Affordable housing is a significant factor both in hunger and food-bank usage. The choice between rent and groceries is a painful one, made by thousands of Canadian families every month. Hunger Count, an annual publication commissioned by Food Banks Canada seeks to detail the current state of low-income and hunger within the country. The report is largely comprised of statistics on food bank usage, which allow for broader analysis and policy recommendations. The number one recommendation from Hunger Count 2012 was:
“Increase federal investment in affordable housing, so that people are not forced to choose between paying rent or buying food”
The government of Ontario stipulates affordable housing to mean, “a unit for which the rent does not exceed 30% of the gross annual household income for low and moderate income households.” According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, however, 1 in 5 Ontario tenant households spend up to 50% of their income on rent, and startlingly, food-bank clients spend on average, up to 71% of their income on housing. This statistic offers a keen insight into the roots of household food insecurity in the province. To keep a roof over their heads, many families are forced to spend the vast amount of their monthly budgets and incomes, leaving too little for other necessities such as food. It is clear that to help alleviate hunger, we must also look at the growing problem of affordable housing.
Currently In Ontario, housing support with a flexible “rent geared to income” structure is extremely limited, (comprising only 18% of all rental units in the province), and many citizens are in need of more substantive support from the government. Currently, 152,000 Ontario households are on social housing waiting lists, demonstrating that the time for intervention and support is now.
In 2008 the Rental Opportunities for Ontario Families initiative was launched as a temporary program to help mitigate the affects of poverty by aiding eligible families with housing assistance. The total budget for the program was 185 million dollars, and was structured in such a way that families could receive supplemental assistance for up to five years. The program reached capacity quickly, and ceased to accept applications in June of 2008, merely five months after its inception.
Currently, Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disabilities Support (ODS) provide a “shelter component” in the benefit packages that they offer. These components increase monetary allotment based on family size. However, the shelter component benefit both for OW and ODS is restricted by a provincial budget maximum which not risen in adequate response to rental inflation, with no change at all between 1993-2002. In the GTA, the maximum provides for less than 50% of the average required rent.
Many groups who seek to combat provincial poverty are trumpeting the proposed Housing Benefit (HB) as a much-needed solution to housing-related hunger. The Housing Benefit is intended to operate simultaneously with the monetary benefits provided by OW and ODS (although the HB proposal includes recommendations to improve the efficiency of these pre-existing shelter components).
This plan would cover 75% of the numerical gap between the shelter component maximum and the actual cost of rent. By drastically reducing the cost burden of rent, currently borne by some of Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens, the benefit aims to drastically reduce the number of families that currently struggle to cover the cost of food by helping them to first ensure their access to shelter.
It is irrefutable that this benefit would have an immediate and positive impact on thousands of Ontario residents. However, thus far the logistics of implementing the program within the province’s budget and existing structures have not been tested. What is overwhelmingly clear, is that substantial housing support is direly needed, and Canadians seeking to combat hunger, must recognize the direct relationship between housing costs and food insecurity.
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