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Hundreds in Wood Buffalo will struggle to pay rent with planned cuts in Alberta budget

Grace Richards couldn’t find a place to live in Conklin, Alta., so she built herself a small shack with no running water or electricity. It’s a choice many have made in the community, where housing is scarce and expensive.

'The rent supplement helps those people afford to be able to live in our community'

Grace Richards lives in what she describes as a "shack" in Conklin, Alta. (Sky Seidel)

Grace Richards couldn't find a place to live in Conklin, Alta., so she built herself a small shack with no running water or electricity. It's a choice many have made in the community, where housing is scarce and expensive. 

Now, with planned provincial budget cuts to housing programs, Richards is nervous the situation will only get worse. 

"It's a sad state for sure," said Richards. "We really need to have something done and I don't know, especially now with the cutbacks from the Kenney government, I really don't know if ... anything will be done for the people in this community."

Over the years, Richards has watched many friends and family members move away because of the lack of affordable housing options. Her daughter moved to Edmonton. 

The Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation (WBH) owns 16 properties in Conklin that are leased through its affordable housing program, and some residents use the organization's rent supplement program. 

Since the provincial budget was introduced on Oct. 24, the WBH has been reviewing existing programs to make sure the households with the greatest need are prioritized. As well, it's stopped taking applications for rent subsidies 

Grace Richards has been living for years in Conklin, about 155 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, without stable housing. (Sky Seidel)

The new plan would cut 24 per cent from rental assistance programs, with the goal of saving $44 million over three years beginning in 2020, according to a fiscal plan document. 

Henry Hunter, CEO of the Wood Buffalo housing corporation, said the agency is also facing a 3.5 per cent cut to social housing. However, it's the planned cut to the rental supplement program that will have the biggest effect. 

"Currently, we accommodate about 400 people," he said.  "When those people will start to see the reductions, that means it makes it more difficult for them to pay their rent."

He said that people currently receiving the rent supplement won't be affected right now, but WBH has been advised by the provincial government not to take any new applicants. 

There are currently 190 people in Wood Buffalo on the waiting list for the rent supplement program, according to WBH. 

Henry Hunter, CEO of the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation, expects to hear in December about an application for additional funding. (Submitted by Wood Buffalo Housing)

In a WBH assessment to determine which communities needed more assistance, Conklin, located 155 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, was identified as one with significant housing needs. Using that data, the agency put in a request with the provincial government for funding for 46 units. 

"We're hopeful that we're going to get something there," said Hunter, adding he expects to hear back in December. 

He said there is also a need for more units in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan.

"These programs are important," he said. "There are a number of people in the community that are struggling, through no fault of their own. It's just the economic reality of our time. And the rent supplement helps those people afford to be able to live in our community." 

This winter, Richards will keep living in the shack she built herself. But she said she's "not a carpenter" and there's already black mould growing on the walls and roof of her home.

It's too late to fix it this year, so she will have to live with the mould until she can rebuild the shack next summer. 

"I'm not the only one in the community that lives like this," Richards added. "There's many of us."

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