By TODD STONE
MLA, Kamloops-South Thompson
WHILE COVID-19 HAS POSED a very serious public health risk, we have also watched it become a considerable threat to people’s livelihoods.
To address the financial hardships brought on by this pandemic, the province has introduced several measures to support British Columbians through these difficult times. Included among these measures is the new temporary rental supplement, announced by the government on March 25.
Support for renters and landlords is certainly a necessary step to provide relief, but it is becoming clear to many British Columbians — including the Official Opposition caucus who are hearing from countless constituents — that the temporary rental supplement falls short.
It is overly restrictive, the application process is complicated and time-consuming, and it provides less support than what was expected by renters.
Because of its strict eligibility requirements, many people who genuinely need the rent support will not qualify. Most problematic is the condition that an applicant’s income from the previous year is used to decide whether they qualify for the supplement — even if they have subsequently lost their job as a result of COVID-19.
This means that despite being without a job today, they are out of luck to receive any support from this program because they had a job in 2019 earning more than the maximum household income permitted to receive this financial assistance. It makes no sense to structure a support that cannot be accessed by many British Columbian renters who find themselves in financial distress without a job, all because of COVID-19.
Additionally, many renters are expressing frustration with what appears to be an overly complicated and time-consuming application process. Our caucus has heard from many people across the province who have had difficulty applying for the temporary rental supplement through the online multi-step process that requires extensive documentation.
Once applicants are successful in tracking down all of the necessary information, many have then had to wait days for an update on their application. Some applicants — many of whom do not have access to the internet — have called the toll free number only to then be told that a paper application would be mailed to them.
Others have encountered ongoing busy signals, with many also saying their call was dropped. This is not how to ensure financial supports are quickly and reliably received by the British Columbians who need them.
This experience stands in stark contrast to the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which has an application process consisting of four simple questions that take all of two minutes to answer. If people have already qualified for this monthly $2,000 CERB support from the federal government, why do they need to jump through more hoops for less money from the province?
All of this is on top of the fact that the temporary rental supplement appears to have been watered down, providing less support than what was expected by renters when it was first announced. Originally, renters were led to expect they would receive a $500 monthly benefit, however, the actual amount available to households with no dependents is now only $300 per month, with $500 per month going to households with dependents.
Furthermore, based on the current rules, two roommates can each apply, receiving $600 total per month for their ‘household’, while a family of four is only eligible for $500 per month.
Adding to the confusion is that there is still widespread uncertainty among many renters about whether they even have to pay their rent during the COVID-19 crisis. This puts even more people at risk of being unable to make ends meet as many landlords are individual ‘mom and pop’ owners, not large companies. Landlords worrying about being able to make their own mortgage payments need the provincial government to make a strong statement that those who can pay their rent must pay.
It is abundantly clear that while this temporary rental supplement program has good intentions, its design was poorly thought out and its implementation is highly flawed. People need the provincial government to respond with financial supports that are accessible to those who need them, easy to access, and appropriate in scale to this crisis.
We know that programs like these can be streamlined; we saw the federal government reform a complicated system of Employment Insurance benefits in just over a week, replacing it with a quick and easy online application. Now it’s time for the provincial government to do the same with the temporary rental supplement here in B.C.
Todd Stone is the MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson.