The first of the month is usually a stressful time for Toronto resident Bryan Doherty. But this month has been so bad that the 37-year-old says there’s no way he can make rent. He’s a carpenter by trade who has been “out of work for a bit.” His wife is a teacher whose pay has been reduced because of provincial education strikes. And then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“March has been pretty rough for a lot of people. This is essentially a tipping point,” Doherty said.
Canada’s federal finance minister said Thursday that emergency funds will get to Canadians in need in two to three weeks. But rent is due in 12 days, leaving many renters panicked and increasing calls for a national rent freeze amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Nearly 490,000 people have signed the “Cancel rent and mortgage payments during Covid-19” petition on change.org. It calls on the federal government to respond to COVID-19’s “devastating (effect) on small businesses, gig workers and non-salaried employees.”
The $82 billion aid package announced by Justin Trudeau Wednesday includes waiving interest on student loans for six months as well as support for small business owners like a 10 percent temporary wage subsidy to keep workers on payroll. There is also an emergency care benefit for the 5.7 million people who don’t qualify for Employment Insurance (EI)—gig workers, freelancers, part-timers—who have lost their job or need to take time off because of COVID-19.
But, like EI, these measures only provide a maximum of 55 percent of income. Low-income Canadians will see a supplemented GST credit and the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) will temporarily be boosted to help parents who have to stay home with their kids because of school closures.
Help for low-income renters
According to Marva Burnett, the president of ACORN Canada, an organization for low-income families, more needs to be done to help the most vulnerable renters. “Fifty-three percent of tenants are already living paycheque to paycheque. This crisis will put further pressure on an already difficult situation. Federal measures are a good first step, but there will be gaps between what the stimulus package covers and what people need,” she said.
ACORN wants Ottawa to implement a national rent freeze as well as a temporary rent-free period for the poorest 50 percent of tenants. Burnett says this needs to cover people who have the novel coronavirus, are self-isolating, or recovering.
At the provincial level, very little has been offered specifically for renters. Ontario put a freeze on new eviction orders until further notice. Quebec is suspending most eviction hearings until March 23. British Columbia is looking into an eviction moratorium. In an email to Global News, a spokesperson for the government of Manitoba suggested tenants get in touch with their landlord directly to try to work out a payment plan.
There is help for homeowners across the country. Canada’s six largest banks will allow mortgage payment deferrals for up to six months to help customers struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sarah Dillon is the owner of Empire Espresso, a coffee shop in Toronto which she decided to close shortly before the Ontario government mandated a shutdown. She’s both a commercial and home renter.
“The fact that there is a freeze on mortgage payments allows homeowners and property owners and landlords to accumulate rent from us, while they incur no fees or interest. It’s discriminatory towards the working class, towards small businesses,” she said.
Her small coffee shop doesn’t do online sales so she and her staff of three people are out of work. “Two weeks of sales from the shop is barely enough to cover costs and bills, and definitely not enough to make rent at the end of the month,” she said. “A rent freeze would allow me to at least get through the month and see a possibility of surviving this.”
A lifeline for small businesses
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said that half of the country’s small businesses have already seen a big drop in sales. According to CFIB’s estimates, one in four small companies like Dillon’s, would not be able to survive for more than a month with a drop in income of more than 50 percent.
Julian Morana co-owns Bar Volo and Birreria Volo, two higher-end Toronto restaurants serving craft beer and snacks, with his brother. They have a staff of about 20 people. He says he saw a decline in business every week leading up to the government-mandated shutdown. He says a rent freeze is needed because even after he’s allowed to open again, it won’t be business as usual. He expects “drastic changes” including limits on how many people can be allowed at a time.
“If my restaurant has a capacity of 100, it may be dropped to 50. Add table distancing measures, it could be dropped to 25. That means our average customer bill would have to be triple or even quadruple for us to sustain business as usual. Capacity drops also mean less employees, many workers will be laid off. There are so many other possibilities, it's scary,” Morana said.
Doherty says he’s not counting on politicians to make the call. He’s encouraging his neighbours and anyone who is having financial trouble, to withhold this month’s rent.
“We should come together and take care of each other. I’m worried about tens of thousands of my neighbours and it either being impossible for them to make rent or dangerous for them to give away that much money under these circumstances,” he said.
“There’s no shame in not paying rent now and we shouldn’t necessarily wait for consent from the politicians or the landlords.”
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