Social advocates say the Pallister government’s decision to privatize public housing will hurt low-income families and increase the number of homeless people.
They are speaking out about the announcement in Thursday’s budget in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, which they say underscores the need for stable, affordable housing.
The budget includes a five-year plan in which the government transfers ownership of public housing units from the Manitoba Housing Renewal Corp. to the non-profit sector.
"Over the next five years, Manitoba Housing is working to shift its role from housing provider to one of funder and regulator. A plan for Manitoba Housing is being developed with the key goal of making social housing more sustainable. The current system of housing subsidies is unnecessarily complex. The department will work with partners to develop a clear and simple benefit system that better meets the needs of tenants," the provincial government said in its 2020 economic growth strategy, released along with the budget.
Last week, Finance Minister Scott Fielding confirmed the government would switch to a "regulatory model," for social housing — something B.C. has already done.
"We want to work with non-profits to deliver housing solutions to Manitobans," he said.
But advocates worry non-profits won’t be able to keep rents low and maintenance up to date without sufficient government funding.
Kirsten Bernas, chairwoman of the provincial working group Right to Housing Coalition, said she’s afraid that without stable agreements between government and non-profits, social housing units could disappear. The group wants the government to increase the number of social housing units to address the waiting list of roughly 9,000 Manitobans who want social housing.
"We’re super concerned... not only are we not adding to the supply, which is desperately needed, but the direction the budget is taking us is to actually decrease the limited supply we already have," Bernas said.
"We expect, if we continue to go down this path, to see more homelessness and housing insecurity and poverty."
As part of the budget, the Tories updated their poverty reduction strategy, in which they promise to reduce the number of children living in low-income households by 25 per cent over the next five years.
The government says it is removing more than 3,000 people from the tax roll by increasing the amount of income individuals can earn before they have to pay income tax. The budget holds steady on the Rent Assist benefit and includes the creation of a new benefit program, separate from the Employment Income Assistance, for people who have severe disabilities.
Advocates have been pushing for a separate program for people with permanent disabilities, in part so they aren’t repeatedly asked to prove they remain disabled to qualify. That’s a step in the right direction, said Michael Barkman, chairman of Make Poverty History Manitoba.
But he said the tax cuts the budget touts won’t do much to help people get out of poverty.
"In my mind, (the tax measure) doesn’t help address the real needs of folks living in poverty right now — which is housing, income, child care, mental-health supports and a higher minimum wage," Barkman said.
Affordable housing remains a crucial concern, he said.
"This COVID-19 crisis is making it so clear about why we need to make sure that folks have access to housing, and to acceptable and high-quality housing, that’s not jamming 10 people in the same space where they can make each other sick."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.