Manitoba

Review of rent subsidy program worries working poor in Manitoba

A subsidy program that helps the working poor pay rent could be on the chopping block, which is worrying some low-income earners in Manitoba.

Manitoba finance minister raises concern over cost of Rent Assist, says program review in order

The province is considering reviewing Manitoba's Rent Assist program, which helps subsidize rent for low-income earners and employment and income insurance recipients. (CBC)

A subsidy program that helps the working poor pay rent could be on the chopping block, which is worrying some low-income earners in Manitoba.

"If the government is only going to think about cut costs, cut costs, cut costs, it never works like that, in my opinion," said Tarek Gomaa, a newcomer who arrived in Manitoba last December and relies on the province's Rent Assist program.

On Tuesday, Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced the government's deficit is expected to climb to more than $1 billion by the end of the fiscal year in March 2017. 

Friesen said costs for the Rent Assist program have been on the rise, which isn't helping the province dig itself out of debt. 

"We want to make sure that program is doing what it is designed to do, and we have some concern about that," Friesen said.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen says the deficit for the fiscal year that ends in March is now forecast to be just over $1 billion. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"There has been a significant increase in the subscription inside Rent Assist, and we need to determine all the factors for that."

Rent Assist was introduced in July 2014 by the Selinger government. The two-tiered program was designed to help low-income earners and employment and income assistance recipients pay rent.

"It's a very important program," said Josh Brandon, chair of Make Poverty History Manitoba. "It provides an important benefit that allows them to afford decent housing in Manitoba."

Gomaa said he's worried about possible cuts to the program, as he continues to struggle just to get by.

'Not easy to find a job'

When he arrived last year, his expectations of finding a job were high. That soon changed.

"It was not easy to find a job," said Gomaa. He worked in volunteer positions for almost eight months before landing a part-time job in September.

Rent Assist is 'a very important program' says Make Poverty History Manitoba chairperson Josh Brandon. (Leif Larsen/CBC)
Gomaa makes about $1,200 per month. Without Rent Assist, between 80 and 90 per cent of his total monthly earnings would end up going toward rent payments for his one-bedroom apartment, which costs $1,000 a month. 

The average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Winnipeg is between $800 and $900.

Rent Assist is based on monthly income. Gomaa receives roughly $500 through the program, which he says leaves him more money to cover food and other living expenses.

"[With Rent Assist], I can eat, I can get some courses, education," Gomaa said.

Rent subsidy, quality of life

Brandon said access to quality housing is correlated with quality of life, health and social inclusion.

"This is a really essential program, so it's very concerning that the province is looking at reviewing it and looking for ways that they can cut back expenses in this really critical area," Brandon said.

In August, the office of Manitoba's finance minister said the province wouldn't be clawing back Rent Assist.

Gomaa said cutting or lowering Rent Assist wouldn't be such a problem if there weren't so many other issues associated with unemployment.

"My problem is if I have a full-time job ... OK, we can live, we don't need financial support. If you're going to cut or stop the Rent Assist program, I am going to look for EIA, which I don't prefer. Rent Assist is [preferred]," he said.

Gomaa says EIA would give him enough of a general allowance to pay the bills, but he feels there are other people who "are more in need than me to get food, transportation" and the other essential services EIA is meant to address.

"Why [should] I ask for EIA? I only need housing support, that's it," Gomaa said, adding it's important for him to be as self-sufficient as possible. "It's everything."

"Hanging out with newcomers, they need a job. They don't need financial support."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He has produced episodes for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Austin Grabish and Marcy Markusa

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