanged, help for the working poor could decrease by as much as $100 per month under the new rules, as Make Poverty History's website notes. For people working part time or for minimum wage, such a large increase could bring real hardship and act as a disincentive to prospective workers.

Housing groups call for government action

With rising rents and limited access to jobs or other help, low-income people like me have few options except to move to progressively smaller homes or to cut costs another way. Going from a one-bedroom in a semi-suburban area to a much smaller West End home has not always been easy for me, but at least it has helped to relieve the financial pressure of keeping up with rent on a freelancer's income.

Many of the marginalized of society are in a similar situation, judging by what I have discovered about the area so far.

These are some of the issues that Josh Brandon of Make Poverty History and Kirsten Bernas of the Right to Housing Coalition discussed at a public forum on housing held at the Resource Assistance for Youth building on Sherbrook Street on Aug. 15. Staff members at RaY are well acquainted with the problem of homelessness, since part of their job is to help youth find places to live.

Josh Brandon

Josh Brandon is with Make Poverty History, a group that has been campaigning for shelter rates that are tied to rent increases for low-income Manitobans. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

Brandon, a community animator for Make Poverty History Manitoba, said that housing is a crucial foundation for everything else, since it is difficult to hold down a job or otherwise participate in society without a place to live. With the high cost of shelter in Manitoba, Make Poverty History has been campaigning for better shelter rates that are tied to rent increases, much like they were before the 1990s.

Some people have questioned whether Rent Assist drives inflation, as Brandon noted, but until recently, even the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives supported the program as an essential way to keep low-income people in their homes. Now that they are in power, however, they have changed their priorities, Brandon said.

Kirsten Bernas spoke as a representative of the Right to Housing Coalition, an organization composed of various church and community groups concerned with issues of poverty and equality.

With the housing situation worsening, the coalition has two main wishes for government action: increasing the supply of social and affordable housing, and reinvesting in what is already available through repairs, renewed operating agreements, and new subsidies.

Kirsten Bernas

Kirsten Bernas is with the Right to Housing Coalition, which wants government to increase the supply of social and affordable housing, and reinvest in what is already available through repairs, renewed operating agreements, and new subsidies. (CBC)

Statistics Canada numbers from 2011 note that more than 25 per cent of Canadian households at that time exceeded the affordability threshold of paying more than 30 per cent of their income towards shelter costs, with singles and lone-parent families disproportionately affected.

Despite what many people would like to think, leaving housing to the markets is not an effective method of spurring new investments, and the government must step in with effective rent control and new building initiatives.

In Jane Austen's novel, John and Fanny Dashwood's refusal to help their family caused an enduring rift. With all of the resources in this province, Manitobans can do better for their low-income neighbours.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.