TORONTO — Bryan Doherty knew many tenants wouldn’t be able to pay their rent as the beginning of April approached.
As Canadians lost their income or jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some renters were told to come to an understanding about their rent with what would hopefully be a compassionate landlord as they waited for federal benefits to kick in. But the renters rights supporter says many tenants haven’t had that option.
“I think a lot of tenants in the city, through their experience with both the unreliability of politician’s promises and lack of compassion that they had already received from landlords, kind of knew that things were going to not be good, that best case scenarios were not the likely scenarios come April 1st,” Doherty told HuffPost Canada.
A carpenter, Doherty said the jobs he had lined up for this time of year have all evaporated — and he doesn’t feel it’s safe to go out and work right now anyway. Doherty, who lives in Parkdale, is a member of Keep Your Rent Toronto, a group organizing and offering support to renters.
Doherty didn’t pay his April rent, and said he sees no way he’ll be paying it for May. “What needs to happen is landlords need to back off, especially bigger corporate landlords. They need to take the hit on this one,” he said.
“They’ve been making money hand over fist for years, across the city — like, they can take a hit on a few months of rent not coming in from tenants who have f**king lost their jobs during a global pandemic. It’s not an act of charity, it’s just a reasonable thing.”
He noted even if a tenant gets approved for the CERB, their monthly benefit may be the total amount of their rent cost — meaning if they use it to pay rent, they’re not left with any money for food or other necessities.
Doherty said he is most concerned for neighbours and people in his community whom he thinks could be “pressured, intimidated or scammed into paying with money that they really need for other things.”
In April, about 75 per cent of Canadian tenants paid their rent in full, and another 10 per cent paid it in part, according to CIBC’s deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal. The data includes information from both larger, corporate landlords and smaller, mom-and-pop ones, Tal said.
Experts agree that the situation is going to be much worse come May, when renters’ savings may be running thin and people are continuing to be laid off. Some Canadians are falling through the cracks of federal COVID-19 emergency assistance, and some renters have already been given eviction notices.
A March report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that almost half of Canadian renters don’t have enough savings to pay their bills for longer than a month if they lose their jobs.
The Ontario government’s website on renting during the COVID-19 crisis suggests tenants contact their local service manager, apply for emergency assistance or access federal government programs.
In B.C., renters are eligible for an up-to-$500-per-month benefit if their employment has been affected during the pandemic.
WATCH: Doug Ford tells Ontario residents to prioritize food over rent during the pandemic. Story continues below
The major Canadian banks are allowing people to defer mortgage payments for up to six months, and the federal government has introduced the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program to give small businesses relief. Although housing is more of a provincial or local issue, advocates want to see the feds step in with funding.
The lack of measures for renters shows where the government’s priorities are, said Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA).
Dent noted that the federal government waived rent until the end of the year for airports.
“Unfortunately, they did that [only] for airports,” he said. “They haven’t done anything for renters.”
The federal government “will continue to look at all options possible to boost funding for Canadians and renters in need of assistance during this unprecedented time,” a spokesperson for the office of the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development told HuffPost in a statement.
The government also expects any housing provider who has received funding or mortgage loan insurance from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation “to act compassionately and refrain from evicting their fellow Canadians.”
“This includes landlords with CMHC-insured mortgages, who make up a very large segment of the market,” the spokesperson said.
The FMTA has been in discussions with the City of Toronto, but not any provincial or federal actors, Dent said, adding he doesn’t know of any other groups that have been in contact with higher levels of government on this issue.
“Ministry staff have also received and responded to hundreds of letters from the public, and both landlord and tenant organizations, regarding various rental housing issues,” a spokesperson from the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told HuffPost in an email.
The FMTA, along with other organizations, sent a petition with more than 800,000 signatures to the government, asking for a national eviction ban or other funding or support for renters.
“[We] want them to [introduce financial support for renters] not just out of a sense of justice or a sense of decency, but it’s a pandemic — you don’t want a bunch of people having to move or get evicted either now or six months from now,” Dent said.
In addition to financial support, the organization is asking for a crackdown on illegal evictions, measures to help people experiencing homelessness so they can self-isolate, and for landlords to follow standard cleaning guidelines to reduce the spread of the virus.
“There’s been a universal understanding [that] it’s going to be even worse for May.”
Dent said he’s been getting emails from tenants who have been given eviction notices who think they have to move immediately, even though receiving a notice of eviction is not the same as being ordered by the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) — currently shut down in many provinces — to leave. He notes that renters moving during a pandemic amounts to “a public health disaster.”
He recounts one call from a renter in Scarborough, Ont. whose landlord said that if the tenant didn’t pay by April 30, they’d change the locks. That tenant has been staying home, having a friend deliver groceries, in fear that their locks could be changed the moment they leave, he said.
Dent also said he’s seen a spike in evictions where the renter is in a more unique situation and isn’t covered by the law, such as if they’re renting from another renter, or sharing a common facility with their landlord.
“As bad as that is for April, and as much horror and nightmare scenarios [as] we’ve been seeing, pretty much there’s been a universal understanding [that] it’s going to be even worse for May.”
Not all landlords are being inflexible about rent payments.
“We’re happy to hear that many landlords are working with their tenants,” the provincial ministry spokesperson said. The statement said the ministry has heard “encouraging news” from several corporations that have given notices saying they will work with tenants who can’t pay rent.
Doherty lives in a Parkdale building managed by MetCap Living, one of the companies directly named by the ministry as working with its tenants. He said MetCap’s paper notices include a link to apply for the CERB, and information for a hotline to discuss case-by-case repayment plans.
But he said even when some tenants call the hotline, they’re not given adequate support — for example, a tenant who called asking that their rent not be withdrawn from their account through direct deposit found that it was taken out anyway, he said.
MetCap has not responded to a request for comment.
‘Tenants are in a very powerful position’
With courts closed, Toronto-based paralegal Harry Fine thought he’d be in for a quiet time — but instead, he found that he’s “never been so busy.”
Fine, a former adjudicator on the LTB, has been fielding calls from tenants and landlords, and doing lots of online consultations.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen” as Canadians continue to lose their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and renters struggle to make payments, Fine said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at a March press conference that no one would be evicted during the pandemic. Although several provinces like Ontario have halted evictions and eviction hearings, landlords can still serve an eviction notice.
“What [Ford] didn’t say is, ‘Look, at some point, you’re gonna have to pay your rent,’” Fine said, adding that many tenants might assume that they don’t have to pay even if they can afford to.
Fine said from his conversations with small landlords, he believes at least half aren’t getting rent payments. “I think May 1 could be worse [than April],” he said. “And the government has to do something.”
When a landlord tells Fine they didn’t receive a payment in April, he tells them to try to work with the tenant and if it’s a good tenancy, forgive a month of rent and then defer after that. He also says landlords should inform their tenants that they’re starting the eviction process by serving an N4 notice, which is a notice for early termination of a tenancy due to non-payment of rent.
“I think May 1 could be worse [than April]”
Fine gives tenants similar advice, to try to come to an agreement with their landlord about deferring their rent, while also realizing that their landlord likely still has to pay their mortgage, taxes and maintenance fees. Some landlords have also found that their investment properties don’t qualify to be deferred under the federal governments’ initiative.
But overall, with the LTB closed, “landlords are in a very weak position and tenants are in a very powerful position,” Fine said. “If a tenant stops paying his rent or her rent, it could be a year before that tenant is evicted” because of anticipated delays in the LTB once it resumes hearings.
Fine said he’d like to see the provincial government, possibly with funding from the federal level, set up a rent bank to give payment directly to landlords. The larger landlords can deal with this, Fine said — “but the small landlord who owns one property has been completely abandoned.”