This research project examined the impact of Rent Assist, a provincial rent supplement program, on affordable housing in Manitoba. It used interviews to get the perspectives of tenants, private landlords, and non-profit housing providers. The findings offer insights that can inform other, newer programs, such as the national Canada Housing Benefit.
Manitoba’s Employment and Income Assistance program (provincial social assistance) pays the monthly rent supplement to the tenant. The tenant then pays their usual portion of the rent. The supplement gives tenants flexibility to choose the location of their housing, provided there are available units.
Rent Assist significantly helps people who are at risk of homelessness and lifts many families above the poverty line.
CMHC data suggests that Rent Assist isn’t driving up rents in Manitoba.
Rent Assist’s shortcomings show where future programs could make improvements.
Project scope and expected outcomes
Rent Assist: a possible model for other housing benefit programs
Rent Assist is a Manitoba rent supplement program. It helps lower-income renters in the private market afford housing at 75% of median market rents. Since its introduction in 2014, it has allowed tens of thousands of households in Manitoba to access and remain in housing that meets their needs.
In 2019, a group of stakeholders came together to study Rent Assist. The goals:
- To determine what is working, what is not, and what can be improved
- To use those insights to inform the implementation of other provincial and national housing programs, like the Canada Housing Benefit
Their research included 75 interviews with tenants, non-profit housing providers, and private landlords throughout the province. It analyzed the participation rates, costs and benefit levels of Rent Assist. It also evaluated the impact the program had on the poverty status of various family types. Lastly, the research looked at whether Rent Assist has had an effect on the rental market in Manitoba.
More resources for low-income households
The research found many positive outcomes for Rent Assist. First, the program has led to a significant increase in resources going to qualifying households. We are talking about an estimated $138 million in 2018/2019.
For a typical household, Rent Assist led to maximum shelter benefit increases of between $149 and $328 per month in 2014 and 2015. That is equal to increases of between 41% and 76%, with further increases over time linked to median market rents.
Help for low-income households and people at risk of homelessness
Rent Assist significantly helps people who are at risk of homelessness and lifts many families above the poverty line. For many people, the resulting difference in their housing outcomes allowed them to focus on employment, education and family.
Rent Assist can help improve physical and mental health
Over three quarters of interviewees stated, unprompted: “I can breathe. I know that I have a roof over my head and food on the table,” (or something similar). Seniors spoke less often of facing difficult choices between paying for medications or rent.
Important tool for providing affordable housing
Non-profit housing providers all spoke positively of the Rent Assist program. Private landlords echoed this view. They said that Rent Assist provides “dignity and an opportunity for people to have safe, quality housing they could not otherwise afford.”
Limited impact on average rents
Accommodations in the bottom quartile of rents are likely the types of accommodations that Rent Assist recipients are renting. CMHC data for Manitoba indicates that Rent Assist’s introduction has not caused rents in the bottom quartile to increase faster than median rents.
Stakeholders did report, however, that rooming houses appear to be increasing rents to match Rent Assist levels.
Rent assist has room for improvement
Rent Assist is not a perfect program. Here are the main disadvantages uncovered by the research:
- The thresholds for people to receive Rent Assist are too low. Single people working 35-hour weeks at minimum wage, for example, do not qualify, and remain below the poverty line.
- The amount provided by Rent Assist to those relying on social assistance is not enough to cover market rents for many. Of the tenants receiving Rent Assist through Manitoba’s social assistance program, over 90% paid more in rent than their Rent Assist amount. Therefore, most used portions of their basic needs allowance to pay rent.
- Rent Assist covers some, but not all, of the costs of providing affordable housing. Both non-profit housing providers and private market landlords were clear on this point.
- A lack of awareness results in many potentially eligible households failing to benefit from Rent Assist. Many do not know that Rent Assist is available to households who are not on social assistance.
Rent Assist should be only one part of a broader housing strategy
There are other challenges Rent Assist is not well suited to addressing. Tenants described barriers including:
- Discrimination, especially against Indigenous people
- A lack of a rental or credit history, which made it difficult for newcomers or young adults to access housing
- The challenge of finding affordable, accessible housing for persons with disabilities or mobility challenges
Some tenants also need more supports to live independently and cannot find these supports on the private market. This means that Rent Assist can only be one part of a broader housing strategy that must include community housing.
Implementing changes to strengthen Rent Assist
It is clear that Rent Assist has brought significant positive change for low-income tenants in Manitoba. Still, this research project uncovered a number of opportunities to build on the program’s success. Increasing benefit levels, changing how Rent Assist interacts with certain tax credits, and including support for health-related expenses and support services are just a few.
Implementing such changes would strengthen Rent Assist, making it work better for tenants, non-profit housing providers and private market landlords.
Project Team: Manitoba Non-Profit Housing Association
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Project Collaborators / Partners:
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
University of Manitoba
Activity Stream: Research project
Project teams are conducting work that address one or more NHS Priority Areas and NHS Priority Population Groups. The work is done in Canada. All teams much provide a minimum of 25% of the total project cost.