Housing Series Part 3: Sheltering women and children

by | Sep 29, 2016 | 0 comments

PRINCE RUPERT — A single mother, who lives in the North Coast Transition Society after she was told that her social housing unit would no longer be eligible for subsidy, has decided her best option is to leave town.

Chantelle Shaw said she waited nine months to get into affordable housing with M’akola Housing Society, the property managers for BC Housing in Prince Rupert. She had only lived in the unit for six months in 2014 before she received the letter from M’akola.

“I had finally paid off my rent and I got a letter about the end of October from them and it stated that my subsidy had been cut off and I will be paying market value rent of $1,200,” Shaw said, who was paying approximately $400 at the time.

The letter stated that as of Feb. 1, 2015 her unit will no longer be eligible for subsidy. “In order to be sustainable, M’akola must ensure that housing units, and the society overall, are operated on a break-even basis. As federal and provincial subsidies expire, monthly rents must cover the costs of operating and maintaining properties,” was the explanation given in the letter.

Shaw’s son was five at the time, and she was worried about her options. “We just kept waiting for M’akola and waiting for housing. Even now, it’s $800 for a crack shack. I would not put my son in there,” Shaw said.

Fortunately, one of the eight two-year term apartments became available at the Transition Society — a shelter for abused women and children — and Shaw moved in with her son just after Christmas. Right after she moved, Shaw received a letter from BC Housing stating that they had sent the former letter in October to her by mistake.

The second letter, dated Dec. 22, 2014 with a headline “Re: Bulletin Issued in Error” explained that the unit Shaw was living in was not subject to the subsidy expiration. At this point it was too late.

“Our offices did send out letters incorrectly notifying a number of tenants the subsidy in their M’akola Housing home would be ending in the future due to federally expiring operating agreements,” said Kevin Albers, CEO, of M’akola Housing Society.

Albers explained that tenants living in federally subsidized housing would be affected by this, but the homes where the letters were sent were provincially funded.

“It is very unfortunate this tenant and family relocated after receiving the initial letter – however understandable,” Albers said adding that when tenants are impacted by federal subsidy reductions his team works hard to relocate them to other affordable housing options.

What is a federal operating agreement?

The federal government signed long-term operating agreements to provide funding for social housing for a period of 25-50 years. These operating agreements are starting to expire and once they do, federal funding for the housing unit also ends. From now until 2030, more than 600,000 affordable housing units will be affected across the country.

Shaw’s unit was considered to be one of these units that would no longer receive federal funding for subsidy, but this was in error. Still, housing societies such as M’akola are feeling the sting from the withdrawal of federal funding.

Canada is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have a national housing strategy, said Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen.

“Whether it’s hard hit communities or ones that are going through a boom — we’ve seen the housing crisis from Vancouver continue — the fact that these agreements are set to expire only puts more housing stock and more people at risk,” he said.

Cullen, a federal NDP member of the opposition, said it’s the low income Canadians, the single mothers and the working class citizens who have a job, or two jobs, that still can’t afford to get into a home.

“At some point we need to acknowledge what is true and that is having safe affordable housing over your head. It is a human right not just some sort of luxury.”

Provinces are responsible for overseeing 80 per cent of social housing and also provide annual funding, which has been apparent lately. The provincial government pledged $500 million to finance 2,900 new housing units on Sept. 19. This will be in addition to the $335 million pledged earlier this year to budget for 2,000 new units.

M’akola Housing is getting $50,000 from the provincial government for renovations on existing units, but it’s still not certain whether or not Prince Rupert will get more units built from that new funding pot.

A shelter for Rupert’s homeless

Shaw was lucky to find a long-term unit at the Transition House, but what about the others who are pushed out of their home due to renovictions and who are unable to find a place with affordable rent?

Since the Transition House opened its new doors in 2012 it has seen a significant increase in the amount of bed stays in their shelter.

“We’ve become the de facto homeless shelter,” said Grainne Barthe, the program manager of the North Coast Transition Society.

In their first year, there were 5,820 bed stays, and it has steadily increased each year. From April 2015 to March 2016 there were 8,885 bed stays, or an average of 24 women and their young children a night. The Transition House has 50 beds but they’re only funded for 13 through BC Housing and the Northern Health Authority.

Low-rent housing that isn’t associated with BC Housing or M’akola is also limited in the city. North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice wrote a letter on the issue to the Minister Responsible for Housing Rich Coleman on Sept. 19. She highlighted that in 2004 there were 100 low-rent apartments that burned down and were never replaced. Rice also addresses the absence of a men’s homeless shelter.

“The pseudo homeless shelter that does operate is limited to just eight beds, and faces ongoing issues of bedbugs and violence amongst tenants, such that individuals avoid sleeping there,” Rice wrote.

In September, the Transition Society applied for funding to get a Housing First Worker who would look into the feasibility of opening a homeless shelter — that would include men — in Prince Rupert.

“Because of the (Transition House) shelter, we’re over capacity all the time. It’s ridiculous. We can’t keep it up. We’re feeling right now that someone needs to do it, so get it done,” Barthe said.

Moving on

Chantelle Shaw’s two years is approaching at the Transition Society and her next move is to leave the city. She plans to start over with her seven-year-old son in Prince George.

In her two years since receiving the letter in error from M’akola, she hasn’t been able to find a stable job or an affordable home. In the past week, she applied for social service work at the College of New Caledonia.

Shaw didn’t re-apply for BC Housing in Prince Rupert, instead she’s going to apply in Prince George and try her luck there.

This story was originally published in The Northern View on September 29, 2016