Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pallister's housing plan solid

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By the Selinger government's own admission, welfare housing allowances do not cover the cost of basic rent in the Winnipeg market. But that same government has not raised the housing allowances to those on social assistance for more than a decade. On Monday, Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said if elected, he would, by hundreds of dollars.

Mr. Pallister joined the call of various community groups who have tried, unsuccessfully, to get the provincial government to reinstate a formula used last in the early 1990s that geared housing allowances to rise or fall as market conditions dictate. The Tory leader said housing allowances should be 75 per cent of the median rent rates.

That would mean, according to data collected by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., that in Winnipeg, a single parent with one child would see an immediate bump of almost $300 -- and perhaps as much as $400 -- to the housing rate. The policy would cost an additional $19 million in expenditures on housing each year.

The cost of inadequate and poor housing is well-established, on health, family stress and the ability of children to settle and engage in school work. The failure to succeed in school, further, is directly connected to eventual involvement in crime, addictions and unemployment -- people who are most likely to be on social assistance. Debate rages about the extent to which the state (taxpayers) should be supporting the unemployed, but most reservations evaporate when the impact on children is thrown into the mix.

And it is to this point, precisely, that the policy announcement from the Conservative corner makes its argument in spades. But the vast majority on social assistance are people with disabilities and single parents, those least likely to be in the workforce and equally deserving of decent housing.

The last time the 75 per cent formula was applied was in 1992. The last increase to housing allowances was in 2002, Mr. Pallister said. The NDP, rather than raising the rate, is building or transforming units that are subsidized. This does not, however, get at the crying need for rejuvenation of some very old, deteriorating housing stock that exists in low-income neighbourhoods. The beauty of the Tory plan is it, instead, would enable those on social assistance to shop around, take their rent and walk if landlords were disinclined to improve the condition of apartments.

An increase in allowances would provide an incentive for landlords to upgrade their properties. Landlords are restrained from increasing rents by rent controls. Should they want to take advantage of the increase, they can only do so by renovating, the costs of which then can be passed on in increased rents. If they don't renovate, their tenants could move elsewhere or otherwise use the money.

That increase in value spins off to municipalities in taxes that turn on property value. That is not just an investment in people but in the community. So what looks like a good business decision is also good social policy.

Mr. Pallister says the move will require a significant amount of cash, but he believes it can be found in cutting waste, pointing out that in the 13 years of NDP government, revenues have poured in and spending has doubled. The obvious question then is why hasn't the Selinger government reinstated the 75 per cent formula?

Mr. Pallister also makes the useful point: Do it now, in the April budget.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2013 A10

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