New Westminster set to launch rent bank program

Renters may soon have a place to go in times of crisis so they don’t end up on the streets.

New Westminster MLA Judy Darcy and her constituency office staff spearheaded the rent bank initiative after seeing a steady stream of people at the office who were at risk of immediate homelessness, if a temporary financial solution was not found. Those folks included a couple who had their hours cut at work after giving notice to take new jobs, a woman setting up a new home after fleeing domestic violence and a woman awaiting surgery and having no way to pay her rent.

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“There is a variety of different scenarios,” Darcy said. “So many people are living paycheque to paycheque. If some crisis strikes and you are living paycheque to paycheque, then where do you go to pay your next month’s rent? That, we are hearing of more and more. It could be they are waiting for a cheque that they know is going to come.”

Darcy believes a rent bank is one piece of a puzzle to address the “housing crisis” in British Columbia. Unlike payday lenders, which charge exorbitant fees and can lead people into a downward spiral of debt that they often can’t escape, Darcy said rent banks offer loans with low-interest rates and have a high rate of repayment.

“The province of Ontario actually supports rent banks and the creation of rent banks throughout the province. I certainly think that this is something the provincial government could take initiative on,” she said. “There is a complex array of causes for homelessness, there is a complex array of solutions to homelessness, but preventing homelessness by being proactive is an important part of that. I certainly will be advocating that the provincial government play a proactive role in supporting rent banks in communities.”

Elsewhere in B.C., rent banks are currently offered in Vancouver, Surrey and Kamloops. They provide loans to renters who are facing eviction or the termination of their utilities, and require people to pay back the loan over a period of time.

Since beginning work on the initiative two years ago, Darcy’s office has secured an endowment of $35,000, which includes contributions from every credit union in the city. The City of New Westminster will provide $60,000 over three years to cover administration costs for the program and the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society will contribute $4,000 annually over a three-year period to replenish the endowment.

 “Sometimes we get in the habit of focusing too much on the issue of homelessness after it has happened, and not focus enough attention on programs that actually work to prevent homelessness,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “Those types of programs are equally important if we are going to try and address the issue of homelessness.”

Cote welcomes the formation of a rent bank in New Westminster, where about half the population lives in rental accommodations. Although New West has about four per cent of Metro Vancouver’s population, he said the city has the third highest number of purpose-built rental units.

“Is it the full solution to the issue of homelessness or our housing crisis? It’s not. It’s got to be seen as one of the many programs that need to be in place to help us address the issue of housing and housing affordability in our region,” Cote said. “I think it’s an important tool to address a certain segment of the population.”

The city issued a request for proposals and selected the Lower Mainland Purpose Society for Youth and Families to operate the rent bank.

Dawn Embree, the society’s executive director, said the program should be up and running within a couple of weeks.

“The whole aim is to avoid eviction,” she said. “I think we can all appreciate that facing eviction is a very stressful circumstance. It’s even more so now that the rental (vacancy) rates are so low. If there’s any way to avoid that happening, I think we need to do that.”

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