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Who qualifies anyway?

Housing benefits save lives, but they aren’t reaching all those who need them

With winter on the horizon, we can all understand that access to housing funding will save lives.

But who qualifies?

This question is top of mind for many in Nova Scotia with regard to the Canada-Nova Scotia Targeted Housing Benefit (CNSTHB). 

On Oct. 1, 2020, Halifax Member of Parliament (MP) Andy Fillmore announced that the new CNSTHB would be a benefit funded by both the federal and provincial governments. 

Both parties committed to an investment of $120 million ($60 million each) over eight years to provide support to households with “the greatest housing need” across the province. This program has two application streams, one for renters (portable) and one for homeowners. 

So, what has everyone talking?

There have been some positive changes to the CNSTHB including eliminating the requirement for applicants to be invited to apply. In addition, people can now receive the subsidy while waiting to be offered a unit through their local public housing authority. Yet, one wonders how this is fair to those who already accepted the subsidy and committed to taking their name off the waitlist. Can they reinstate their spot in the queue? 

Some other issues have been generated with new rules. Renters now have to spend at least 50 per cent of their gross income on rent to qualify. This percentage is not calculated on what they pay for rent, but is based on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) average market rent for their area. This means some very vulnerable low-income Nova Scotians are being deemed ineligible. 

Until recently (July 2023), this program also included an opportunity for low-income Nova Scotians who were experiencing homelessness to be supported with a two-month supplement before having to provide proof of residence. This supplement provided Nova Scotians looking for housing the opportunity to have the available funds to cover possible upfront housing costs, such as damage deposits.

This change came despite low wages and high living costs, spikes in rental rates that are projected to climb and a rise in homelessness across the region. As of October 2023, there are 1,014 people on the By Name List just in Halifax alone. 

We must ask ourselves, does the elimination of this two-month grace period play a role in this epidemic? And, who is making the decisions about who is most vulnerable? 

Ignoring those with the greatest need

With these changes to the eligibility criteria, those with the greatest housing need are being systematically shut out. People experiencing homelessness do not even qualify. 

At one time, those able to access rental housing could apply to the program without a lease to prove residency. In its place, they could sign a statutory declaration outlining the terms of their rental agreement. Not any longer. With the new changes, applicants must provide a copy of a lease agreement. 

We are all aware of how the housing crisis has amplified tenant precarity, making, among other things, accessing leases increasingly difficult. What rationale is there in initiating funding criteria that disqualifies those whom the fund has been established to assist from accessing its funds?

What does this boil down to? Does the government believe that there is too much risk involved, that vulnerable citizens are taking advantage of the program, and the risk needs to be managed? 

Is it the citizens’ fault for not being able to secure a unit within those two months, or are low vacancy rates and a lack of affordable housing to blame? 

Under pressure from citizen outcry in response to the housing crisis, the provincial government has been forced to respond by establishing the CNSTHB. However, since its inception, the government has sought to define limits to the resourcing of this program, essentially undermining funding while at the same time claiming to provide services that meet the needs of its citizens. 

This is a political issue

With a long track record of gutting social services, this is by no means in a new political territory. 

This isn’t a discussion just about rent subsidies. It is political; it’s about power and resources. A program created to help people punishes people for not having a home or not meeting the quota for who is deemed as the most vulnerable.

At all levels of government, there is a responsibility to ensure the dignity and well-being of its citizens, and investing more money into programs such as the CNSTHB is critical. These rent subsidies may be seen as a short-term band-aid solution, but by getting vulnerable populations through the winter, this program can save lives.

Higher demand equals higher needs, it’s as simple as that. If all levels of government recognize and prioritize their responsibility to the people, this will open the possibility for conversations about interrelated issues and allow us to unpack the struggles felt across the population. Reinvigorating our social safety net is vital to the health of us all.

Putting more funding towards programs such as the CNSTHB would not only support vulnerable people, but it would directly contribute to the provision of an eligibility quota that is much more accessible and which puts more money back into the pockets of Nova Scotians. 

Building housing that is affordable across our province is of utmost importance, yet it is not an overnight project. Time is of the essence. 

So, what do we do now? We need urgent action to motivate the government to move towards this ethical future. Write to your MP and tell them that, with the new restrictions on eligibility for the CNSTHB, people are being cut off from this essential funding and left to face heightened precarity and ultimately homelessness. 

This benefit may not be the solution to the housing crisis, but investing more and opening up eligibility requirements, is an ethical step in the right direction. Our government needs to recognize its role in providing critical supportive opportunities, rather than eliminating them. This is basic, it is a right.

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