Changes to rental supplement 'short-sighted,' Sask. housing advocates say
Plan to phase out Sask. Rental Housing Supplement 'an indecent move,' says NDP critic
The province is defending its decision to phase out a program designed to help low-income families and people with disabilities pay their rent, but critics say the idea is "short-sighted."
In its latest budget, the province announced that as of July 1, it will stop taking applications for the Saskatchewan Rental Housing Supplement.
The supplement, introduced in 2005, was aimed at getting welfare recipients and those with disabilities into better rental housing. Those qualifying for the top-up receive anywhere from $84 to $364 per month, on top of regular Social Services benefits.
Amanda Moosomin, a single mother in Saskatoon, feared losing the $331 rental top-up she currently receives to her transitional employment allowance of $1,013 a month.
She lost her seasonal job at Loraas Disposal last fall and has three children ranging in age from three to eight years old.
"My rent is $850 so there's not much left for food, groceries or clothes," the 28-year-old said, noting she also has to pay utilities and vehicle expenses.
"This is one of the worst things they could do."
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services said the move to cut the supplement will save $5 million this year.
Province has empty subsidized housing: Merriman
"I think it's an appropriate time to be able to review the dollars we do have in Social Services and make sure it's flowing to those people that are most in need," said Social Services Minister Paul Merriman.
He said the province has hundreds of empty subsidized housing units it would rather see people use.
Merriman said starting in 2011, the province gave construction companies tax incentives to expand rental housing. At the time, Saskatchewan had almost no rental vacancies.
"Now we have a lot on the market, the economy has slowed down" Merriman said. Saskatchewan now has the lowest average rent in Western Canada and some of the region's highest vacancy rates, he said.
The minister said fewer people have turned to welfare benefits over the past six months, and anyone currently receiving the supplement would not be affected by the change.
But when Social Services clients move, their housing benefits and supplements come under review.
Rent doubled over past decade: advocate
"There is a very good chance you won't [get the supplement]" after a move, said Shaun Dyck, the executive director of the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership.
His group has spent the past two years finding stable housing for more than 800 people in Saskatoon. The vast majority of them rely on the rental top-up.
Dyck called the cut "short-sighted."
"Rents have come down slightly but only down to 2015 levels," Dyck said. "We haven't seen an increase in the rental amount from the province for the last 11 years but rent has doubled."
He said problems with bedbugs, mould and cockroach infestations are among the reasons provincially owned housing units sit empty.
Dyck said cutting the poorest families' budgets will leave more people homeless, leading to more use of shelter and emergency room beds, jail cells and courtrooms.
'Defies common sense': NDP
NDP Social Services critic Trent Wotherspoon said a single individual cannot get by on basic social services benefits.
"This defies common sense," Wotherspoon said. "Certainly $459 [the shelter allowance under the Saskatchewan Assistance Program] is insufficient to go out and rent, and fill the fridge with basic needs."
In February, 12,894 people across Saskatchewan received the rental housing supplement. Fifty-eight per cent of them were couples or single parents.
"To cut thousands and thousands of families off of some very basic housing support lacks compassion and common sense. It's an indecent move," Wotherspoon said.