Jojo Murillo has been “freaking out” a lot over the past two weeks. The 35-year-old Toronto resident lost both of his jobs, as a barista and receptionist at a gym, because of the coronavirus pandemic. And this was just after he got an eviction notice.
It turns out the eviction was a mistake. The corporation that owns his building sent him a letter days later, claiming it was the result of “a series of clerical errors." But Murillo says he’s been more stressed in the past few days than he ever has been.
“I got paranoid, anxiety. Oh my god, what am I going to do now? I just spent money on groceries,” he said. “I don’t think I have enough for this month. Either I pay rent, or I eat. I’d rather eat than pay rent.”
So Murillo decided not to pay next month’s $820 rent. He is joining his Parkdale neighbourhood’s Keep Your Rent movement on April 1. The campaign is in tandem with similar efforts by neighbourhoods across North America in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Portland. It calls on all tenants to skip their monthly rent payment in solidarity with people who can’t afford to.
Calls for a government-mandated national rent moratorium increased once it became obvious that emergency money from Ottawa would take weeks, but most rents are due on April 1.
Homeowners and landlords across Canada can defer their mortgage payments for up to six months, but renters are still waiting for an equivalent. That could come from provincial governments, which for now, in Ontario and Quebec, have put a freeze on evictions but offered no break on rent. Nova Scotia and B.C. have said that no one affected by COVID-19 will be evicted.
As an unprecedented number of layoffs and job losses mount, first from workers in industries hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, and now, as a result of government shutdowns in Ontario and Quebec, the need to help the most vulnerable renters has intensified.
Christopher Loose is a spokesperson for Parkdale Organize and the neighbourhood’s Keep Your Rent campaign. The 22-year-old banquet server’s last shift was March 14 and now he’s out of a job. In the past four days, nearly 3,000 people have joined Keep Your Rent Toronto‘s Facebook group but he says the number of people taking part is “much higher.”
“The government has not responded adequately. It’s time to take the power into our own hands as tenants,” Loose said. The goal of the movement is to put pressure on the government, but with the understanding that many people can’t wait.
According to a report released Monday from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), nearly half of Canadian renters live paycheque to paycheque. One in three households don’t have savings to get through two weeks without pay—and that was before the coronavirus became a pandemic.
Toronto activist and restaurateur Jen Agg is one of Keep Your Rent’s most vocal supporters. She owns Grey Gardens, Rhum Corner, and Bar Vendetta, which she closed before the province-wide shutdown, giving away food she had in stock to her staff.
She’s calling on politicians to grant small businesses a rent reprieve for as long as they’re forced to shut down, to give them a fighting chance of getting through the coronavirus crisis.
“Landlords realize how we pay our rent, right? In terms of everyone's moral obligation here, it seems pretty reasonable that restaurateurs and all small businesses shouldn't have to shoulder this burden alone,” she said.
Agg points to the hypocrisy of landlords expecting to get paid during this time of crisis, while they get a free pass on their mortgages. “I'm dumbfounded that landlords would even hope for April's rent at this point—I don't expect to just get free rent but I do expect the government to step in and affect policy that has mortgage relief trickle down to rent relief for all.”
Agg said that without help, the service industry will be “unrecognizable” on the other side of this disaster. She said she would be surprised if half of all restaurants survive if the current situation lasts for six months because of the debt that they’re incurring, while not making much, or any, money.
Parkdale tenant Lindsay (who withheld her last name for fear of retribution from her landlord) says she’s keeping her rent this month even though she can work from home as a marketing coordinator and is getting her full pay.
“The coronavirus pandemic affects a lot of my friends. They are worried and scared,” the 32-year-old said. “If the government is going to drag their heels on this situation and not come up with a plan for renters who are currently out of work, or have had their hours drastically reduced because of COVID-19, it’s up to us to get things in motion.”
Loose says there is strength in numbers and it’s important for people like Lindsay to join the movement. “If people who can pay rent do, then that really makes the most vulnerable populations even more marginalized. It’s important to connect and organize across privilege levels,” he said.
Loose says the Keep Your Rent campaign is a rallying call for all renters, and it has given him a sense of purpose during a time of great uncertainty.
“Before this, I just felt so small and so helpless. What can I do in the face of this massive global pandemic? And realizing, how am I going to pay rent, buy groceries?” he said. “This feels good, like you’re taking back a little bit of that power.”
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