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  • Writer's pictureHunter Cresswell

Down and out in Low

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

Seniors on government assistance don’t qualify for low income housing

The seniors who helped build the community of Low are now being left to live alone or move out of the area in search of affordable rentals — all because of a rule that doesn’t allow them to apply to live in local subsidized housing.

“I’m the one who has to be in the office and tell people, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t accept your application.’ Seniors have built this community, it’s a slap in the face,” Denholm resident Colette Canavan said. “Often they’re isolated in the country and can’t look after where they’re living.”

Canavan helped found the Paugan Falls Residence board of directors in 1988 and served as the residence’s director general for 25 years until her retirement in December 2020. The non-profit board owns and administers the nine-unit residence on Chemin Principal in Low, which opened in 1992.

Some seniors getting government assistance can’t apply to live in Paugan Falls Residence in Low because of the benefits they receive. Low Down file photo
Some seniors getting government assistance can’t apply to live in Paugan Falls Residence in Low because of the benefits they receive. Low Down file photo

Seniors who earn over $21,000 a year can’t apply to live in the residence according to rules set out by the Société d’habitation du Québec (SHQ) and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

The issue is that often – especially for couples, whose combined yearly income must still be under $21,000 to qualify – seniors earn over that income cap because of their pensions and guaranteed income supplements.

Despite being retired from the residence board, Canavan is still lobbying to get this rule changed, as she has been doing for years. In 2016, following three trips to lobby in Quebec City, Canavan and the board successfully got the SHQ and the CMHC to change its rules. Seniors, who earn over $21,000 yearly because they get full guaranteed income supplements, are able to apply to live in the Paugan Falls Residence.

Now they’re working to do the same thing for people who receive partial guaranteed income supplements.

“If [couples] get partial supplements, they’re going to have more than $21,000,” Canavan said.

The average pension pays out about $600 a month. People must apply to receive guaranteed income supplements, which is based on their income. The more income, the less supplement they receive.

For example, one person earning a pension and full income supplements receives $18,505 a year and a couple with pensions and full supplements receives $28,187 a year: both would qualify to apply to live in the Paugan Falls Residence because they get full supplements. But if that couple gets anything less than full supplements, but still earns over $21,000, they don’t qualify to apply.

“We’ve refused seniors who make over $21,000 and had to reduce our minimum age limit [from 65] to 50, which is against [the board’s] charter,” Canavan said.

Besides allowing people who earn any general income supplements – full or partial – to apply, Canavan and the board would also like to see CMHC change the yearly income cap.

“The $21,000 is a ridiculous amount,” she said.

The SHQ comes up with that number based on local rental rates, but Canavan said it’s not realistic to expect anyone in Low to be able to afford rent, utilities, groceries, and other basic living expenses on just $21,000.

“This is a problem in all the province and probably across Canada,” she said.

Low income housing in rural municipalities across Quebec have the same $21,000 yearly income cap, according to the SHQ website.

Canavan said she’s reached out to the SHQ, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – which reviews and approves income rates each year along with SHQ – and provincial and federal ministers responsible for these departments and files.

“Both sides told me that there’s basically nothing they can do because they have to work with the criteria given. They’re passing the buck,” Canavan said.

CMHC senior media relations officer Audrey-Anne Coulombe said that questions about the program and eligibility would best be answered by the SHQ.

“A representative of Paugan Falls Residence has been in touch with CMHC regarding income eligibility and the process of establishment of the thresholds. It is important to note that the SHQ holds the lead role in the administration of the housing program at Paugan Falls,” she wrote in a May 21 email to The Low Down.

The SHQ didn’t respond to a request for comment and Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière declined to comment.

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