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N.S. woman spends most of her income on rent. She’s been denied government help

A woman living in the Halifax area is expressing her frustration surrounding Nova Scotia’s rental supplement program as she was denied assistance despite spending more than half her monthly income on housing.

Sylvia Cole, who rents an apartment in the Dartmouth area, said she spent seven months scouring the city’s rental market before finding an affordable option that worked for her. Amid the process, she said she contacted several affordable housing assistance groups that denied her applications due to already extensive wait-lists.

“I took this apartment because I felt confident that because of my income and rent, that I’d qualify for the rental subsidy which I applied for,” she said during an interview with Global News on Tuesday.

After a lengthy waiting period, Cole said she received a response from the provincial government. But its assessment wasn’t what she had anticipated.

“Two months later, I got a letter telling me that I didn’t qualify.”

Nova Scotia’s rental supplement program is available to residents whose rental costs are more than 50 per cent of their pre-tax household income in comparison with the “average market rent in their area,” which is not based on the cost of an individual’s unit, according to the province’s website.

Cole, whose income is reliant on her pension, was told she was denied financial support because the average rent prices in her neighbourhood are only 46 per cent of her monthly income — four percentage points below the threshold.

“My response was, ‘How did you even calculate that? I’m paying $1,360 a month for rent out of a $2,100-a-month income,’” she said, adding that she was told the province doesn’t take into consideration the “actual rent” of a unit when considering an application.

“She said they do demographic areas, average out the rent in those areas, and they averaged the rent for this area at $975 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.”

Despite spending 64 per cent of her monthly income on rent, the province’s system categorizes Cole as only spending about 46 per cent.

“You’re supposed to be helping low-income people and seniors, which is what I am, and really you’re making it impossible to get that help,” she said. “So, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“It’s impossible to make a dollar stretch when you’re paying so much for rent.”

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Nova Scotia NDP leader responds

Claudia Chender, leader of Nova Scotia’s NDP, said the provincial government’s current rental supplement program isn’t having its intended impact.

“It’s actually not based on how much the apartment costs. It’s based on their guidelines of how much the apartment should cost,” she said, adding that annual rent increases are worsening the situation.

“In our environment, when we’ve had 12.9 per cent year-over-year increases, it’s just not accurate.”

Chender said she’s chatted with many residents, like Cole, who are forgoing groceries because they’re spending more than 60 per cent of their income on rent, yet still remain ineligible for support due to rents rising faster than the province’s ability to assess average prices in a particular area.

“This is why we’re seeing a proliferation of tents. This is why we’re seeing so many Nova Scotians who can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads,” she said.

The provincial NDP leader said the provincial government needs to adjust the rental supplement’s eligibility criteria to ease the burden on residents struggling with rising living costs.

“That helps the folks who are most vulnerable stay in their homes,” she said.

‘Making it impossible’

Cole said she’s chatted with her local MLA and wrote a letter to Nova Scotia’s minister of municipal affairs since discovering that she’s ineligible for a rental subsidy. She’s yet to hear back from the province.

“I’m asking that they take into consideration the reality,” she said. “Realize that (people) are paying majority of their incomes on rent and do something about it.”

“The rent is the majority of my income. In order to have a comfortable living, I need the subsidy.”

The subsidy used to be available to those who spend 30 per cent or more of their pre-tax income on rent — which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines as the threshold for “affordable housing” — but it was changed to 50 per cent in April 2023.

In December 2023, Nova Scotia Housing Minister John Lohr said the demand for the rent supplement had spiked and the province couldn’t keep up. In an interview with Global News on Tuesday, he said the program was adjusted to “try to address the most critical needs.”

“If their income is (taking up) 50 per cent or more for the average market rent for their area, then they would qualify. Even if they’re paying more than the average market rent in their area, they may not qualify, but we would encourage people to ask for a review if they have an issue with our process,” he said.

“I know that it’s a challenging time for individuals, so we have really one of the most accessible programs for rent subsidies in the whole country.”

Although Lohr said he’s not familiar with Cole’s application, he said there is a possibility of a “decision review” in her case.

“We recognize the tremendous stress that the housing crisis has placed on people,” he said.

“We know there’s more that needs to be done. We’re very aware individuals (like Cole) have big needs. We’re trying to do more.”

Lohr said he and his colleagues will “continue to review these programs all the time and look at their design and how they’re made up.”

Upon submitting her rental subsidy application to the province, Cole said she was confident that she’d qualify as her living expenses were far greater than 50 per cent of her income.

“When I got the answer to how they were doing it, I just said ‘You’re making it impossible for anyone to get it,’” she said.

“Plain and simple, I was shocked. I read the letter over twice just to make sure…. I couldn’t believe that was the answer.”

Cole said she’s “managing” for now but is worried her expenses will increase further due to heating costs throughout the winter months.

“It’s electric heat so I don’t know what it’s going to be like in the winter. This is when it’s going to become really tight,” she explained, adding that she remains diligent when it comes to her budgeting process.

“If I have to go for groceries, I sit down and look at all the flyers and pick out the places where I can find better buys. I don’t spend on anything extra because I don’t have the money to.”

She said she hopes to avoid a situation where she’s behind on bill payments as a result of making financial sacrifices to keep up with her rent.

“The government needs to do much more to help low-income people. Seniors seem to be forgotten because they are the ones with the income that doesn’t change,” she said.

If Cole isn’t able to find a solution surrounding her access to the rental assistance program, she said she’ll “try to toughen it out as best I can and hope for the best.”

“Basically, that’s all I can do. I don’t have a lot of options otherwise,” she said.

— with files from Emma Convey


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