UPDATE: New West expands rent bank in the face of COVID-19

Extra funding for the rent bank is part of a broader plan to set aside $1.7 million in affordable housing reserve funds for pandemic-related housing emergencies

The City of New Westminster is setting aside money to help address housing emergencies that residents may face as a result of COVID-19.

Councillors agreed at a special meeting on March 23 to allocate the $1.7 million it has in its affordable housing reserve fund towards emergency housing-related issues that may crop up because of the COVID-19 crisis.

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That includes $100,000 that will be set aside as an endowment to the New Westminster Rent Bank, which provides low-cost loans to residents who are at risk of eviction and/or disconnection of utilities because of temporary or unexpected financial crises. Applicants can borrow up to $1,000 towards rentals or $500 towards utilities, and they have two years to repay the money.

The city will work with the Lower Mainland Purpose Society, which administers the local program, to expand the New Westminster Rent Bank Program to protect tenants from potential eviction.

“This is the time to expand our rent bank program,” Mayor Jonathan Cote said in a news release. “There are more people in our city struggling to pay rent, and we hope we can help alleviate some of that burden as we navigate our way through this challenging time.”

The New Westminster Rent Bank Program was established in June 2017 to assist in short-term crisis situations, such as a person changing jobs or an unexpected medical expense. Its mandate is to provide low-cost loans to residents who are at risk of eviction or disconnection of essential utilities due to a temporary or unexpected financial crisis.

 According to the City of New Westminster, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the program will be enhanced for renters at risk of eviction due to loss of income and inability to pay rent. These enhancements include making a higher number of loans available to support more residents’ access to the program and flexibility with loan-recovery terms for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A staff report to council noted that the city is receiving an increasing number of inquiries regarding protection against eviction in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And, though the report notes the province is working on the issue on a B.C.-wide level, expanding the rent bank would be one of the easiest ways for the city to help in the interim. (Note: Since the city meeting happened, the province has announced its plans for renter protection. See here for more on that issue.)

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said the city has been in discussions with the Lower Mainland Purpose Society, and at this point the group feels it will be able to ramp up the program within the existing funding. But as need increases, money may need to increase as well, and Stark said they will return to council when and if that happens.

He noted there will also be discussions about relaxing some of the current criteria for qualifying for the rent bank.

“We want to make sure it is as accessible as possible,” he told council.

Besides the rent bank, the staff report suggests the emergency housing funds could be used for such things as funding motel vouchers or adapting civic facilities that are temporarily closed into housing for vulnerable people who need to self-isolate, along with potentially providing funding for shelters and drop-ins to cover increased cleaning and supply costs.

Staff suggested the funds could also be extended more widely, including potentially helping homeowners who are at risk of mortgage default.

Any such staff recommendations would return to council before being implemented.

Coun. Patrick Johnstone said he supports the increase to the rent bank.

He also said he’s not opposed to the idea of tapping into the city’s $1.7-million affordable housing fund, adding it’s a suggestion he can “softly support” but that council would need to discuss such ideas in more detail.

Johnstone raised a cautionary note about the idea of helping people with their mortgages, noting there’s already federal support on that front.

“I don’t want to see the ability to provide services to the rent bank eroded by expanding it to people who have some mortgage trouble,” he said.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said the issue isn’t straightforward, noting that even once the COVID-19 crisis passes, there will still be other crises: an opioid crisis, a homelessness crisis, a housing crisis.

“The resources we need to address those things will still be needed at the end of the COVID crisis, so that’s the only flag that I’m raising,” he said. “Otherwise I’m very happy with the initiative. I think it’s bold; I think it’s compassionate; I think it’s the right direction to head.”

Stark pointed out the rent bank is a loan program and, although there’s no guarantee every dollar will be repaid, there’s a 70% repayment rate and much of the money will come back to the city for use in future.

Mayor Jonathan Cote recognized councillors’ concerns about extending the use of the $1.7-million affordable housing fund and agreed council needs to be involved in any discussion of how that money will be spent.

“We want to give staff the opportunity to be creative with the affordable housing reserve fund and bring forward options to address what I anticipate to be a different type of housing crisis in our community,” he said.  “I think we do recognize that having money sitting in a bank reserve fund right now while people are in crisis is also not tolerable either, so if there’s opportunities we can use this fund effectively to help people in definite need, then I think we want to be given options and that staff have the liberty to be creative and look to those opportunities.”

Cote also suggested the city may want to look at some of the eligibility requirements and the maximums provided by the rent bank, noting $1,000 doesn’t cover a month’s rent in the city these days.

He also said there might also be opportunities to reallocate some city staff to help run the rent bank program as need grows.

For more information on the New Westminster Rent Bank Program and to apply for a loan, go to www.tinyurl.com/NWRentBank. More information on provincial supports for renters and landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic is available at www.tinyurl.com/RentLandlordSupport.

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