Millions in federal funding that could lift Manitobans out of poverty, homelessness sitting on the table

Millions of federal dollars that could make their way to Manitoba are sitting on a negotiating table, rather than benefiting thousands of people who are living in substandard housing or homelessness, says Manitoba's Right to Housing Coalition.

Province must capitalize on federal housing money to help struggling Manitobans: Right to Housing Coalition

A homeless camp sprung up on the lawn of Winnipeg's All Saints Church last summer. While many in Manitoba struggle with homelessness or substandard housing, millions of dollars in federal housing funding is available to the province, says the Right to Housing Coalition's Kirsten Bernas. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Millions in federal dollars that could make its way to Manitoba is sitting on a negotiating table, rather than benefiting thousands of people who are living in substandard housing or homelessness.

Access to genuinely affordable, adequate, safe and stable housing continues to be the biggest challenge facing low-income Manitobans. So when the federal government introduced the National Housing Strategy in 2017, Manitoba's Right to Housing Coalition was cautiously optimistic that we would see an increase in the much-needed supply of social housing where rent is geared to income.

However, the Manitoba government has yet to negotiate a bilateral agreement to bring new federal housing dollars to the province.

Other provincial governments have begun to address the Canada-wide housing and homelessness crisis by signing bilateral agreements. Ontario is throwing in $2.1 billion and B.C. nearly $500 million over a 10-year period, which will be cost-matched by the federal government.

With $40 billion in federal money available through the National Housing Strategy, the Manitoba government must capitalize on this significant opportunity to build new housing for people experiencing poverty and homelessness.

On the Feb. 24 edition of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup, Ontario MP Adam Vaughan criticized Manitoba for not yet signing a deal for federal housing funding. 'You've got a provincial government that no matter how much money you put on the table, they want to teach us how to balance the budget instead of house people,' he said. (CBC)

According to the most recent data provided to us by Manitoba Housing, the province has not committed funding to construct a single new social housing unit since 2016.

It has sold nearly 1,000 publicly owned housing units and cut investments in the maintenance of its existing stock from $120 million annually to $46 million. Brian Pallister's government has also made social housing less affordable by increasing rents from 25 per cent of a tenant's income to 30 per cent.

This is unacceptable when on any given night there are more than 1,500 people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg alone. Across Manitoba, more than 50,000 households live in housing that is either unaffordable, in poor condition, or over-crowded.

Manitobans at risk of housing insecurity

People can fall into homelessness or housing insecurity for a variety of reasons. Many kids age out of Child and Family Services care and into homelessness. According to the 2018 Street Health Survey Report, 47.5 per cent of homeless people interviewed spent time in CFS care.

A major injury or illness, fleeing family or relational violence, or an unexpected job loss are just some changes that expose people to greater risk of housing insecurity.

The province announced in 2017 it was putting this social housing highrise, which sat empty for over two years, up for sale. The province needs 300 new social housing units each year, says the Right to Housing Coalition. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

This risk is compounded by the reality that many working families have less take-home income every year, increasing the burden of unforeseen expenses like a vehicle breaking down.

With high housing prices, low affordable rental vacancy rates, and family incomes not keeping pace, many are left vulnerable.

Manitoba has been without an affordable housing strategy since the 2016 election. The province says it's waiting to finalize its bilateral agreement with the federal government, but three years is a long wait if you're living on the streets.

Housing advocates hope the wait will be worthwhile.

300 new units needed each year

We want the province to reach an agreement with the federal government that includes targets for the number of new social housing units to be built in Manitoba — there is a need for at least 300 new units annually.

We are also calling for increasing investments in the maintenance and repair of the existing social housing stock back up to at least $120 million to address the poor conditions that some Manitoba households live in.

We would like to believe that the province has a plan. However, we've yet to see it.- Kirsten Bernas

Until we have enough social housing, the lowest-income Manitobans will continue to rely on the expensive private housing market, which is not designed to provide low-rent housing. The profit margins are too low, especially when providing housing for people with complex needs.

The province's Rent Assist shelter benefit helps put private market housing within reach of some low-income families, but the benefit is not high enough to close the affordability gap for all families.

We are calling for Manitoba's bilateral agreement to ensure that the federal government's new Canada Housing Benefit is leveraged to build upon Rent Assist, rather than claw it back. A combined federal-provincial housing benefit would better close the affordability gap in the private market.

'Small progress' being rolled back

The Right to Housing Coalition has been researching Manitoba's affordable housing issues and advocating for government action since 2005. We fear that the small progress made is being rolled back.

We would like to believe that the province has a plan. However, we've yet to see it, and the minister responsible for housing has declined our requests to meet with her to discuss our concerns.

We must act now to address the consequences of housing insecurity and homelessness. Our government's failure to take needed action is reflected in rising meth use fuelled by the rippling duress of poverty, trauma and lack of safety.

It's reflected in the tens of thousands of families who access food banks each month because they have to pull from their food budgets to cover their rent.

And it's reflected in the alarming number of children taken into government care because their parents can't find affordable housing.

We must do better.

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Kirsten Bernas is the director of housing at the West Central Women's Resource Centre and the chair of the provincial working group of the Right to Housing Coalition.