Food insecurity, affordable housing, and ‘freedom from want’

By Jamie Morris

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want is one of the best-known of all American paintings. You might not know it by its title, but you would recognize it. An extended family is gathered around a table at Thanksgiving.

Food on the table. A roof over your head. Basic human needs.

At the most recent Committee of the Whole, councillors and city staff heard presentations on how we’re addressing those basic needs.

Hard to imagine individuals better qualified to provide a briefing: Aisha Malik, Chair of the Food Security Working Group and Public Health Dietitian with the Health Unit joined Heather Kirby, Chair of the KL Food Coalition and General Manager of the KL Food source to address food insecurity. The presenter on affordable housing was Hope Lee, the City’s Manager of Housing.

Both presentations painted a clear picture of the current situation, of what’s being done and of what should be done in the future. Both deserve a wider audience.

Food Insecurity

Malik and Kirby’s presentation began by introducing what should be the goal — ensuring all residents are food secure, defined as having “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs and food preferences for an an active and healthy life.”

Speaking just a week after the announcement that a third food bank in Lindsay was opening, the pair shared some saddening statistics: 1 in 10 individuals in CKL experience food insecurity; 35% of food bank clients are children.

For those on social assistance, eating well is an enormous challenge and reliance on food banks is a fact-of-life.

In a set of scenarios the presenters shared the math. In 2017 the Health Unit carried out a “Nutritious Food Basket Costing.” For a single person the cost for healthy food for a month was $283; a single person on OW (Ontario Works) receives $706 in total. Over a third of the income would have to go to food, and that would leave just $423 for everything else, including rent.  (The average market rent, without heat or hydro, is $860).

But having a job, they pointed out, is no guarantee of food security. One slide stated “Fifty-eight percent of Ontario families who struggle to put food on the table are in low-paying, unstable jobs.” The current minimum wage is $14 an hour; in November, 2018, Living Wage Ontario calculated that a living wage for Kawartha Lakes is $18.42, third highest in the province.

The causes of food insecurity? There were a number of bullet points that could be summarized with a single word: poverty. Low income and the competing demands of unaffordable housing, childcare, and transportation mean not enough money for food.

How food insecurity is being addressed and how it should be addressed turn out to be two different questions.

Right now it takes the form of a patchwork of emergency and short-term relief efforts by good-hearted and hardworking local organizations and individuals. Food banks, soup kitchens, the Plant a Row Grow a Row program, United Way’s community garden ventures, and the Summer Outreach Program pilot in Lindsay, all fall into this category.

There are also programs aimed at “building capacity” through workshops on growing vegetables and a Community Kitchen Program for food bank clients in Woodville, Omemee, and Fenelon Falls.

But if there was one key takeaway from the presentation it was this: the only sustainable solution to food insecurity is eliminating poverty.

What council was asked to do is to act locally by supporting local food security initiatives.

What we should all be doing, though, is advocating to provincial and federal government to provide income guarantees, higher social assistance rates, a minimum wage that reflects cost of living, and to ensure affordable housing, childcare and transportation.

Affordable Housing

March began with some good housing news on chronic homelessness (homelessness for six months within the last year). In a news release, the City announced that Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton had been recognized for reducing levels  by 51% since August, 2018 and being on target to reach “functional zero,” which would mean three or fewer people experiencing chronic homelessness over three consecutive months.

That was the housing good news.  But it was clear from Hope Lee’s update on the waiting list for financially assisted housing and her update on establishing targets for additional affordable housing that we’re experiencing significant stresses and unmet housing demands in Kawartha Lakes.

Though housing is a provincial matter, the City of Kawartha Lakes is “Service Manager” for housing and homelessness for an area that includes both CKL and the County of Haliburton. As such, it’s responsible for administering a centralized waiting list for rent geared to income units provided by such organizations as KLH Housing Corp and Neighbourhood Housing in Lindsay, and Village Housing.

There are a number of programs including Rent Geared to Income, Rent Supplement, Affordable Housing, Housing Allowance, and a Portable Housing Benefit that can be used in the private market.

To be eligible, applicants must have an income at or below designated household income limits that range from $24,500 for a bachelor apartment and $31,000 for a one-bedroom apartment to $54,000 for a four bedroom. Eligible applicants are put onto a waiting list.

That waiting list has mushroomed: there’s been a 375% increase since 2013. Currently almost 1,700 unique households are on the list. The greatest demand in Lindsay is for bachelor and 1 bedroom apartments.

Households applying today, given the current situation, may need to wait as long as seven years; the slowly increasing supply is not keeping up with the demand.

Of those applying, 80 per cent are local to Kawartha Lakes or the County of Haliburton. There are a broad range of reasons for applying — unaffordable rents, perforce living with friends and/or family, and planning for the future among them.

In May, Lee’s department will be bringing to council a report recommending affordable housing rental targets. (As Lee explained in her presentation, “affordable” means accommodation costs or rent that doesn’t exceed 30 per cent of gross annual household income).

She outlined three options for the rental targets, labelled Catch Up, Moving Forward, and Ideal.

Catch up would mean maintaining current levels, ensuring things don’t get any worse. Moving Forward would set as a goal “considerable gains” in addressing housing needs. “Ideal” means all housing needs are met.

Whatever they choose will show us where Council’s priorities lie and how strong their commitment is to those in need of adequate and affordable housing.

The Prospect Darkens

Just a week after the presentations to council on affordable housing and food insecurity, close to 2,000 here in Lindsay received their final Basic Income benefits and will have to make do with much less. A number of them will be thrown back on OW (Ontario Works) or ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program).

Those vulnerable individuals will be struggling. Nicole Bryant, Manager of Hostel and Outreach Services at A Place Called Home, predicts that it might be three months before the full effect is felt for those who were enabled by Basic Income to move from, say, a rooming house to a one-bedroom apartment. “They have money for this month, and last month’s rent is covered,” she explains, “But they won’t be able to afford rent the month after that and will be evicted.”

The effects will ripple out across the community since money that would have flowed back into our community has been lost.

All the more reason to advocate for the system changes that would give all of us what we all want and need: food on the table and a roof over our heads.

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