How Income Assistance Rates Are Not Keeping Up with Rent Hikes
By Emily Rogers
On March 16, 2021, the British Columbia government announced that income assistance rates would permanently increase by $175 per month. This means that a single person receiving basic income assistance will now receive $935 a month, and a single person with the Persons with Disability designation will now receive $1,358.42 a month. This increase is largely thanks to the tireless advocacy of people province-wide who have raised their voices for years to demand increased rates, and it is certainly worth celebrating. That said, both the “income” and “expenses” side of the ledger must be considered when contemplating whether our government’s policy decisions are effectively supporting people in our community.
For most people, housing costs are their most significant expense. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has defined affordable housing as 30 percent of a person’s income. According to the CMHC, the average rent in Victoria is $1015 for a bachelor unit and $1185 for a 1-bedroom unit. This means that someone on income assistance is $80 short of being able to afford a bachelor unit even if they put every cent of their income towards rent. Someone on PWD has $343.42 left over after paying rent, which needs to cover utilities, food, and medication for the month. This is after the $175 monthly increase.
According to the CMHC, “the gap between asking rent for vacant units and occupied units has climbed from $39 to $356 in the past 6 years”. Put differently, in 2015 a renter could find a new place to live for almost the same amount of money as they were paying in their previous home. Now, someone looking for a new place to live would be looking at rental listings that are approximately $350 more than their old place. This is a problem for three main reasons. First, anyone looking for housing will be faced with housing costs that may be entirely out of reach. Secondly, given that landlords can charge 20 percent more for the same rental unit if they list it today, they are incentivized to end long-term tenancies. At TAPS we often see this occur under the guise of renovation or over small disputes that could otherwise be resolved. Third, the power differential between landlords and tenants is further increased as tenants feel trapped in tenancies that may not be safe or enjoyable because they can’t afford to move.
These problems could be largely addressed with one policy: vacancy control. Currently, rent increases are controlled during a tenancy, but there is no limit to the amount landlords can increase the rent if there is a change in tenants. This is why available units are so much more expensive than occupied rental units: the “market” rate is uncontrolled and dictated entirely by landlord interests. A vacancy control policy would limit rent increases to a fixed percentage, even if there is a change in tenants (i.e. rent is controlled even when the rental unit is vacant). This policy was in place between 1974 and 1983 in BC and is currently enacted in PEI and Quebec.
TAPS helps hundreds of tenants every year who are facing precarious housing situations. We firmly believe that the government needs to implement a vacancy control policy if there is any chance of balancing the ledger between “income” and “expenses” for people relying on social support. Without it, the recent increase to income assistance rates is likely to go straight to landlord pockets rather than making a measurable difference in the lives of people living in poverty.
Emily Rogers is a tenant legal advocate for TAPS, working on the Vacancy Control Project