BC Senior Exposes Gaps in Rental Assistance Program

BC said it is reviewing the income threshold for existing rental support programs that advocates say are leaving many renters behind.

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A 76-year-old Campbell River woman said low-income seniors like her are being left behind because of the BC NDP government’s rental assistance program, which has not kept pace with rising rents.

Nora Plamondon-Henry currently pays $1,400 a month living in her sister-in-law’s condo. After learning her relative plans to sell, Plamondon-Henry has been looking for another rental in the North Island town.

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She filled out a lease application for a new one-bedroom apartment priced at $1,600 a month, but was rejected because the property manager said she doesn’t earn enough. On Wednesday, when Plamondon-Henry sought help paying rent through the government’s shelter assistance program for elderly tenants, known as SAFER, she discovered that she earns too much to qualify.

“I was upset,” she said. “I’m so tired of hearing: I don’t meet her criteria.”

Plamondon-Henry lives on about $2,500 a month from the Canada Pension Plan, old-age security and a pension from her late husband, Robert, who spent 50 years working for the forest service. That puts it just above the income threshold that requires seniors living alone to earn $29,352 a year or less to qualify.

Speaking with fellow seniors at the Campbell River Senior Center, Plamondon-Henry discovered that many are in the same situation.

“(These programs) are not working,” he said. “There are no other options for me. “The system is broken.”

This echoes the conclusion of a report released last week by BC seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie, who said subsidies for one in five seniors who rent have fallen “dramatically short” of what they need to continue living in their own homes.

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Mackenzie said during a news conference when the report was released that the SAFER program has a maximum subsidy of $803 a month, a fraction of the average rent in Vancouver.

More frustrating, he said, is that over the past five years, British Columbia’s senior population has increased, but the proportion of seniors receiving the SAFER subsidy has decreased by 14 per cent.

For those who qualify, the average subsidy fell eight percent despite a 12 percent increase in monthly rents for SAFER customers, the report found. Mackenzie said the average person who uses SAFER makes less than $21,000 a year.

Rental subsidies are also reduced when seniors get an annual increase in pensions and other supports, Mackenzie said.

The SAFER program has an individual income limit of $30,600 and a couple income limit of $33,000 in the Lower Mainland, and an individual income limit of $29,352 and a couple income limit of $31,992 in the rest of the province. The BC Greens are calling on the government to increase the limits to $45,000 for an individual and $50,000 for a couple, regardless of their location within the province.

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Plamondon-Henry, who is not willing to sit idle, said she and other seniors are planning a march in Campbell River to raise awareness about how the affordability crisis has impacted their generation.

“No one seems to care about older people and the situation we find ourselves in, especially if you are a widow. We are the forgotten ones,” she stated. “So we decided that this summer we will march down Main Street with all our signs.”

Douglas King, executive director of Victoria-based rental advocacy group Together Against Poverty Society, said he sees many seniors who have been living in apartments for a long time with affordable rents due to rent control.

“And the danger for them is that if they get evicted and have to find a new place, the increase in rent will be much higher than what SAFER would cover,” King said. “Disability (payments) or the SAFER pension are no longer enough. So it’s really losing effectiveness.”

When asked about the income threshold for rental assistance programs, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said BC Housing just finished a review of the program and hinted at an announcement in the coming weeks.

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“We’re looking at how we can reform it to ensure it meets the needs of today’s seniors,” Kahlon said during an affordable housing announcement Tuesday in Surrey. “We know that more and more seniors are starting to face real challenges when it comes to finding housing and just the challenges of affordability.”

Plamondon-Henry hopes those changes come soon enough to help her not have to resort to living in her car with her cat.

He remembers telling his friends at the senior center: “I’m giving up. I don’t know where to go, what to do. I’ve finished.”

– with files from The Canadian Press

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