New Brunswick is expanding the Canada-New Brunswick Housing Benefit Program to include more low-income working families in the province, announced Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch in December. Although any investment in housing is vital to the wellbeing of New Brunswickers, housing advocates and scholars worry that the short-term and targeted approach of this benefit will do little to address the affordable housing crisis.
Launched in June 2021, the program is supposed to ensure that families do not have to choose between food or rent. It initially provided short-term assistance for rental housing to families with pre-tax employment earnings between $14,000 and $38,000. However, since the program’s release, only 1,000 households have been assisted, or about 2,700 adults and children, whereas the program could, according to the Minister, support up to 6,700 households.
The program’s criteria have now been expanded to include renter households with children under the age of 19 that earn between $12,500 and $50,000 per year. Those eligible for the benefit will receive government assistance for three years and the benefit will be transferred if they move. The amount families receive varies depending on household size and income, as well as average local market rents.
Designed as part of the National Housing Strategy through a bilateral agreement between the Federal and New Brunswick governments, the program represents an investment of more than $98 million shared equally between the two levels of government.
An overly focused assistance program
Most critics insist that the program remains too targeted, like Aditya Rao, an organizer with New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights: “It’s no surprise that there hasn’t been significant uptake for this program because of how many requirements there are to access the program. It is so targeted that the only thing more targeted is a Facebook ad!”
Unlike agreements under the National Housing Strategy with other provinces in Canada, the criteria to qualify for New Brunswick’s benefit are very specific. In Nova Scotia, for example, the housing benefit program does not require recipients to have family dependents or to have employment income.
In order to qualify for the Canada-New Brunswick Housing Benefit, households must:
- Live and work in New Brunswick.
- Have primary custody of a child or children under 19 or of one or more dependents with a disability, aged 19 or older.
- Rent their accommodations.
- Not receive a housing subsidy from the Department of Social Development.
- Work and earn a minimum before tax employment income of $12,500 per year and a maximum of $50,000. This is the combined before-tax employment income of all adults over 19 living in the home.
- Be up-to-date with tax fillings and report income to the Canada Revenue Agency.
- Be the only person in the household who applies for and receives the benefit.
An emphasis on the “deserving” poor
Several times during the announcement on December 15, Minister Bruce Fitch and federal Housing and Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen emphasized that this housing assistance is for “hard-working families.”
Finch stated that the benefit will “ensure that many hard-working New Brunswickers can have a higher quality of life and will allow more families to keep more money in their pockets.” Hussen added that “This program will make a big impact on the lives of hard-working families in New Brunswick, and it shows that the National Housing Strategy is at work.”
These statements suggest that the objective of this program is not to help all low-income households in the province, but to provide support specifically to low-income, working tenants with children, who have historically been considered more deserving of support than those who are unable to work. Today, more than 6,000 households are waiting for social housing in New Brunswick, including many single people, youth, families who are unable to work, seniors or retirees, and persons living with disabilities who are struggling to find affordable housing.
Although any move to address housing affordability is a good thing, the Province continues to miss a segment of the population who have few, or in many cases no, viable options for finding an affordable place to live.
The Province’s 90-day Review of the Rental Housing Landscape highlights that New Brunswick’s economy has grown; however, they continue to offer lower Social Assistance and Disability support payments than other jurisdictions across Canada. There are many New Brunswickers who will continue to fall through the cracks of a system that fails individuals and families who are unable to work.
Too short-term to address housing crisis
This kind of housing assistance, intended to be short-term to cover families’ expenses for three years, does not help to fight against the causes of household poverty and does nothing to address the rise in rent prices linked to the financialization of the housing market. Also, with this kind of support, the government does not address the problem of the lack of social housing units in the province.
Rents in New Brunswick have increased by almost 30 per cent over the past ten years. The 2018 Canadian Housing Survey conducted by Statistics Canada found that 80 per cent of households lived unaffordably, with housing costs comprising 30 per cent or more of their household incomes. This indicates a massive need for affordable housing solutions in the province.
The long-term impact of Canada-New Brunswick Housing Benefit will rely on its ability to reach more households, its continuation beyond three years and on increases in income and benefits that outpace rental market growth, none of which is guaranteed.
This program subsidizes income for working families and removes the onus from employers to pay a living wage. Further, it does nothing to address core housing affordability issues that plague New Brunswick, such as low-vacancy rates and unregulated rent increases. Addressing housing affordability issues requires that we focus more on policies to regulate the rental market and ways to increase the availability of non-market housing options.
Benefits to supplement rents in the private market can help the general population over the short-term; however, we need to address housing stock concerns in ways that increase tenants’ autonomy, stability, and long-term wellbeing.
Benefits provide tenants with the ability to choose their housing, but with 47 per cent of tenants reporting “very bad condition” rentals in the 2021 rental review, subsidizing private market rents paid to landlords is a far cry from what we need.
Longer-term stability requires market regulation, investment in public housing and the development of a vibrant co-op and non-profit housing sector. If we are to rely on short-term assistance, it must, at the very least, include all people in need of affordable housing.
Chloé Reiser is a postdoctoral fellow with the Community Housing Canada Research Partnership. Julia Woodhall-Melnik is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Science at the University of New Brunswick. Reiser and Woodhall-Melnik are both community-based researchers and affordable housing advocates with the Housing, Mobilization & Engagement Research Lab at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.