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Flooded with applications: Burnaby Rent Bank sees unprecedented increase in applicants

The bank has requested $135,000 in funding from the city to cover three years of operating expenses

House for rent sign. Photo: Pexels

On Mon. Nov. 20, Burnaby City Council voted to approve a contribution from the Operating Housing Reserve to the tune of $135,000 for the Burnaby Rent Bank. The rent bank, which is operated by the Lower Mainland Purpose Society, provides interest-free loans to help people with temporary crises until they can resume paying their rent and expenses. Increasingly, the bank is finding that applicants do not meet the criteria for a loan because temporary crises are now becoming ongoing ones with inflation and rising rents. 

The Beacon spoke with Bruce Foster, program manager at the Burnaby Rent Bank (BRB) who said the rent bank is receiving an unprecedented number of applications every month, with 300 inquiries and 203 assessments per month. Despite the high number of requests, BRB has been giving out fewer and fewer loans. The reason, Foster told the Beacon, is Burnaby’s high cost of housing, which is second only to Vancouver in BC. 

When the rent bank assesses a potential loan recipient, one of the main criteria is to ensure an applicant’s income is sufficient to cover their living expenses.  

“This is a housing stabilization program, so they have to be able to cover their basic living expenses to be stable in their housing,” Foster said. 

“With Burnaby we have a challenge because many of our applicants simply can’t cover their basic living expenses anymore. It’s no longer a temporary crisis, it’s now an ongoing challenge,” he added. 

The BRB often refers applicants who do not qualify for loans to other support programs they may qualify for, but programs like the BC Housing rental assistance program have long waiting lists. In some cases, the rent bank can help applicants cover their expenses until they can join another program, but it is not always possible. 

“The other challenge we have is people are so behind on their rent that we can’t bring them up to date because we don’t have that kind of funding…Sometimes what people owe is way beyond our ability,” Foster said. 

It has not always been this way, Foster said. When he first started working with rent banks a decade ago, people receiving income assistance were able to cover their rents and living expenses. Now, they cannot cover their living expenses on income assistance. Even people who work at jobs that pay minimum wage cannot cover rent and living expenses in Burnaby.  

“This is a complete paradigm shift now. That to me goes back to the provincial and federal government, who need to provide benefits that people can live off of, until that happens there will be more homeless people,” he said. 

When the rent bank first started operating during the pandemic, it used to help people experiencing homelessness find housing if they needed help with the first month’s rent, furniture or groceries. “But we can’t do that anymore because people who are homeless or on the streets simply cannot find housing. They don’t have money to afford it and the housing market is too tight,” Foster added. 

Even if they can even afford a room, people looking to rent out rooms are often reluctant to rent out to individuals who were unhoused. “We’re seeing a lot of people once they become homeless cannot become housed again,” he said.  

Foster said the crisis is also disproportionately affecting seniors. “At Purpose Society we run a shelter here in New West and we’ve seen a significant increase in seniors coming to our shelter. People in their 70s and 80s don’t have housing.” Their government benefits, pensions and other sources of income are insufficient to cover their daily needs. 

While most of the BRB’s funding for loans comes from the BC Rent Bank, the BRB needs additional funding from the city to cover its operating costs. Burnaby Rent Bank employs only one staff member who does almost everything. “If we didn’t get funding from the city, we would have to cut back on staffing hours which means we’d have to cut back on hours when we’re open, which means service delivery and response time would go down,” Foster said. 

While the situation may seem quite bleak and depressing, Foster said “it is very rewarding” working at rent banks. 

“Seeing the people who we’ve housed and helped and how appreciative they are of all the help we give, it’s a very rewarding job. I wouldn’t give that up even though it’s also very challenging and it’s a hell of a lot of paperwork,” he said.

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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