A single mother whose public housing unit was badly damaged in a fire is sounding the alarm about the lack of affordable tenant insurance for low-income families.

Dristine Henderson-Urquhart says she was deep-frying chicken nuggets in her Halifax apartment last fall when the pan caught fire. She tried to get the fire extinguisher from the hallway, but couldn’t get past the glass.

Panicked, she set the flaming pan on the kitchen floor, setting off the sprinkler overhead.

The repairs were costly, leaving Henderson-Urquhart on the hook for half of the damages, at $21,000.

With a monthly income just over $500, she says tenant insurance simply wasn’t an option, and neither is paying the hefty bill for the damage.

“If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t be living in Metro Housing, and my rent here is only $183 a month,” says Henderson-Urquhart, who has a six-year-old and a baby on the way.

Many landlords encourage tenants to purchase tenant insurance, and some even require it.

Jamie Vigliarolo, the director of the Metro Regional Housing Authority, says tenant insurance isn’t mandatory, acknowledging most residents don’t have any money to spare, but it is encouraged.

“What we advise our residents at the time of the lease signing is that it’s their responsibility to have their own tenant insurance,” he says.

The final decision on who pays for what rests with the tenancy board, but Vigliarolo says the housing authority is happy with work with residents to come up with a payment plan.

“The point is to work with the client and to come to a mutual understanding and arrangement based on the clients’ abilities and our needs,” he says.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada says Henderson-Urquhart’s case is a good example of why tenant insurance is important, and notes there are plans available for a few dollars a week.

But that’s little comfort Dristine Henderson-Urquhart , who says every dollar of her income is spoken for, and points out that even $20 a month is a lot of money when you’re struggling to feed your family.

“I do have to still supplement with food banks and outreach services and things like that,” she says.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Bruce Frisko