B.C.’s new shelter rate a good start, but doesn’t go nearly far enough: advocates

Advocates say a boost in the amount of financial support British Columbians on income assistance get for housing  is a welcome first step, but won’t do much in B.C.’s brutal housing market.

As of July 1, the “shelter rate,” the portion of income assistance offered for housing needs, is rising by $125 from $375 per month to $500 per month.

It’s the first time the rate has been increased since 2007.

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That money is critical for people like Isaac Nelson, who is now on disability after an unexpected medical condition appeared last year that left him in a wheelchair.

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“It takes a long time to get your head around it, because it’s a wheelchair, and you never expected to be in a wheelchair,” he said.

“It’s a process of reorganizing your life, based on income.”

Nelson was fortunate. The former delivery driver, who has worked as everything from a helicopter pilot to a real estate agent, said he has some savings put aside and was able to find a place to live relatively quickly.

But he said he’s found the bureaucracy of living on social assistance challenging, and said government help doesn’t go far for many people in his situation.

“It is something but not really enough; (it) depends on circumstances,” he said. “I meet people on disability, and very rarely do they have money, they’re always broke pretty much.”

Matthew Smedley is executive director and CEO of Mission Possible, a Vancouver non-profit that helps vulnerable people get back into the workforce.

Smedley hailed the move to boost the shelter rate, but said after 15 years frozen at $375, even the increase isn’t enough to address conditions in the city’s cutthroat rental market.

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“Inflation has gone up over 40 per cent over that time. Housing prices have gone up significantly more,” he said.

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“The vacancy rate has been less than 1 per cent. That really creates pressure to increase prices.”

Finding even a studio apartment in the region for less than $600-$800 per month is virtually impossible, he said.

That forces people on income assistance to cut into the small amount left over for food or transportation.

The alternative is homelessness, leaving people vulnerable to a spiral that conspires to keep them on the street.

“We’ve got to have sufficient housing that allows people to have a safe, secure place to be,” he said.

“And then we’re there to help them when they’re ready to take that next step forward and be able to re-engage employment and ultimately have their needs met in a really profound way.”

UBC associate professor and Canada research chair in social inclusion and health equity Lindsey Richardson argued it’s clear the province needs to take a more proactive role in updating the shelter rate.

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“No person on the rental market is going to be able to obtain secure, safe shelter for $500 a month,” she said.

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“The fact that there hasn’t been an increase since 2007 shows us that with these kinds of policies it’s a good idea to peg the rate to either inflation or average rental prices so that as rent goes up, people’s shelter allowance also goes up in a proportional way.”

What’s more, she said increasing the rate in sudden and substantial bumps risks unintended consequences.

Landlords, she said, may calculate that increase into their rental prices at unit turnover.

“So whether there’s a real material impact will depend on whether or not that happens,” she said.

B.C. Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Sheila Malcolmson was not available for an interview.

In a statement, her ministry acknowledged the challenges of inflation and the tight housing market, but touted government efforts to boost social housing supply.

“Through provincial investments there are more than 17,000 BC Housing-funded new homes underway,” the statement reads.

That’s not enough, according to Smedley, who wants to see the the province reviewing and updating the shelter rate every year.

“$500 a month just isn’t sufficient to meet people’s needs,” he said.

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