Ottawa Citizen: The COVID-19 pandemic and government response a one-two punch to some of Ottawa's most vulnerable renters

Posted June 23, 2020

For a portion of the 17,000 Ottawa households living in subsidized housing, it’s not only COVID-19 that’s making life harder, more uncertain and more expensive.

They’re also contending with government pandemic policies that give with one hand and take away with the other, creating additional financial stress for some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable tenants.

The crux of the problem, say experts and advocates, is a collision between the chaos of pandemic policy-making, the rigid rules of bureaucracy, and the delivery of aid through multiple levels of government, each with their own priorities.
 
An early example of this can be traced back to a mid-March decision by the City of Ottawa. On March 17, the city paused rent-geared-to-income (RGI) recalculations, just as COVID-19 was starting to leave many Ottawans unable to work or looking at reduced hours.
 
About 31 per cent of local RGI households – those living in social housing or renting a subsidized unit on the private market – report employment income, and typically have to pay rent equalling about 30 per cent of their income.
 
According to a memo issued by city housing staff to local housing providers, new RGI decisions would be suspended “to ensure no RGI-related evictions or loss of RGI subsidy occurs during the COVID-19 period.”
 
It’s a decision Coun. Mathieu Fleury disagreed with. He’s the chair of the board of Ottawa Community Housing, the city’s largest social housing provider.
 
“In my mind, if there was a time to calculate RGI, it was now. It was during this period.”
 
Fleury used a hypothetical example to illustrate his thinking. A taxi driver living in social housing has their hours cut when the pandemic hits Ottawa. But during the RGI pause, they still have to pay rent based on pre-pandemic income levels.
 
According to Fleury, the city-sanctioned response to anyone struggling to make rent during this period was: “Call 311. There’s a provincial emergency fund you can try to access.” But Fleury said he knows not every person who asked for this help received it, and others may not have known it was even an option available. And now, he’s seen a small but notable increase in the number of OCH tenants in arrears on their rent.
 
“I recognize we had a state of emergency … and the same housing team had to put in place isolation spaces for families and shelters. I mean you can’t blame those folks. They’re pulled in every direction,” Fleury said. “But it’s just, from a general public policy point of view, the purpose of RGI is to calculate revenue and establish a fair rent.
 
In a statement, the city’s social housing program manager, Lisa Goodfellow, said the pause on RGI re-calculation was intended to give impacted households time to access pandemic-era financial aid programs, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which they’re required by legislation to pursue, as is the case with any available income, if they want to stay eligible for RGI.
 
“Also, if the city had immediately recalculated a household’s RGI assistance, the city would have incurred significant financial impacts as higher levels of subsidy would have to be paid to housing providers, until another rent recalculation took place a year later for that household,” said Goodfellow.
 
“Allowing the household time to apply for and access other financial benefits helped to mitigate this pressure for the city.”
 
When RGI recalculations resumed in mid-May, some tenants were able to see rent reduced to reflect an overall income loss. But for others, now receiving emergency aid designed to mitigate the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was just the beginning of a new ordeal.
 
According to the city, financial aid programs such as the CERB, Canada Emergency Student Benefit (in some cases), and the doubling of the Guaranteed Annual Income System (GAINS) for low-income seniors, count as income. That means 30 per cent of payments through these programs are factored into rent owing, going forward.
 
“There are households who I’m sure the government is trying to help and support through this period who are going to actually come out paying more rent, and will get less assistance than the government would have intended through these programs,” said Céline Carrière, executive director of Gloucester Housing Corporation, one of the Ottawa’s social housing providers.
 
“The subsidized program rules don’t lend themselves particularly well to the government’s ambition or intention to support people the way they really are trying to right now, through this unprecedented moment in history.”
 
In an interview, Goodfellow said the decision to include the CERB and other temporary benefits in the rent calculation for RGI tenants came from a provincial directive at the beginning of May.
 
“There’s very, very prescribed rules around how you do rent calculation, what is included income, what is excluded income,” she said. “In essence, the City of Ottawa has no discretion in that in any way.”
 
The province, meanwhile, suggested otherwise.
 
“We know that these income changes are temporary – that’s why we’ve given service managers the ability not to penalize their tenants through RGI calculations, even if a tenant makes a little more money in a given month,” said a spokesperson for Ontario’s ministry of municipal affairs and housing.
 
A look at other service managers across Ontario – the City of Ottawa is one of 47 – reveals that some have taken different approaches to calculating rent owed on pandemic income.
 
In York Region, housing providers were told they don’t have to adjust RGI if tenants are receiving more income than they normally would because of the CERB, as it’s “a temporary benefit and households may be experiencing increased costs at this time.”
 
In Peel Region, instructions were given to exclude increased GAINS payments from the RGI calculation, “because its purpose is to help seniors with any added or unexpected expenses.”
 
Asked to explain Ottawa’s divergent approach from these other municipalities, Goodfellow said the city “is following the prescribed rules for RGI rent calculations as set by the province. We cannot comment on the practices of any other service manager.”
 
And while service managers are charged with interpreting Ontario’s directives about federal and provincial aid programs, it’s up to individual housing providers to work with tenants and wade through rent recalculations during this chaotic period. And they have their own opinions about the approach the city should be taking.
 
According to a source in the housing sector, speaking on background, some local social housing landlords disagree with the directive to include the GAINS increase – a maximum of $83 monthly per person – in tenants’ RGI calculation.
 
Fleury, on the other hand, said he’s not sure if pandemic programs should be exempt from RGI clawbacks. “If your revenue is being covered by a program, to me it really doesn’t matter the name. The program of RGI is intended for the revenue portion. There are goals to programs; we can’t undermine those.”
 
Carrière, of Gloucester Housing, said it’s hard to know at this point just how many and to what extent tenants’ rents will be impacted by pandemic-related emergency aid, as they’re still in the process of collecting everyone’s new income information.
 
She noted that the city has encouraged housing providers to be flexible and creative when it comes to recalculating RGI, “to be as empathetic and compassionate towards our tenants as possible, while still following the rule of the law.” Still, “I would say that we’re quite concerned,” said Carrière.
 
While the province told this newspaper it’s been “encouraging impacted tenants to contact staff at their local service manager to discuss any concerns and understand how these emergency payments might affect their rent,” Mavis Finnamore, a long-time tenant leader with local advocacy group Ottawa ACORN, says that’s just not a practical suggestion for many low-income renters.
 
“I don’t know anybody comfortable dealing with that – unless you’re some kind of full-fledged lawyer.
 
“When you think of governments and poor people applying for benefits – if you’ve ever seen any of the forms, it’s like you’re trying to break into Fort Knox. You have to have this paper, you have to have proof of that … you may have people who don’t understand that, you might have language problems, you might have cultural problems,” Finnamore said.
 
“I mean, it’s a dog’s breakfast.”
 
According to the data from the city, single people living in RGI housing made between $10,363 and $16,494 annually, at the end of 2019 – or $863 to $1,375 monthly. For families, that range was $17,257 to $20,607, or $1,438 to $1,717 monthly.
 
The CERB, meanwhile, pays $2,000 monthly for up to six months.
 
“The government determined at the beginning of this pandemic that people needed a basic minimum amount of money to get by on,” said Coun. Catherine McKenney, city council’s housing and homelessness liaison.
 
“If you are living in poverty, and you have been asked to live on much, much less than that, and now you’re getting a bit more because of the circumstances, through the emergency relief – to have it clawed back doesn’t make sense.”
 
McKenney wants to see Ottawa follow in the footsteps of other municipalities who have exempted pandemic aid programs from the RGI calculation.
 
“But I’ve had that conversation and I don’t have that authority.”
 
 
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Article by Taylor Blewett for the Ottawa Citizen
 

 

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