Thousands paid rent with Quebec lifeline loan this spring, pointing to bigger problems in fall
MONTREAL -- Hundreds of Quebecers have lost their homes in the pandemic and thousands more seem to be hanging onto them by a thread, according to new figures from the province.
For example, 3,235 Quebecers took advantage of special interest-free loans to help them pay rent in May or June or both.
The pandemic worsened two different paths to potential homelessness, in two different ways, say housing experts.
One group—people who lost income in the pandemic—have taken advantage of new financial lifelines to keep paying rent.
Another group is people who may have kept their income but had a near-impossible time, for logistical reasons, signing a lease during a lockdown. This is partly why the number of Quebecers without homes this summer is sky-high, housing experts say.
Both groups are big, and those are just the people who have been in touch with official aid.
Within the tangle of housing issues, another detail often gets lost. While Montreal gets most of the attention these days for its rental crisis, Quebec City and Sherbrooke have also been hard-hit in the pandemic, according to a provincial housing office.
PAYING RENT WITH A LIFELINE
Quebec’s one-time interest-free housing loan, announced on April 29, gave recipients up to $1,500, paid directly to their landlords to cover May and/or June rent.
That option, however, was cut off after July. As of last week, 3,235 people had applied for it, said said Reginald Cummings, a spokesperson for the Societe d'Habitation du Quebec (SHQ), the province’s housing corporation.
Those people have been on their own since then with rent. Recipients have until August 2021 to pay the province back before interest begins to accrue.
Separately, the province also expanded a longstanding low-income rent support program by 1,800 units, said Cummings.
That program gives rent subsidies to tenants who rent in the regular housing market—private or co-op units—but are eligible for housing support. They pay rent corresponding to 25 per cent of their income, whatever it is.
SCRAMBLING FOR A NEW HOME
Other numbers show a dramatic rise in how many Quebecers were left homeless after Moving Day.
Right now, according to the official tally, 92 households across Quebec—not a huge number at first glance—are still "lodged temporarily, whether at a hotel or with relatives," said Cummings, while housing offices try to help them find something permanent.
But another 436 households lost their homes, were without permanent shelter for a while, and have since found housing "thanks to the concerted work of the housing offices and the SHQ," said Cummings.
The total number has continued to rise since Moving Day, he said—it has gone up by 55 since July 8.
Montreal’s post-Moving Day homelessness problem is much worse than in previous years, said Catherine Lussier of the housing group FRAPRU. There are still 230 households in the greater Montreal area without a home since Moving Day, she said. In Montreal proper, not including suburbs, the number is 183.
Those are at least double the numbers from last year, she said, and it’s alarming to see that they’ve barely budged even though it’s nearly August.
"Last year [the housing offices] had some people that found [leases] around September or October," she said, but "it was just a few of them."
Now it looks likely there will be dozens or even over 100 people still with no place by September.
The pandemic created one last factor to make a perfect storm for these families. With vacancy rates extremely low right now, apartment-hunting often takes the full three months after a tenant gives notice. This time around, visits were banned for most of that period, giving people a much shorter window to find a place.
"They didn’t have the three months they usually have around March," said Lussier.
The scarcest apartments right now are the bigger ones suitable for families.
The province sent emergency assistance for municipalities with a vacancy rate of 2 per cent or less for their own city-run emergency aid for people left without housing, Cummings said.
In yet another funding pool, the province created a COVID-specific grant for people who, because of the pandemic, did have a new place lined up—either property they owned or a newly signed lease—and were unable to move as planned.
There were 995 requests for temporary accommodation under that program, said Cummings.
Applications for housing assistance at the housing corporation are coming mainly from Quebec City, Montreal and Sherbrooke, Cummings said.
OFFICIAL NUMBERS 'TIP OF THE ICEBERG'
Lussier said that what worries her is thinking about all the people who didn’t apply for, or didn’t qualify for, these programs—the big official numbers are an indication that many more people under the radar are also without housing or on the verge of losing theirs.
For example, the more than 3,000 people who got the interest-free loan had to already qualify to receive the federal CERB, which discounted many people who also lost significant income in the pandemic, she said.
"These numbers… represent the tip of the iceberg of people who are in difficulty right now," she said.
This spring, when the Quebec landlords’ association complained that a big portion of tenants have been late or absent with their rent, they said there was no excuse for this because of all the provincial support available.
Eviction hearings just restarted in the last two weeks at the provincial housing board, so it’s not clear yet how many people have been unable to pay rent or make up for late rent in the long term.
But those who have made it work in the short term are also a group to be worried about, Lussier said. Many tenants are cobbling together stopgaps like the short-term loans as a "temporary solution" but those programs have ended or will soon.
Heading into the fall, the COVID-19 "situation doesn’t necessarily seem to be 100 per cent on track," she said, and many people’s jobs don’t appear poised to spring back.
"I think it shows, definitely, how much the housing issue should be a priority for the government, right now more than ever," she said.