Estimates Debate: Municipal Affairs and Housing Ministry

MLA Sonia Furstenau

Transcript 5CSA:1135-1155, 6CSA:1335

S. Furstenau: I'm delighted to be here. I think I'll start right where I am, which is in the Cowichan Valley. I just want to paint a little bit of a picture, and then I have a couple of questions for the minister.

I'm starting with a really big shout-out to the Cowichan Housing Association — John Horn and his incredible team — and Michelle Staples, who have been working very closely, and we're very grateful for this, with B.C. Housing to build a really Cowichan-made plan that responded to the urgent need for housing and other accommodations for people without homes in Cowichan in light of COVID-19. The plan that they came up with together has been effective, and we are hoping that funding will be found to extend the program through to the end of September.

I'm aware that B.C. Housing recently announced two new developments to house 100 people without homes, with building to begin in the fall and opening sometime late winter. This has been something we've been advocating for in Cowichan for a long time. I'm aware that there are some concerns that are being raised and that B.C. Housing is working with the local community to mitigate the concerns and issues that have been raised.

Just before I get to the question, I just want to say for the minister…. Cindy Lise from Our Cowichan Network went out and gathered some impact statements from people who had been provided some housing during this time.

Just a few of those statements. "Having housing, I got a job," said Dan.

"Having a secure place to sleep that is safe and having a bed to sleep in and having a bathroom, to be able to wash and clean, has improved my mental health."

"Quality of life has improved big time from what it was before. Here I am, clean all the time. I have clean clothes. Before, I could have a shower once a week and clean clothes once a week. There was no water. It was so hard to pack all your stuff around, particularly at my age."

I just wanted the minister to hear some of those really positive impact statements.

The concern in Cowichan now is that funding for these current accommodations — the tenting spaces and the hotel spaces — may not continue after September. Without the certainty around this, it's causing a really great deal of anxiety for people involved.

Can the minister provide the community with assurance that the housing options that have been available to date in response to the COVID pandemic will remain in place after September so that nobody goes back out onto the street?

Hon. S. Robinson: I want to thank the member for getting this interaction off on a really good note with those comments.

It warms my heart to hear that all our collective efforts, with certainly the mayors and the local governments as well as the not-for-profits who've been working for so long to make a difference in their communities…. To hear it come back feels good. So I want to thank her for sharing that, because I think we all need to hear that — that the hard work of getting housing for people who are most vulnerable and knowing the impact it has, just with dignity, is heartwarming. So I want to thank her very much for setting the tone.

We have been working diligently around the province, through B.C. Housing, to house people who have been so marginalized for so long through the COVID response. What I can share with the member…. Certainly, it's beyond Cowichan. It's right around the province. As of June 29, there were 2,980 spaces secured at 111 sites. That includes hotels, motels and community centres right across the province.

I want to give a huge shout-out to B.C. Housing staff for all of their work right around the province to identify those resources and those opportunities.

The numbers are continually in flux because some of them are shorter-term or longer-term leases, depending on what's available and what's possible, and the demand changes. As housing that we've been building comes on line, people are able to move in. So while those are numbers as of June 29, I expect that by the end of this month, they will be different again.

We are reaching out to operators to decide whether or not they wish to continue the arrangement. A lot of these cases were motels or hotels that have seen the tourism opportunities aren't there, and so they're happy to work with our government to house folks in the interim. A majority of these are on lease. They are set to expire. We are in the process of extending those leases where it's possible, where there is opportunity.

We want to make sure that we can continue to house people. No one wants to see anyone having to return to the street or to the park or to a ravine. That's not our intent. So we're working very diligently to identify where we can extend leases and create opportunities.

We're also, of course, exploring ways to do permanent housing. I know that in the member's community, I'm very excited that we're able to deliver on that. Also, we've purchased a number of hotels, and we're expediting development plans as part of our work to transition people from homelessness to long-term, permanent and stable housing.

That work continues, and I look forward to any other questions the member might have around this.

S. Furstenau: I appreciate that response. I guess just specifically to Cowichan, could the minister give some indication as to when the folks at the Cowichan Housing Association would be able to expect a certain response, a certain answer or an answer with certainty about the existing spaces that have been created in this time period and whether they'll be extended past September? When can they expect that certainty?

Hon. S. Robinson: I appreciate that this can be anxiety-inducing for many in the community, particularly those that are precariously housed. I know that the member feels that anxiety herself for those who are most vulnerable.

We are working as diligently and as quickly as we can, and I can commit to let the member know as soon as we have solid plans in place. We'll certainly communicate that to her, to her office. Again, as a government, we do not want to return anyone to homelessness. That's the work that we're continuing to strive to do, and we'll certainly get her the details once they are solidified.

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the minister for that. We look forward to that coming forward.

Just to transition from people living without homes to the more precariously housed. I know there are a lot of efforts to ensure that people don't lose housing at this time. We've seen so much of the inequalities laid bare because of this pandemic and the exposure of so many economically vulnerable people.

My question for the minister…. It's a series of questions. What is the ministry doing to assess the economic impacts of COVID on the ability of British Columbians to pay rent? Specifically, how many people have applied for the rent subsidy as of June 1, and how many have been confirmed eligible?

Hon. S. Robinson: When COVID hit and we knew that we were dealing with a significant health pandemic, we took swift action, as a government, doing our best to keep everyone safe. It was for that reason, for example, that we did a ban on evictions for non-payment of rent, and we put a moratorium on any active evictions for any other reason. Again, the primary concern for our government — and the priority — was to keep everyone safe.

I know that that created significant challenges, certainly, for landlords, for example, especially those who have mortgage helpers and the impacts that that meant for them if they had a tenant who couldn't pay rent.

I want to say that we continued to urge people who could pay rent to continue to pay rent, that there was certainly an obligation to maintain the relationship between a landlord and a renter. I'm very proud of the fact that, based on some preliminary data that we've been looking at — and we're monitoring this all the way through — is that the majority of renters did pay full rent. We've certainly been checking in with LandlordBC, with TRAC, with UDI and others to find out what was happening on the ground, making sure that we're listening to them and being responsive to what the experience was for people on the ground.

Finding out that, I think, 83 or 84 percent of renters were paying full rent, and 12 or 13 percent…. I can get the specific numbers to the member if she'd like, but it was either 12 percent or 13 percent who were paying partial rent. What that told me, again, was that British Columbians were doing their level best to make rent and to keep things whole. So it was through that process we recognized that there were certainly going to be some people where it would be difficult to sustain that.

That's why we put together the temporary rent supplement. We had significant uptake. I do have some numbers here. They're just to mid-June, which is the latest that I have. We had a total of 90,504 applications, and 82,681 were confirmed eligible. In that context, we were able to provide support.

What we did with this program was the supports, whether it's $300 if you're an individual with no dependents…. If you hit the income threshold, no dependents, $300. If you had dependents, $500. We paid it directly to the landlord so that it would go against the amount owing. I know that landlords appreciated the recognition that it went to rent.

I want to commend B.C. Housing. It was a significant turnaround time and a significant program to process. I want to acknowledge the RTB staff that came in to support that program. That was a significant load, with people working late into the night and working weekends to get this program off and running. But I know that it's made a significant difference to thousands of British Columbians.

I think I've answered the member's question, and perhaps she has another one for me.

The Chair: Just noticing the time. I wondered if we had time for a short question, or we can note the hour.

S. Furstenau: I'll just do a very short one. Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Just what is the trend with the applications right now? Are they levelling off, going up or going down?

Hon. S. Robinson: The bulk of applications were certainly the early part of the program. Every month, they have dropped off significantly.

With that, noting the hour, hon. Chair, I move that the committee rise and report progress on the estimates of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.