'A perfect storm': Saskatoon agencies critical of income assistance reform
Rent arrears are piling up. Homelessness is rising. And affordable housing agencies in Saskatoon are grappling with evictions from people on social assistance.
“It’s becoming a perfect storm quite honestly,” said Quint Development Corporation executive director Len Usisken.
One factor is a change to income assistance programs through the Ministry of Social Services, he said.
In 2019 the ministry announced the creation of the Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program, replacing the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP) and Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA).
According to Cameron Choquette, CEO of the Saskatchewan Landlords Association, in August all income assistance recipients were moved to SIS with a few alterations:
- Eliminating direct payment to rental housing and utility providers
- Centralizing benefit administration to a largely online system
- Only providing a security deposit once every two years
- Consolidating rent and utility payments, effectively reducing the overall benefits provided by the program and significantly reducing emergency funding and overpayments to clients, even in extreme circumstances.
The elimination of the direct payment to rental housing and utility providers is driving up arrears and evictions, Choquette said.
“Now all direct payments are provided to the client rather than the rental housing provider and at that point the client has the decision to make whether or not they want to pay rent or if they are going to spend that money on other items in life, which has increased the arrears in the province,” Choquette said.
In a 2019 survey conducted by the landlords association and Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, 93 per cent of rental housing providers predicted that the SIS program would lead to increased evictions and homelessness, Choquette said.
In a recent survey of 2,500 rental units, 30 per cent of SIS clients hadn’t paid their rent for September at all and another 18 per cent had only paid a portion, Choquette said.
With 95 affordable rental housing units a vast majority of Quint Development Corp. clients are receiving a form of income assistance.
Usisken said rent arrears have slowly been adding up and in September, Quint finds itself with $9,000 in rental arrears in one of its apartment buildings.
He’s looking at sending out a record 11 eviction notices for hard-to-house families. In a normal year he’d issue five.
Usisken said at Quint’s buildings there’s an increase in people trying to break in to sleep in hallways or stay on friends’ couches, creating safety concerns for staff and tenants.
In June the City of Saskatoon’s Community Support program reported a spike in calls for service from people experiencing homelessess. (https://saskatoon.ctvnews.ca/it-s-so-frustrating-more-people-sleeping-outside-in-saskatoon-community-support-officers-say-1.5473369)
Usisken said it’s time the ministry re-evaluated its delivery of income assistance because it’s not working.
“Government policy should not be exacerbating the problem. They’re making lives harder for poor people, they’re increasing homelessness and they’re putting in jeopardy a lot of the housing providers' financial sustainability to be able to provide that housing.”
“Landlords are frustrated,” Choquette said. “The government is once again putting the arrears of income assistance clients on the backs of community housing agencies and private sector landlords.”
Choquette recently met with Minister of Social Services Lori Carr, explaining how the elimination of the direct payment option to housing agencies and utility providers has created systemic barriers for those on social assistance to retain safe and affordable housing.
He’s asking the ministry to bring back components of the old SAP program to ensure income assistance dollars go towards housing and utilities.
He said the ministry has expressed commitment to further dialogue and Choquette said he will continue to report what arrears and evictions look like.
Doris Morrow, the ministry’s executive director of income assistance program design, said in a statement that the Saskatchewan Income Support program helps people who are on income assistance overcome challenges, earn more income, become more self-sufficient and start a career or participate in their communities.
“Clients on the Saskatchewan Income Support program are responsible for paying their rent, security deposits and utilities directly to landlords and utility companies, just like any other citizen,” Morrow said.
She said the ministry has been reaching out to landlords and housing agencies encouraging landlords to speak to tenants about setting up recurring direct-rent payments.
The ministry said it can also make arrangements for a trustee to help mange funds and become more self-sufficient.
However, the trustee option is one that’s not automatically offered and is something Kayleigh LaFontaine, executive director with Elizabeth Fry Society Saskatchewan said is something she’s had to advocate for her clients.
“There are some hoops that social services have put in place and it’s not something that is presented to clients, it does take some advocacy,” she said.
“At two-and-a-half years later, especially through a pandemic we’re seeing this is not working so where’s the re-evaluating and see how these people can be best supported?”
Not all affordable housing agencies are seeing increases in arrears and evictions. But with many income assistance clients switching to the new program, Camponi Housing Corp. sees issues coming down the road.
“At this time we don’t see significant negative impacts on our arrears, evictions or tenants,” said Ruebecca Fiddler, project manager with Camponi Housing.
She said Camponi has been proactively working with tenants explaining how the new SIS program might affect their housing as well as offering easier ways tenants can pay rent.
“We do however, anticipate individuals that are being switched over, will experience more issues with budgeting and prioritizing resources especially as we near the holiday season,” Fiddler said.
“We fear that these challenges will increase housing instability and homelessness for the province as a whole, not just our portfolio.”