A newly-launched rent bank has received mixed reviews from housing advocates, who welcomed the new program but raised concerns about its implementations.
Concerns include the exclusion of several groups of marginalized residents, including temporary foreign workers and people who live in public housing.
Advocates have pushed for a rent bank since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now they’re taking issue with provisions which they called “patronizing” for struggling renters amid the ongoing housing crisis.
They also suggested the program involves too many barriers that may prevent people from applying, such as proof of income and photo ID.
“I’m concerned it’s not going to get to people who need it the most,” said UNB sociologist Tobin LeBlanc Haley.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Development said that other proofs of identification may be accepted.
“The intent of Housing NB (HNB) is to work with applicants to find a suitable solution. If applicants do not have photo identification with their current address, alternative forms of identification may be accepted,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Under the program, approved applicants will receive grants worth two months’ rent or up to $2,750 – whichever amount is lower – over the course of the two-year program, according to a government media release. The funds are sent directly to the landlord or utility.
Jill Green, Minister of Social Development and Minister responsible for Housing, announced the program in June as a highlight in the government’s housing strategy (PDF), which attracted criticism over a lack of any new rent control measures.
At the time, the government stated that the $3-million program would provide small loans to help renters, but the province ultimately opted for grants instead of loans, a policy change welcomed by advocates.
“We are pleased that the government listened to non-profit organizations and tenant advocates in choosing a grant rather than a loan model,” Haley was quoted as saying in a government press release launching the rent bank.
But she was among several advocates who also expressed disappointment about the program in a separate statement.
In particular, they said, the program excludes “tenants in public housing, tenants accessing some existing rental subsidy programs, the undocumented and those without legal identification.”
“Due to their precarious status, these individuals are importantly those who are most likely to need the services of a rent bank,” said the statement from the NB Coalition for Tenants Rights and the UNB Housing, Mobilization, Engagement and Resiliency Lab (HOME-RL).
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Development didn’t respond directly to a question about marginalized groups that may be excluded.
In an email, the spokesperson said, “The government believes everyone deserves access to safe, sustainable housing, and the Rent Bank grant program is helping address this. The program is designed to help keep low to middle income earners in their homes, delivering assistance when they need it most.”
The government spokesperson said that “anyone with questions about eligibility” should contact Housing New Brunswick at RentHelp_Aideauloyer@gnb.ca.
Housing advocates also took issue with what it called a “patronizing tone” towards people accessing the service. For example, the rent bank will “consult with landlords to determine the sustainability of the tenancy” for renters in arrears, according to the advocates.
St. Thomas University sociologist Matthew Hayes, a spokesperson for the coalition, said this gives landlords “way too much power.” He said the rent bank should only ask landlords for a letter “affirming they will not evict if payment from the rent bank is received.”
Advocates also pushed back against language threatening to deny funding over “any form” of “verbal mistreatment of staff.” The advocates said in their statement that mistreatment by anyone is unacceptable, but that it’s unreasonable to expect distressed tenants to remain calm as they face homelessness.
A government spokesperson said, “Given the sensitivity of the situation, the agreement for mutual respect was added to the application to ensure that both staff and applicants understand the need to remain respectful throughout the process.”
The government spokesperson added that the new rent bank is “one piece of a much larger puzzle, and each piece is working together to help solve the housing crunch.”
The Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre also released a statement welcoming the program but calling on the government to “reconsider its decision to exclude temporary foreign workers, some of the most precariously housed people in the province.”
The statement noted reports of “overcrowding, mold, pest infestations, and inadequate heating in the winter and cooling in the summer” among temporary foreign workers.
A study published earlier this year titled Unfree Labour (PDF) documented inadequate, expensive, and overcrowded housing for migrant workers in New Brunswick’s seafood industry.
“The rent bank is another example of a vital social support being denied to migrant workers simply because of their temporary residency status,” said Amy Floyd, housing justice coordinator for the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre.
“Many workers want permanent residency status on arrival. We want permanent residency status on arrival for temporary foreign workers and until then, they should definitely qualify for rent bank support.”
Editor’s note: Tobin LeBlanc Haley is a member of the NB Media Co-op board of directors.
This article was updated at approximately 11:45 p.m. on Tuesday, December 19, 2023, to include a response from the provincial government.