Haliburton County let down by budget’s lack of focus on rural and low income needs
By Darren Lum
The consensus from local organizations the Echo reached out to for responses about the 2022 federal budget is that it helps, but doesn’t do enough and isn’t focused on those with the greatest need here.
Presented by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday, April 7, the budget is promising more opportunities to buy a house, with a little more than $10 billion for housing-related initiatives, which is a third of all new spending pledged.
This includes the Tax-Free First Home Savings Account that gives first time home buyers under 40 an opportunity to save up to $40,000 tax-free to the purchase of a home, with contributions that will be tax-deductible and any withdrawals made towards a purchase of a first home to not be taxed; First Time Home Buyers’ Tax Credit rises from $750 to $1,500, a Multigenerational Home Renovation Tax Credit, which will provide up to $7,500 in support for constructing a secondary suite, new funding of $1.5 billion over two years to extend he Rapid Housing Initiative, which is expected to create at least 6,000 new affordable housing units, and $4 billion is pledged over five years for the Housing Accelerator Fund, which hopes to help municipalities speed up housing development. It’s expected to create 100,000 new housing units and will cost $4 billion over five years.
The executive director of the Heat Bank Haliburton County Tina Jackson said she acknowledges these pledges will help people, but said they won’t address lower income residents she helps through her organization.
“Obviously, all three [tax-free options] of those are great initiatives. Certainly happy to see there is [an attempt to try]to diversify where new housing stock is coming from and to help folks get into home ownership, but all three of those are entirely geared to moderate and higher income households,” she said.
The Heat Bank, which was started in 2013 as a community initiative to help increase the supply of emergency firewood and heat for vulnerable Highlands residents, is a program of the registered charity, the Central Food Network. The Network now works to introduce services to reduce the impacts of poverty and attempts to help households prevent and overcome heating and hydro emergencies.
Jackson said it’s important to be cognizant of a segment of the population that is being left out.
“So this is definitely leaving out any households that are living in inter-generational poverty, who are going to be unable to meet their current basic needs, let alone start thinking about trying to help their kids save for home ownership. They’re worried about feeding their children … that’s just completely out of touch with their realities,” she said. “And also anybody who’s unable to afford upfront costs for renovations is again left behind.”
She adds when it comes to a refundable tax credit related, it doesn’t help those residents who’s income isn’t high enough. She’s seen an “alarming increase” in households that are experiencing homelessness.
Jackson noted affordable housing target program supervisor with the City of Kawartha Lakes Michelle Corley who presented findings to Haliburton County about the growing numbers of homelessness, accounting for 37 homeless households. This is up from a dozen just two years ago.
“So we’re definitely seeing that in our clients that there’s an increase in people who are hidden homeless. And I think with the continued high home values that we’re seeing … is it’s just really incentivizing landlords and investment buyers to sell right now. So, it’s just really having huge impact on lower income tenants who are completely displaced from the housing market right now. They’re definitely not in a position to purchase, but there’s [not enough] available rental units, let alone affordable rental units,” she said.
Further displacement, she said, is likely to come with greater opportunities for remote work to be performed, which could draw high income earners up to the area to sell their city properties to move up here. This goes beyond just housing displacement, but community displacement, with how there aren’t any options to purchase or to find affordable rental units.
One of the pledges that has the potential to help her clients she serves is the Rapid Housing Initiative.
“Certainly, that’s an investment in affordable housing, which is what we need for lower income households in our community, or at least a part of it,” she said.
However, she recognizes 6,000 units estimated to come from the initiative is not very many for the entire country.
“I really think the challenge is going to be for our local politicians, our local housing staff, our local non-profit housing providers, to call attention to the needs of our community that, yes, I know, they’re screaming about Toronto, but the impact on our community is that we have no homeless shelter here. We are absolutely seeing people displaced from their communities. We need investments here. And we need them yesterday,” she said. “We are long overdue for affordable housing investments in Highlands East, particularly.”
Warden of Haliburton County Liz Danielsen wrote in an email message, specifically referring to the tax credits for housing:
Hearing the federal government’s plans for the upcoming year is always interesting, but doesn’t often have the impact on municipalities that this budget does. One of the biggest issues all levels of government need to address is the housing shortage in all categories from affordable housing on up. The Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus recently reviewed their priorities for the upcoming year and housing was at the top of the list. At the local level both the County and its member municipalities are having staffing challenges given that there are literally no housing units available or they are priced out of candidates’ ability to pay.
Reducing red tape, although somewhat problematic from the municipal standpoint given their greater local knowledge and understanding of each community’s issues, will get projects off the ground much quicker. The emphasis on affordable housing will hopefully help to address the long wait times families in need are facing, and help for first time purchasers in tax credits and one time funding assistance will make a substantial difference for folks in need. As well, support for secondary suites should expand the market offer opportunities over the next few years. Of concern, however, is that the push for housing developments and reduction of red tape could increase the chances of large developments in environmentally sensitive areas. We will have to carefully monitor how programs at both the federal and provincial levels impact growth in the Highlands and respond as needed.”
With a $475 million pledge, the federal government is offering a one-time payment of $500 pledged for those facing housing affordability challenges.
Jackson hopes she can ensure her clients receive this money. However, it isn’t clear about the criteria for eligibility and it really isn’t a lot of money.
“The $500 for our clients is a great deal of money. However, in the grand scheme of things, if you’re spending $3,000 to heat your house. That’s yeah, it’s really just a drop in the bucket of what’s needed,” she said.
Another concern of Jackson’s, is the high rate of energy poverty in the Highlands.
From the Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners (CUSP) web page, Energy poverty refers to the experience of households or communities that struggle to heat and cool their homes and power their lights and appliances. As listed by CUSP, the challenges are discomfort from living in a cold and drafty home, disruptions from abrupt utility shutoffs, having to decide between essentials such as groceries and medication, or to pay energy bills, increased incidence of respiratory illness in children and infants, higher stress and poor mental health outcomes for adults and difficulty participating fully in community life.
Jackson said the Central Food Network started as part of an agreement to meet the country’s call for investments in energy conservation for low income households and the development of a national energy poverty framework.
“And I thought we had seen some traction there and I really was thinking that at the very least we would see the inclusion … language in there and recognize that this is an issue, which was completely absent. So, as we continue to see the rising cost of fuel coupled with what we know that we need to transition away from fossil fuels I really am very worried about leaving behind our lower income homeowners who are going to be completely [left behind]. I mean, one, they’re struggling to afford home heat, let alone trying to upgrade their heating sources to be more inline with what we expect to be made from oil, for instance. And there’s nothing that recognizes that in this budget,” she said.
She adds Canada is far behind Europe, who have discussed the issue and have come up with strategies to resolve the situation.
From the CUSP 2016 national census data, it showed Haliburton County as having one of the highest rates of energy poverty in Canada,” she said.
CUSP’s website said home energy cost burdens is the percentage of total after-tax household income that is spent on home heating and electricity. This is below three per cent for most Canadians, but households that spend double on home energy burdens is considered (for policy reasons) to be experiencing energy poverty. Haliburton has 4,950 households with more than six per cent spent., which included 2,475 households with 31 per cent.
“So, you can have a household that has a higher level of income. They wouldn’t necessarily be deemed as being living in poverty, but, if their energy burden in order to keep the lights on and their home heated are high enough, they actually experience energy poverty without experiencing overall poverty,” she said. “On the flip side, you could have somebody who is living in low income and experiencing poverty, but, if they have affordable housing and they’re heat and hydro are included, they may not experience energy poverty.”
Just a few weeks since the climate strike protest in Haliburton, Environment Haliburton! vice president Terry Moore said he appreciates the budget’s incentives outlined to get more Canadians driving clean zero emission vehicles, however it falls short for him.
“We need so much more than that,” he said. “We need, for example, a massive shift away from individual, individual solutions to the problem. And we can’t zero emission vehicle our way out of this immersive climate emergency, but it is going to be helpful to get people out of internal combustion cars. And to that extent, it’s good. It’s a good initiative. It’s not enough, but it’s there and it’ll be helpful … it could be much more,” he said. “I think that everybody who is concerned with the climate appreciates any action is going to have the impact on driving down carbon pollution. And this will have some impact on that. It’s not a level of ambition, which is going to you know, it’s really at the scale of the crisis that we face, but it is an indication that you know that there are some help with respect to being able to purchase these vehicles and so on. The biggest problem is affordability for people. Many, many people can’t afford to make a switch from fossil fuel or internal combustion engines to zero emission vehicles,” he said.
The budget proposes $1.7 billion over five years, which will extend the Incentives for Zero-Emission Vehicles program until March 2025.
He adds any incentive to assist with purchasing, which can help the environment, is welcomed.
However, any federal program’s effectiveness still depends on a provincial government to be fully implemented.
“Whatever the federal government does, it can only operate within its own jurisdiction unless it gets the active participation of the provinces and in terms of the Ontario playing its role in taking as big as an advantage of the actions on the federal level is concerned is that the Ontario government has a horrible history with respect to climate action, as its getting worse,” he said.
Moore said one of the first things the Ford government did when they came into power was to kill off the subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles.
He notes how B.C. And Quebec, who maintained subsidies now have much higher numbers of electric vehicles.
“So, if we’re trying to encourage people to make a switch off of fossil or internal combustion engines you need a willing partner at the federal level and at the provincial level and to make it really work,” he said.
Dental care for all
The national dental care program, which was made possible by the Liberal-NDP agreement reached recently, will be supported by a pledge of $5.3 billion over five years and $1.7 billion each year after. The program starts this year, providing care to children under 12 and will expand to include Canadians under 18, seniors and people with disabilities in 2023. Full implementation is expected by 2025. Families with incomes of less than $90,000 a year are eligible.
From a prepared statement, the Volunter Dental Outreach founders Lisa and Bill Kerr wrote they’re excited for the prospect of funding to cover dental care services geared to low income earners.
“We have been fighting a losing battle trying to meet the needs of the hundreds and hundreds of patients just in our County who have extreme dental issues,” they wrote. “Since we announced our Volunteer Dental Clinic back in 2011, we have never been in a position to book all the patients who need us immediately and have had a waiting list for the care of one of our volunteer dental professional whether it is a dentist, denturist or dental hygienist which is endless. Patients who have not had access to dental care have extreme need and often require more than 20 hours of appointments each to address their oral health needs. That is a lot of chair time when there are only four to six hour long available appointments in a dentist’s day. COVID-19 protocols have reduced the number of people who can be in an office at one time which has eliminated at least one appointment per day when you factor in the fallow time required to change over a room between patients.”
The VDO is a community dental assistance program, which is comprised of volunteer dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants, who provide expert service and funded by donations.
The Kerrs reserved comment about the national program until more details are released about the administration and, if compensation for dentists would be “reasonable.”
“As it currently stands, there are programs in place for children of low income families (17 and under) and low income seniors, two of the groups targeted by the new funding in the first phases of the program. The reason the current programs are not functioning optimally is because the programs are currently under funded with the impact being that not enough dental offices or dental specialists are accepting patients covered by government funded dental programs. The current funding formulas don’t cover the overhead expenses to operate a clinic and many dental offices refuse to treat patients when it costs them more to pay their staff than they are paid by the government programs.
At VDO, we are constantly receiving calls from patients from all over the province trying to make appointments because they can’t find an office to take them. We are hoping that with the new programs it will be possible for these patients to make appointments at the dental offices of their choice and alleviate the need for our waiting lists. If the new federal budget funding means that the fees for the low income patients will come into line with everyone else then access to care should no longer be an issue and in our opinion these programs will be the solution to a serious gap in our healthcare system,” they wrote.
They continued, “Just because the funding is announced doesn’t mean increased access to care will necessarily follow if the providers are not available to see these people or if the funds are not allocated where they need to go. Until the programs are in place and operating and we have had a chance to evaluate their efficacy Volunteer Dental Outreach will continue as usual to be there for low income residents of Haliburton County with no where else to turn for dental need.”
Jackson said her clients have benefited and continue to benefit from the VDO services, but the national program helps to further services.
“But this really kind of goes a little bit further to further reduce barriers and to standardized dental care for low income households across the country, who may not have access to a volunteer dental clinic in their community. So, that’s very exciting,” she said.