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This article was published 6/7/2018 (438 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Some 150 Manitoba households lost benefits this month, following a change in a provincial rental subsidy designed to help the working poor, pensioners and people on employment assistance.
Effective July 1, the province changed the income threshold to qualify for its Rent Assist program, cutting entire households off from aid.
The province allocated more than $7 million in 2018 to index Rent Assist benefits and keep maximum benefits at 75 per cent of median market rent.
Low-income earners and pensioners who aren’t on social assistance saw their Rent Assist deductibles rise to 30 per cent of their income from 28 per cent.
That’s tough in a province where a gap in social housing means people at or below the poverty line must rely on the more expensive private sector to put a roof over their heads, advocates say.
"This latest cut to Rent Assist is a big problem," said Kirsten Bernas, chairwoman of the Right to Housing Coalition.
Bernas is a critic of the latest change, the second in two years. There was a similar tightening in July 2017.
"We don’t have enough social housing, and this is a cut to private housing. The private market is very expensive for people on low incomes," Bernas said Friday.
"Any cut to that benefit has a big impact on what you have left (each month). That may amount to $35, $40 for an individual... A cut like that could mean some people won’t be able to buy that extra bag of groceries."
The province countered Friday the changes were needed in order to ensure the program remained sustainable for those who need it most.
The most needy, some 25,000 households, will see an increase in aid from their monthly Rent Assist benefit, according to provincial numbers.
Even with the recent alterations, the number of applicants who aren’t on social assistance and who qualify for help has risen to 7,582 households in 2018 from 4,750 in 2016, according to the province.
"As more people apply, more money is being spent as eligible applicants are added to the program," a government spokesman said by email Friday.
The province estimated the latest reduction will amount to a maximum of $26 a month less in aid.
In some cases, the cut will only amount to $4 less a month, the spokesman indicated.
"The number of clients affected and the amount of reduction will vary depending on their income," the spokesman said.
There’s no dispute, however, about the overall impact.
The province estimated approximately 150 households in each of 2017 and 2018 would be affected by the new rules, although that number could end up somewhat smaller in 2018.
Whatever the provincial profile is, the reality is the cut hurts, said Joey-Jane Hyltun, a single senior who lives in subsidized housing with her rent indexed to her pension. The private rental market has been out of reach for years, she said.
Hyltun has been picking up the slack by gathering empty cans and turning them in to make ends meet.
"What I’m doing right now is collecting pop cans, tin cans, whatever, just to get maybe $20 extra a month. I got $22 this last time. You have to pay for things," she said.
Hyltun volunteers at the Winnipeg Harvest, the province’s largest food bank, and said the groceries she gets make a big difference in her diet. "I picked up food yesterday, and there were two salads, which I’m grateful for. Salads are so expensive.
"I never thought I’d have to live like this as a senior," Hyltun said.
"Government, and it doesn’t matter who’s in, doesn’t care about pensioners. Seniors need help, not just people on welfare."
The latest measures are part of a troubling trend in social service tightening, as the province wraps its head around election promises to bring down overall spending in the midst of growing social need, critics say.
"The decisions made by this provincial government since they were elected (the Tories came to power in 2016) have been the opposite of what the Right to Housing Coalition has been advocating for," Bernas said.
The new thresholds for Rent Assist are $23,040 for a single person, $26,320 for a household of two, $32,600 for a household of two adults with a child or a household of four adults, and $41,040 for a household of five or more adults.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.
Updated on Saturday, July 7, 2018 at 8:12 AM CDT: Final
July 11, 2018 at 10:34 AM: Corrects cost of indexing Rent Assist program and spokesperson's reference to monthly cut, correct photo caption.