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Corner Brook seniors hit with extra bill in cottages run by health board

Corner Brook seniors hit with extra bill in cottages run by health board

Some Corner Brook seniors in Western Health housing say it’s unfair that their landlord is forcing them to take on another bill.

The seniors live in cottages owned and operated by the the health authority as affordable housing. Until recently, the cost of heat and light has been included in their rent.

But they were told earlier this year they would have to become customers of Newfoundland Power, with bills coming directly to them.

“It’s overwhelming to me, because the winter is coming … and it’s going to be a lot colder,” said Sarah Gale, an 88-year-old woman who’s been living in the same cottage for the past 16 years.

To help with the transition, Western Health lowered rental fees by an amount the authority estimates to be equal to what the seniors, on average, will have to pay for electricity.

One more bill

The change applies to all tenants of Western Health, in more than 180 cottages in Corner Brook, Stephenville Crossing, and Port aux Basques.

Gale said the change for her came in August, and the past two bills have been about $30 per month.

But she thinks it will be a different story this winter, and she worries about how she’ll pay.

With a combined income of about $1,000 per month from her workplace pension plan, Canada Pension and Old Age Security, Gale said there’s not much left over after expenses.

She said being told she now has one more bill to pay was unwelcome news.

“I wasn’t very well pleased because, when I came here, I just thought, ‘Well, this is forever, until I pass,’ but not so,” said Gale.

Some cottages harder to heat

Gale’s neighbour, Mitt Sheppard, said it’s not only unfair to change the rules for seniors on a fixed income but, he says, electricity usage for some cottage tenants will be higher than for others through no fault of their own.

“Some of those apartments are a lot harder to heat,” said Sheppard.

“If you’re in one two-storey apartment, you’re on the lower floor, the heat is going up and warming the apartment above them. And if they’re in the middle of the building, their electricity is considerably less.”

Sheppard said the variation from cottage to cottage means having heat and light included made the most sense.

Mitt Sheppard says it’s unfair for tenants of Western Health‘s seniorscottages to have to pay for their own electricity. He says some cottages are harder to heat than others, so some tenants will end up with higher electricity bills. (Bernice Hillier/CBC) Hard blow to a senior

Sheppard, 76, and his wife have lived in their cottage for eight years. He said they are thankful to have a comfortable and affordable place to live, but he questions this latest policy change.

People in the cottages live independently, but help is provided with maintenance, lawn mowing, and snow clearing.

Monthly rent before utilities is between $460 and $550, according to the Western Health website.

When he found out about the switch to a separate electricity bill, Sheppard said he contacted Newfoundland Power to average out the cost for him. When all is said and done, even with a reduction in his rent, Sheppard said he’s now paying about $170 more on average per month for rent and electricity than he was a few years ago.

Sheppard is independent and still drives his own vehicle, but he said getting another car may be out of the question now.

“Three years ago, I bought a used vehicle, and my payments were $150 a month. I was thinking about trading in on another used vehicle. But that $150 a month is more than consumed now in our hydro bill,” said Sheppard.

Gale doesn’t like the idea of having an extra monthly bill on top of her other expenses. (Bernice Hillier/CBC) Save by cutting back on cuts

Meanwhile, Gale has been brainstorming ways to save enough money to pay an extra bill. The only area she’s identified in her budget is foot care and hair cuts.

“It means that I can’t have a girl come in to do my nails. And then again I’ve got to let my hair grow longer. I can’t afford to go and pay 23, 24 dollars a month to get my hair cut. That’s going to be gone,” said Gale.

Gale and Sheppard also mention the rising cost of groceries as another factor out of their control, which makes it hard to budget.

Both would like to see Western Health go back to including heat and light within their rent bill.

“Let them pay for our hydro, like we always did,” said Gale.

No going back

Western Health says the change to separate electricity bills for its tenants is permanent, and that there is no connection to anticipated higher electricity costs as a result of power from Muskrat Falls coming online.

Chris Squire, regional director of financial services, said most tenants in affordable housing pay for electricity separate from their rent, so this is an effort to streamline operations and bring the cottages across the Western Health region in line with the norm.

Chris Squire, Western Health‘s regional director of financial services, says the change is bring the cottages in line with what’s done at its properties. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

Squire said the change is not a cost-saving measure for Western Health, as tenants‘ rents have been reduced at the same time, and the health authority has committed to no further rent increases until April 2021.

“I’m not sure that any rental agreement is going to maintain rates forever,” he said.

Squire agreed that some cottage units may cost more to heat than others, so there could be some tenants with higher electricity bills.

“We certainly understand the difficulty of managing on a fixed income,” he said.

Squire said government subsidies are available that could help mitigate the extra cost to seniors over and above what they’re used to paying. And while Western Health can’t apply for the subsidies on behalf of tenants, he said, by switching over to direct-paying customers, they can apply for the subsidies themselves. Squire said some seniors may actually have lower rent plus electricity costs once the subsidies are factored in.

If any tenant faces financial difficulties as a result of the change in billing, Squire said, they should contact the health authority to discuss it and to ensure that the senior is tapping into all available subsidies.

No choice in the matter

Sheppard said he considers the switch to separate bills a sneaky way for the health authority to go about things.

“They possibly didn’t want to increase our rent again, so their way out was to get us to pay for electricity, which they knew was a considerable amount,” said Sheppard.

“And we had no other choice.”

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