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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, seen here in Edmonton on March 20, 2020, said he’s concerned by stories from tenants who say they can’t benefit from the program because their landlords have not opted in.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is considering banning commercial evictions in cases where landlords have refused to participate in the federal rent-relief program.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he’s concerned by stories from tenants who say they can’t benefit from a program designed to cut their rents by 75 per cent because their landlords have not opted in.

“I think a commercial landlord would have to be darn-near brain dead to evict a viable commercial tenant during this crisis, because there’s just nobody stepping up to fill empty storefronts," he said Wednesday.

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“I can’t imagine how that makes any business sense to evict commercial tenants.”

British Columbia imposed a ban earlier this week on commercial evictions by landlords who have not applied for rent relief. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have also passed similar bans.

Under the rent-relief program, an eligible tenant pays 25 per cent of their monthly rent, while the federal and provincial governments cover half. The remaining 25 per cent is absorbed by the landlord. The subsidy is provided as a forgivable loan.

It is up to landlords to apply for the program, and businesses across the country have complained that their landlords are not willing to do so.

Mr. Kenney urged landlords to work with tenants, such as by applying for the program, and said the province is looking at a policy similar to the one announced in B.C.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), Restaurants Canada, the Alberta Chambers of Commerce and the Retail Council of Canada recently wrote to the Premier calling for an eviction ban. The Opposition New Democrats have also pushed for the policy.

Laura Jones, executive vice-president of the CFIB, welcomed Mr. Kenney’s comments and said an eviction ban would help.

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However, she said there are larger problems with the rent-relief program, which she said is overly complicated and relies too heavily on landlords.

“It buys a little bit of breathing room for tenants,” she said. “But we also want to be clear that it’s not a panacea. This makes things better, but rent relief is still a bit of a mess for other reasons beyond the province’s control."

She said many businesses will need help beyond the end of June, when the program is currently scheduled to finish.

Alberta is currently in the first stage of its economic reopening plan, with retailers, restaurants and hair salons permitted to open with reduced capacity and increased cleaning and physical-distancing measures.

The second phase, which will include movie theatres and other personal-care businesses such as tanning services, is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Some businesses, such as gyms, are currently not expected to open until the third stage, and the timeline for them has not yet been set.

Mark von Schellwitz, the Western vice-president of Restaurants Canada, said businesses continue to face significant challenges even as the province opens up.

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He said restaurants are facing increased costs to comply with pandemic-related health measures while pulling in less revenue because they must operate at half capacity.

“To operate at 50-per-cent capacity makes it really difficult for an already-low-margin industry to operate at a profit,” he said.

NAIOP Edmonton, which represents commercial developers, has urged governments to help tenants directly rather than targeting landlords with eviction bans.

Chad Griffiths, an NAIOP Edmonton board member, said an eviction ban is the wrong approach.

“To put in an eviction ban seems heavy handed at this point,” he said. “There’s not a moratorium on property taxes being paid by the landlord or insurance or utilities.”

He said there have been issues with the rent-relief program, such as questions about potential risks to landlords if tenants are eventually audited, though as those are worked out, he predicted more landlords would sign on.

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