The Truth about Rent Subsidies: from British Columbia to the Section 8 program in the U.S.

By Sarah Sheridan, with a primer on Section 8 housing in the U.S. by Ivan Drury


In 2013, Housing Minister Rich Coleman told The Globe and Mail that British Columbia has “the most aggressive housing strategy in the country”. In January of 2015 he wrote an article in The Georgia Straight stating, “Rental assistance is so effective we created the new Homeless Prevention Program to provide people at-risk of homelessness with rent supplements to help them stay in the private market.” But if rent subsidy programs are so “effective,” why is homelessness increasing? Why do the BC Liberals prefer rent supplements to building social housing?

I spent two years in a position that gave me some control over the rent subsidies for a non-profit allocated for our Homeless Outreach Program. From this experience, I learned of the problems built into provincial rent supplements and the obstacles that are added by non-profits administration of these programs.

BC Housing does not require that all non-profits operate their rent subsidy program in the same way. Where I worked management modified how much funding we offered. BC Housing permits non-profits to offer a maximum amount of $300. Our management chose to limit the offer to $150. They said that the funding could be pulled at any time (this is true) and that, should this happen, it would be easier for people to find $150 rather than $300 to make up the difference to avoid eviction and added financial stress. Unfortunately, non-profits often find themselves putting up more barriers to finances as a way to protect themselves and recipients from unpredictable government cuts.

Non-profits find themselves enforcing the province’s moral and social regulations of low-income people in order to meet provincial standards. One anonymous worker said that choosing who is approved and how much that person receives as a subsidy “depends on the day and the mood of my employer”. BC Housing’s Homeless Outreach Program Rent Supplement Guidelines state, “There is no set time limit on rental supplement disbursement to an individual client.” Yet there were multiple non-profits that informed me they have a 12-month time limit on rent subsidies they dispense. At the end of the 12-month period, some non-profits allow recipients to apply for extensions that may or may not be granted, suspending low-income tenants in constant uncertainty.

BC Housing requests that all rent subsidies are provided in a cheque form in the name of the recipient’s landlord rather than in the recipient’s name. According to BC Housing, this is done to ensure that the rent subsidy will be used for rent. This perpetuates the notion that people will use this money for something other than its intended purpose, portraying low-income people as untrustworthy, irresponsible, and unable to budget. Another consequence of this practice is that the cheque reveals to the landlord that the recipient is receiving a rent subsidy and can make them vulnerable to discrimination.

Much of the time rent subsidy cheques are provided to recipients labeled with the non-profit’s name on the cheque itself. These non-profits are often mental health, addictions, and HIV/AIDS service organizations, which violates low-income people’s health status privacy. Would you be comfortable with your landlord knowing that you are financially struggling and receive a rent subsidy from a mental health organization, an alcohol/drug recovery house, or a women’s safe house?

Even if there were changes to the system of rent subsidies including the removal of barriers and increased transparency from both BC Housing and non- profits, rent subsidies don’t provide the same level of security and long-term economic benefits as social housing. As explained by housing researcher Michael Shapcott, “Over ten, twenty or thirty years, dedicated affordable housing – in the form of community-based municipal or non-profit housing, or non-profit co-ops – is a better deal financially than rent supplements.” At the very most, rent subsidies, as part of an extensive national housing plan, with reform to the application and distribution process, are one option for people to help stay in their homes. But these subsidies should not be used to replace Provincial and National social housing and should not be treated as a solution to the homelessness crisis in Canada.


Lessons from south of the border…
Rent subsidies failing Black renters in U.S. cities

By Ivan Drury

While rent subsidies might be a new trend in Canadian politics, they have a long history in the U.S. as the “Section 8” housing program. Canadian proponents of housing subsidies have adopted the neoliberal language perfected in the U.S. that has emphasized tenant “freedom of choice.” But in the U.S. these “choices” have been sharply limited by race discrimination. Section 8 vouchers provide too little money to rent in most cities, but even if they can find a place, black renters encounter landlords in wealthier, whiter neighbourhoods who are often unwilling to accept them.

Like the trend we’re seeing in B.C. today, twenty years ago the Section 8 voucher program began replacing public housing projects that were being defunded and demolished in U.S. cities. The demolition of public housing was initially celebrated as ending a form of racial ghettoization but critics now are finding that rent subsidy programs have only continued urban race segregation under less secure, more expensive, and less healthy roofs.

In places where there are shortages of rental housing, whether due to mass destruction (in New Orleans) or lack of profit-driven interest (throughout the MidWest), Black people with Section 8 vouchers have a hard time finding any housing at all.

A clear lesson from the U.S. is that after 20 years of rent subsidies instead of building social housing, private rent subsidies do not house the people who need it the most.

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