Various news outlets reported earlier this month that several tenants at Lions Place, a non-profit housing provider on Portage Avenue, would receive rent increases of $179 per month beginning in August 2018.
This is a stunning increase in rent. For many of the low-income tenants, several of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, it means they will have to move, losing their homes.
The increase comes about because Lions Place’s 35-year operating agreement with the federal and provincial governments expires on July 31, 2018. Without the agreement, the non-profit no longer receives government dollars to subsidize its low rents and low-income seniors are being asked to fill the gap.
Unfortunately, other low-income tenants across the country may face a similar scenario over the next two decades.
This is because all of Canada’s 620,000 units of social housing — non-profit, co-operative and public housing — have (or had) operating agreements that will have expired by 2040. In Manitoba, more than 5,000 units have come off agreement since 1999. But the bulk of Manitoba agreements will expire over the next decade, with more than 11,000 units impacted in the next five years alone.
Once their agreements have ended, providers must figure out how to continue to offer low-rent housing. This is assuming that they will choose to. Without government subsidies, non-profit and co-operative housing providers will not be required to provide low rent to low-income seniors.
Public housing so far continues to have access to provincial funds to cover the subsidies, but non-profits and co-operatives may not have that option. Many will manage just fine after their operating agreements end, and will continue to offer low-rent housing. Others will face a shortfall in revenue, while also needing to pay for repairs to aging buildings.
The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association estimates that more than 50 per cent of social housing units — more than 334,000 homes across Canada — will not have enough revenue from rents to operate. This may lead to further rent hikes or the sale of units, resulting in a permanent loss of social housing.
We do not know how many low-rent units Manitoba has lost so far as a result of expiring operating agreements. But housing advocates have continued to call on the provincial government to add to the inadequate supply of social housing, so the loss of even one unit is too many.
Some housing providers are finding creative ways to continue to offer lower rents. Internal subsidies can work, but they rely on higher-income tenants paying higher rent to subsidize lower-income tenants. Internal subsidies are not as substantial, nor as stable, as government subsidies. Fundamentally, low-rent housing requires long-term subsidies funded by Canadians’ tax contributions.
Low-income people have fewer housing options in the private market. Without secure, low-rent housing options, they struggle to afford other basic needs such as food and public transportation. Or they end up homeless.
As the case of Lions Place shows, the end of the operating agreements can radically change how an organization provides housing, with deeply-felt implications for the most vulnerable members of society.
The province is currently responsible for social housing. The previous provincial government offered short-term agreement extensions, as needed, to non-profit and co-operative housing providers wanting to continue to offer low-rent housing. The current government does not appear to be continuing this practice, but there is potential.
The federal government recently announced a National Housing Strategy, which makes money available to the province to extend expiring agreements. But the province must advocate for this and be willing to cost-share. Social housing providers also have to want to continue to offer low-rent housing. If they don’t, we need the province to ensure all affected tenants continue to have access to housing they can afford.
In the short term, tenants at Lions Place are being referred to the province’s Rent Assist subsidy program to help them pay increased rents. But Rent Assist is often not enough to fully close the gap. Unfortunately, the provincial Progressive Conservative government has not added any new social-housing units to its stock since it was elected in spring 2016. In fact, it has taken steps to decrease its stock by announcing its plans to sell public housing.
The Lions Place example demonstrates that even if public housing is transferred to non-profits, its long-term sustainability is not guaranteed, and the most vulnerable members of society will lose out. The province can, and must, do better.
Kirsten Bernas and Sarah Cooper are longtime members of Manitoba’s Right to Housing Coalition.