Highrises under construction in Burnaby. Advocates say the province should increase the housing allowance for people on disability assistance in BC. Shutterstock

$375 housing allowance for people on disability assistance simply not enough, say advocates

People on disability assistance in BC have a housing allowance of $375. Advocates say the rate needs to go up to ensure people with disabilities can find safe, stable housing.

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November 4, 2021 | 5:00 am

Living in Metro Vancouver, it’s common knowledge that it’s tough and sometimes near impossible to find housing within our budgets.

But what if you only had $375 to do it?

Your own condo or apartment would be out of the question, of course.

You may be able to find a shared room somewhere. But as you’ll see from looking through the Craigslist page for shared rooms in Burnaby, the term ‘slim pickings’ is beyond an understatement.

That’s the situation many people in BC who are on provincial disability assistance find themselves in.

A single person with a Persons with Disability (PWD) designation gets up to $1,358.50 a month on disability assistance. Their shelter or housing allowance—meaning the amount of that they are allowed to spend on housing—is $375, a figure that’s been unchanged since 2007.

What has changed dramatically since then is rent. In 2007, the average 1-bedroom unit in Burnaby went for $778 a month. Last month, 1-bedroom apartments in Burnaby rented for an average $1,833—the fourth highest in the country.

A relative improvement

The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction actually increased the monthly disability and income assistance rate in this year’s budget by $175 a month—“the largest single increase in B.C.’s history and third increase since October 2017.”

“To ensure maximum flexibility for clients, rate increases have been targeted towards the support allowance. This enables clients to use funds towards shelter, food, clothing, or other essentials. If rate increases were solely attached to the shelter allowance, this could result in landlords increasing rents in order to benefit from the increase, rather than our clients,” the Ministry said in an emailed statement to the Beacon.

“Furthermore, targeting rate increases towards the support allowance benefits all recipients, whereas shelter allowance increases would not–28% of income and disability assistance clients have shelter costs that are equal to or less than the current shelter maximum ($375 for a single).”

But it’s simply not enough, say advocates.

“That’s way below the poverty line. So there was an increase. And an increase is better than nothing, but it’s still falling way short of where it needs to be,” said Spencer van Vloten, editor of BC Disability.

He said in his lifetime, $375 has never been an adequate housing allowance in the Lower Mainland, even if it went a little further in 2007 than it did now.

“It puts people in an awful situation because you’re constantly living with this weight over your head of—will I be able to find any housing in the province where the average rent is about $2,000 and I’ve only got $375? And then if I can find something, what type of condition am I going to have to live in?” he said.

van Vloten told the Beacon that people sometimes end up having to live in homes that are inaccessible or unsafe for them, or that they have to share with many other people, or in rundown apartments or SROs. They also might end up on the streets or in homeless shelters.

A matter of luck

Paul Caune, executive director of activist group Civil Rights Now, said trying to find a place to live while on disability assistance can “verge on the impossible”.

“People who have complex disabilities who are on this assistance and do have a good place to live are simply lucky. I’m one of those people. I’m on disability financial assistance and I happened to find a place 14 years ago that has subsidized rent through BC Housing of $375 a month,” he said.

“So I can pay my rent and still be able to feed myself. That was just luck. In Vancouver, which has one of the highest costs of living in the world—yeah, it was just luck.”

Caune’s building just across Boundary Rd from Burnaby is mostly filled with market rental units, but it has seven subsidized units as well. He pointed out that although seven people have a place to live, thousands of others are struggling

And it’s not just a problem of housing stock.

Caune said there are three important factors necessary for a person with a complex disability to live with freedom and dignity: “a truly affordable place to live; a truly physically accessible place to live if you have mobility challenges; and funded home support that is flexible and individualized to your specific needs. Each of those three things are in scarcity in the entire province.”

BC Housing does have listings for buildings that provide subsidized housing—although it’s important to note that those aren’t buildings that currently have units available.

For people with disabilities looking for subsidized housing in Burnaby, BC Housing has 35 buildings listed. 21 of them have units that meet the needs of people who use wheelchairs. Many of them base rents off of an individual’s income.

But van Vloten said the province still needs to increase the shelter allowance—and BC Disability is calling on the government to increase the disability assistance rate to $1,800 for single people with PWD designation.

A disconnect

Both he and Caune agree part of the problem is a large disconnect between policymakers and the people who live with their decisions.

“The reason why this increase hasn’t happened yet reflects the powerlessness of the people receiving the money … their priorities aren’t being defended around cabinet tables when it comes time to decide what’s going to be in the budget,” said Caune.

“​​The government knows how to build giant institutions. But it doesn’t know how to meet the individual needs of people who want to live with freedom and dignity.”

For its part, the province says it’s taking the matter of affordability seriously.

“Poverty impacts the lives of too many British Columbians,” the Ministry said.

“The recent rate increase and earnings exemption changes are part of our government’s overall poverty reduction strategy. We have invested in child care, housing, the new British Columbia Child Opportunity Benefit, and a number of other initiatives to make life more affordable for people in B.C.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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