Two of the provinces hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic have banned residential tenant evictions until the crisis ends, but with no promises about what will come afterward, tenants, landlords and activists face bureaucratic chaos, gridlock and potential mass evictions.
“The reality is there is going to be a lot of people who aren’t able to pay their rent on April 1,” said Kenneth Hale, Director of Legal Services for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, which provides legal advice to renters.
“When the crisis is over, how is this going to be straightened out?" Mr. Hale asked. "What has happened so far, putting human need first, is a good place to start.”
As of March 17, Ontario placed a moratorium on eviction hearings and enforcement in order to keep renters from being made homeless during the pandemic. On Wednesday night, British Columbia also banned evictions until the crisis has passed, and went further: offering $500 a month in rental support to be paid directly to landlords starting on April 1.
In Ontario, landlords and government officials are telling tenants that the eviction ban is not the same thing as a moratorium on rent.
“It’s important to be clear that tenants must still pay rent as they normally would, to the best of their abilities,” said Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman Rachel Widakdo. “We encourage tenants that are having challenges paying rent due to COVID-19 to speak with their landlords about possible deferral of rent payment or agreeing to other payment arrangements.”
“I’m an out of work carpenter right now, I will not be able or willing to pay my rent,” said Bryan Doherty, a member of Parkdale Organize and a Toronto spokesperson for the “Keep Your Rent” movement that has gathered force across Canada and the United States. Tenant advocates have zeroed in on an ambiguity in the government’s statements: What if “the best of your ability” isn’t enough?
“There’s no indication from the province, the feds or the city that anyone is safe from evictions” once the moratorium is lifted, Mr. Doherty said.
“We are not advising [anybody] to not pay their rent; that would be irresponsible," said Alejandra Ruiz-Vargas, a member of ACORN Canada (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), an activist organization for low and moderate-income families. “We are asking the government to do as they did in France and Italy [which have suspended some rent, mortgage and utility payments]."
"People need a break; this is life and death,” Ms. Ruiz-Vargas said. ACORN has 130,000 members across the country.
“I’m talking to a lot of tenants going between getting a loan to pay rent and getting a loan to pay for food,” said Geordie Dent, Executive Director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations in Toronto. His group wants to see all residential rent payments cancelled on April 1, and has gathered more than 18,000 signatures on a petition since last weekend.
“That kind of stimulus is the best kind of stimulus: a consumer-spending stimulus," Mr. Dent said. "And if you don’t do this, what do you think the courts are going to look like in six months? It’s going to be chaos.”
Harry Fine, a paralegal and former adjudicator with Ontario’s Landlord Tenant Board (LTB), thinks a government-funded rent bank, where landlords could claim some assistance for skipped payments, would provide vital help. Otherwise, tribunals that rule on renter issues will be overwhelmed by eviction applications after the pandemic, he said.
“Let’s say rent applications [the first step in obtaining an eviction order] are 80 per cent of the LTB’s bread and butter," Mr. Fine said. "That’s about 75,000 applications per year.”
“Imagine this movement gets 150,000 people to withhold rent. That triples the number of ... rent applications to the LTB," he said. “The current LTB delay is averaging about four months from the time you file for a hearing [to] the hearing itself. If the LTB shutdown is two months, that brings the average time to six months.”
“It could easily take two years to have my rent application heard, maybe more,” Mr. Fine added. "There is no way in the world – without tripling the number of adjudicators – that the LTB could handle this.”
Those kind of delays could be also be crushing for smaller landlords. Many of them are still required to make mortgage payments. Renters and landlords agree that provincial and federal officials need to be clearer about how impending clashes will be resolved.
“I just want to know what my rights are. What I can say to my tenants that’s going to be honest and legal,” Jacqui Snyder, who rents out a triplex in Toronto and lives in Collingwood, Ont., where she operates Adventourus, a travel agency focused on active lifestyles.
Ms. Snyder says one of her three tenants, a costume designer who has seen her work disappear, has warned she cannot pay her rent on April 1. She suggested Ms. Snyder apply for a mortgage deferral.
Their last conversation about the matter turned into a shouting match, Ms. Snyder said, and her tenant accused her of being greedy. “I don’t intend to evict anybody," Ms. Snyder said. “She’s a victim of the circumstances.”
“But the point of [a] mortgage moratorium is not to give tenants free rent,” Ms. Snyder added. "When she hears that from me … she thinks I’m being dishonest to her. I would like somebody to state the truth of what the matter is.”
Even B.C.'s plan, the most generous in the country, is silent on what landlords can do to recoup losses after the pandemic.
“Some landlords are going to have to accept they are not going to get 100 cents on the dollar," Mr. Hale said. Even some of the biggest commercial tenants in North America are negotiating rent cuts.
Whatever happens next, Mr. Hale thinks renters need to be heard and not simply told to pay up. “The tenant voice and consumer voice needs to be part of those conversations – so it isn’t just government and business making decisions for everybody,” he said.