For the price of one big miracle

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When something represents a major improvement over a previous product, we often say it’s “the greatest thing since sliced bread”. What kind of an analogy could we use for something similar, but negative? And something not regarding a product, but rather more abstract? Could we say, for example, that Canadians’ obsession with discussing the exorbitant price of housing in this country is… the most repetitive thing since gas price complaints? I do believe I just invented a new saying, allow me to pat my own back.

I want to discuss housing prices, but from a different angle than the usual mantra. And given the number of times that this topic is brought up in private conversations, in public forums, and in the media, it’s important to me that I note my own awareness of the fact that this subject has become repetitive and entirely annoying. For many people, however, it’s not just a “discussion topic” – it represents life slowly becoming less and less sustainable.

What inspired me to bring up this already well-discussed topic is the research that I did for another article you’ll see in this week’s edition of the Times. That article explains that the federal government announced $199 million in new housing-related funding earlier this month, with $99 million of it earmarked as a boost to the Canada Housing Benefit, which is integrated as the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit (COHB) in Ontario.

Similar to some other social services such as the child care fee subsidy, applications for the COHB are processed through local municipalities who act as service system providers. The City of Cornwall fills this role for our area collectively as the federal riding of Cornwall/SD&G. The COHB information available from the City of Cornwall is very straightforward. It states that in order to be considered for the Benefit, household income must fall below a set limit which is decided upon by the Ministry of Finance. Of course this makes sense – the Benefit is intended to help low income renters, after all. It isn’t meant to be a universal credit.

The other requirement set forth by the City of Cornwall is a limit on the rental price of the applicant’s housing unit. These limits are: $791 monthly for a 1-bedroom unit, $962 monthly for a 2-bedroom unit, and $1,047 monthly for a 3-bedroom unit. The reason for these limits is simple enough… these are the monthly average rent figures for our area in the 2023-2024 season. My question is – who felt it was a good idea to implement this rule, which may very well qualify as the dumbest rule of the 21st century?

Has the City of Cornwall’s social services division seriously come up with a rule that in order to qualify for help with rent costs, you need to secure cheap housing first? The figures above would likely not be seen as “cheap” for any individual or family struggling financially, but I mean “cheap” in the sense that a COHB application in our area requires that a person already be living in housing that is at or below the average market price for rent. What a joke (and not a funny one).

One of the reasons why the rent cap rule is so fundamentally stupid is because it paints all of Cornwall and SD&G with the same brush. Our riding is – in a word – huge. Even with the advantage of Highway 401 speeds, it would take 1 hour and 12 minutes to get from corner to corner of SD&G (I am using Hallville to the northwest, and Bainsville to the southeast as my map points). Rent prices are hardly the same across the board.

Cornwall has always been known anecdotally to have relatively cheap housing available. North Dundas, on the other hand, is too close to Ottawa for “cheap” housing. A few years ago, I lived in an old ice cream shop in Winchester, a one bedroom apartment so small that my entire living space was the size of my upstairs neighbour’s balcony. My rent at the time was $875 monthly, and I had many people tell me how lucky I was to have such a “cheap” place in Winchester. When we bought our South Mountain house, the landlord of the Winchester apartment increased the rent to $925 for the next tenant. There is something wrong when the City of Cornwall’s cutoff for reasonably priced housing would barely buy you 3/4 of a laughably tiny old ice cream shop in Winchester in 2019. Using today’s prices, the joke would be even less funny.

When people need help, they need help. The only thing that hurts more than not having help when it’s needed, is seeing that ridiculous and ill-conceived rules get in the way of help that would otherwise be available. Why is it that people who could really use rent help from the COHB in Cornwall and SD&G must first achieve what hardly anyone can these days – finding and securing the most affordable housing in the area? It essentially says that rent help is available for the price of one big miracle.

Housing is expensive right now because there isn’t enough supply to meet the demand. This means that sometimes a person is forced to take a more expensive apartment because it’s the only apartment available. It may seem affordable at the time, but with the cost of everything such as food, gas, and utilities going up each month, some help with rent suddenly becomes not just a helping hand, but a necessity.

It’s time for the City of Cornwall to rethink its criteria for people to access help. The miracle of finding cheap housing should not be a prerequisite to getting help with housing costs.

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