BC Housing Advocates say new SAFER Guidelines Flawed

Why B.C.’s rent subsidy program for low-income seniors is flawed: Advocates

A Postmedia News review of a decade of B.C. Housing reports found that tens of millions of dollars in provincial rent subsidies haven’t been spent

Vancouver Sun: Nathan Griffiths Published Feb 20, 2024  •  Last updated Feb 20, 2024 

Find out the facts in the 2022 study by the Office of the Seniors Advocate British Columbia

Burnaby’s Jing Lei Xiang is facing eviction this year because the Metrotown building she lives in, which houses a number of lower-income seniors, is being demolished.

It’s the second time in two years that Xiang, 70, a cancer survivor who spent years working in B.C.’s long-term care industry, will have to move. She doesn’t know exactly when she has to leave or where she’ll go — but she knows she can’t afford it.

Even with the benefit she receives from B.C. Housing’s shelter aid for elderly residents (SAFER) program, a typical one-bedroom apartment in Metro Vancouver costs more than her entire monthly income.

“The financial support means a lot to me and to low-income seniors,” Xiang, who moved to B.C. from Shanghai 30 years ago, said through a translator. “The downside is it doesn’t offer enough for a senior to live a decent life.”

Xiang’s story isn’t unusual in B.C.

Postmedia News reviewed a decade of annual reports from B.C. Housing and found that tens of millions of dollars a year in provincial rent subsidies haven’t been spent — and for those who do receive them, the subsidies are no longer enough to make ends meet.

Housing providers and advocates say this is because the subsidies are too low for current market rates and a rigid application formula excludes some of the very people the program was meant to help.

Nearly 10,000 more B.C. households could have received rent support

Gap between B.C. Housing’s targets for low-income rental assistance and how many households it actually supported.

In the 2022-23 fiscal year alone, B.C. Housing’s rental assistance programs reached about 30,000 households, almost 10,000 fewer than its target for the year. As a result, $32 million that was supposed to support low-income British Columbians didn’t get spent.

BC Housing missed rent support targets by more than 9,600 households in 2022/23 (source: BC Housing annual reports).

“It just renders it useless,” said Anna Hofmarks of the Collingwood Neighbourhood House in east Vancouver.

The SAFER program, which provides rent supplements to low-income seniors renting in the private market, accounted for roughly 75 per cent of all rental assistance program enrolments in 2022-23. Enrolment in the program has fallen by roughly 2,000 households since 2020, reaching its lowest level in almost five years, according to B.C. Housing data.

“There are two main flaws with the SAFER program,” said Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.’s seniors advocate. “The biggest problem is the subsidies are not big enough. And then the second thing that’s happening is people are having their subsidy reduced.”

Mackenzie said arbitrary limits on income and rental rates have led to “people getting kicked off” the program. She believes the caps on income and rent account for much of the falling enrolment in the SAFER program in recent years, despite substantial rent increases across B.C.

Under the current plan, applicable rental costs are capped at $803 in most of Metro, meaning rental costs beyond that aren’t included when determining the monthly subsidy. For a senior, like Xiang, who pays $1,300 a month in rent, only the first $803 is counted toward her SAFER subsidy, even if her rent increases.

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