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Hydro, rent aid for poor `inadequate'

MPP Churley says for each $20 extra paid, aid is $1 Minister says
$2 million subsidy may need top-up

Toronto Star - March 30, 2004
by Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan — Queens' Park Bureau

A plan to help low-income Ontarians pay their rent and their hydro bills was described as woefully inadequate yesterday by advocates for the poor.

The Ontario Liberal government announced $12 million will go to municipalities to help tenants pay rent arrears due to unforeseen circumstance, and for those who cannot keep up with higher hydro prices when rates increase April 1.

Of that money, $2 million has been set aside for hydro bills, a move Community and Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello said is a starting point to ensure tenants facing hikes in hydro bills have somewhere to turn in the coming months. She said the fund may grow if tenants increasingly fall behind on their energy bills.

"We're going to see what happens with hydro prices to see if they may, in fact, need more help," she said, adding that the government is negotiating with utility companies to come up with a fair set of reconnection fees, security deposits and other extra costs poorer people are subjected to most often.

On April 1, hydro rates will rise from 4.3 to 4.7 cents a kilowatt hour on the first 750 kilowatt hours a household uses in a month. Additional power will cost consumers 5.5 cents a kilowatt hour.

The McGuinty government announced the higher rates in November, saying the province could no longer subsidize artificially low rates at a cost of almost $800 million a year. Energy Minister Dwight Duncan said at the time the poor would be helped with their higher bills.

Hydro bills are expected to rise between 6 per cent and 10 per cent across Ontario.

NDP critic Marilyn Churley (Toronto-Danforth) said the government should have responded to higher prices for basic services by increasing social assistance and disabled benefits.

"They're only getting $1 back for every $20 low-income people are paying in increases," she said, referring to the government estimate of the amount of help and how hydro hikes will affect a 600-square-foot apartment.

"We will see more homeless people, more hungry children and more seniors lining up at food banks," she said. "This is totally inadequate."

Others also questioned the amount needed to keep the poor from losing their homes or having essential utilities cut off, especially since a disproportionate amount of low-income housing has electric heat.

"It is an important first step ... but the actual amount of assistance is a concern for us," said Edward de Gale, executive director of Share the Warmth, which buys emergency heat and energy for vulnerable households to prevent homelessness.

The Low-Income Energy Network (LIEN) of advocates and environmentalists held the news conference to warn that $4 million to $6 million would be needed to help those barely making ends meet now.

"Ontario's lowest-income households are three times more likely than high-income earners to use electric heat ... (which) means an increase of more than $200 annually for electricity, which can have serious consequences for those struggling to remain in their homes," de Gale said.

Keith Stewart of the Toronto Environmental Alliance said the additional energy costs will take at least $40 million out of low-income households.

"One-time assistance isn't going to fix the problem. No one should lose their home or skip meals or medication because of a series of provincial governments have dropped the ball on the electricity file," he said.

Stewart called for an energy conservation program, which he said would have direct impact on low-income housing.

"There are examples of low-income support and targeted energy conservation programs right across America that we can learn from," he said.

Mary Pappert, of Renters Educating and Networking Together (RENT) of Kitchener-Waterloo, said her organization repeatedly encounters seniors, low-income families and special-needs tenants "who are living on the financial edge."

"Many renters pay their own hydro and significant increases in these costs will further erode their quality of life," she said.

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