Looking up at an apartment building

'Important intervention': UTM researcher explores how rent banks help prevent homelessness

Kristy Strauss

Depending on where they reside, Canadians who can’t make their next rent payment have an option to prevent them from getting evicted: rent banks. 

While rent banks are beginning to appear in communities across Canada, UTM political science associate professor Alison Smith has found that they are a “limited but important intervention” – a service that is not the solution to the housing crisis, but one that is still important for renters who are at risk of eviction. 

Smith is currently exploring the role rent banks can play in efforts to prevent homelessness through her research project, Rent Banks as a Tool of Eviction Prevention: A comparative study of rent banks in Canada and Europe, and recently received a Connaught New Researcher Award to conduct her work for this project.  

In the past, Smith has extensively researched Canadian politics, welfare states, homelessness policies and multilevel governance. 

Alison Smith
Alison Smith

In this new research, she is studying different rent bank programs available to Canadians and speaking with service providers across Canada. She’s collaborating with colleagues from McGill University, as well as service providers and research managers at the Old Brewery Mission emergency shelter in Montreal, to compare programs and service providers in the U.S. and Europe.  

While they still have more work to do, Smith says the team has made a few significant findings so far. 

“Rent banks are an important intervention for the people who it is designed for,” she explains.  

Rent banks are essentially a pool of money available to people who are at risk of eviction for a financial reason. In Ontario, rent banks are usually administered by local governments or nonprofits, who provide funding to the landlord on behalf of the tenant. This funding covers rent arrears or provides an emergency financial support to a household that is suddenly unable to pay their full rent one month, and therefore ensures that a person or household will not be evicted.  

In provinces such as Ontario, these payments may be grants that do not need to be repaid by the tenant, while programs in other provinces, such as Manitoba, provide loans that the tenant must repay. 

Through her research, Smith says that rent banks can help renters who need a month or two to get into a more stable position – whether that’s getting a new roommate, or a higher paying job.  

“If people are evicted, there are a lot of consequences for that, that will follow them for a long time,” Smith says. “In the event that people are being evicted for financial reasons, research shows that there’s a downward trend in housing stability. Especially in this market, somebody is not going to be able to find an equivalent place to live in terms of cost or quality if they are evicted.” 

While rent banks can help tenants in the short-term, Smith is discovering downsides. For example, in some jurisdictions, tenants can only access a rent bank once every two years, which doesn’t help if they run into financial trouble again within that time. 

Smith is also finding that rent banks might be a bandage solution to a larger systemic problem. 

One of the risks of this kind of emergency measure, especially with rapidly rising rents, is that it may take funding away from other measures that would benefit people more long-term — for example, investing in more purpose-built rentals and non-market housing units.  

“I think it’s a real challenge that housing providers and advocates are really confronted with,” says Smith. “They are trying to balance the very real emergency needs and crises that people are living in. They want the current moment to be stable for people, but that is very expensive.” 

Smith says the Connaught New Researcher Award will help her team explore rent banks in Europe, and how they compare to Canada. The annual award supports early-stage researchers and aims to enhance their competitiveness for external awards. In addition to Smith, six UTM researchers have received U of T's latest Connaught New Researcher Awards: 

Ultimately, Smith hopes to use her research to help Old Brewery Mission, the largest emergency shelter and service provider in Quebec, establish a pilot rent bank to help residents. 

“It would be so innovative for an emergency shelter to be working intensively on prevention. It would be an interesting shift,” she says. 

Interior of the Old Brewery Mission homeless shelter
UTM researcher Alison Smith and her collaborators are working with Montreal's Old Brewery Mission emergency shelter and hope to establish a pilot rent bank there. (photo by ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Free event on Canada's homelessness crisis: attend a discussion hosted by UTM Alumni Relations featuring political scientist Alison Smith.  

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024 
7-8 p.m. EST 

Online via Zoom