By Alicja Siekierska, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON – Starting in August, nearly 1,000 lower income Edmonton households relying on monthly rent subsidies will find themselves short a crucial $50.

The Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC) in Edmonton is reducing the maximum rent supplements given to 916 households that rely on the subsidies, from $550 a month to $500.

In the March provincial budget, the government cut rent supplement funding across the province by $6.6 million, forcing the CRHC to make program cuts and reduce their maximum amount of direct-to-tenant rent supplement going toward lower income households.

CRHC executive director Greg Bounds said the reduction was the best way to ensure those households currently receiving rental assistance would continue to do so.

“We had a reduction in the amount of dollars available in our budget, but we wanted to ensure that we could continue to supply rent supplements to everyone who is using our programs today,” said Bounds.

Many are criticizing the government’s rent supplement cuts, saying the reduction will have a drastic impact on Edmonton’s most vulnerable population that relies on the subsidies each month.

“It’s going to put these families in a position where they are forced to make an impossible choice,” said NDP Municipal Affairs critic Deron Bilous at a news conference earlier this week. “Either they pay their rent and keep a roof over their heads, they pay the bills or they can feed their families.”

Members of the opposition are calling on the government to restore the rent supplement funding in the province.

“The impact of these cuts for these families is significant,” said Bilous. “Many of the families that are receiving this supplement are recipients of (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) funding or other forms of income support.”

Municipal Affairs spokeswoman Trisha Anderson said the rent supplement budget was reduced based on spending allocations from previous years. She said the government will still be able to supply more than 12,000 households across Alberta with rent subsidies each month.

John Kolkman, a research co-ordinator for the Edmonton Social Planning Council, believes the reductions are going to be damaging given the current state of the city’s rental market.

“It’s a very challenging time to be implementing these kind of cuts,” said Kolkman “They are coming when vacancy rates are dropping, and while rental rates are going up. It’s very much becoming a landlord’s market.”

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s most recent market survey, out of every 100 rental units in the city, only one is available. The apartment vacancy rate in Edmonton dropped from 2.7 per cent last year to a mere 1.2 in April 2013.

The survey also indicated that while vacancy rates continue to decline, rental rates are rising. In Edmonton, the average cost of a two-bedroom suite increased by 4.2 per cent from April 2012 to April 2013.

“Not only should the cuts be reversed, but the province should be investing more in rental assistance programs,” said Kolkman.

Kolkman said rent assistance, including the direct-to-tenant rent supplement program, can act as a homelessness prevention measure.

“If you cannot afford to pay your rent, there is a real risk you may become homeless.”

The households currently qualifying for the rent subsidies will see their monthly payments reduced starting Aug. 1, however, the new maximum will only be implemented after each individual client’s annual income review date.

Bounds said the process of switching over to the reduced subsidy will happen gradually.

“This isn’t happening overnight. It will be implemented in stages over the next year.”

Bounds said the direct-to-tenant supplements are the only rent subsidies affected by the budget cuts. He said the CRHC will continue to accept new, qualified clients, although they can expect to be put on a waitlist. 

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