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Premier John Horgan, seen here at Legislature in Victoria on Feb. 23, 2020, said now is not the time for people to lose the security of a roof over their head.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is offering tenants some of the strongest protections in Canada in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by freezing rents, prohibiting evictions except in extreme circumstances, and offering subsidies to those in need.

The temporary relief package announced Wednesday will provide eligible B.C. renters a supplement of up to $500 a month, for those whose jobs have vanished or are curtailed as a result of nationwide restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Premier John Horgan said now, when health officials are directing Canadians to shelter at home as much as possible, is not the time for people to lose the security of a roof over their head. “No one’s going to lose their home,” he said at a news conference in Victoria.

The rent subsidy, which will be offered for the next four months, will be paid directly to landlords and will be available to people with low to moderate incomes who are losing income. Applicants will be vetted for need through the federal employment insurance program.

“If you can pay your rent, you should pay your rent – this fund is there to help those people who are in genuine distress," Mr. Horgan said.

There are half a million rental homes in B.C. but the Premier could not say how many households may need assistance. “That will depend on the depth of the pandemic, and the time it will take for us to recover and come out the other side.”

As long as the province remains in a state of emergency, current and future evictions are suspended, with exceptions for health and safety issues. The moratorium on rent increases, which will include any hikes planned for April 1, is in place for four months.

“This is an amazing thing,” said Teresa Douglas, who was facing a a $50-a-month increase May 1 in the rent for the two-bedroom townhouse she and her husband rent through student housing at the University of British Columbia.

The couple was also concerned what would happen if their work dried up and they couldn’t pay at all for the place where they and their two children live. “I feel a little bit more secure with a provincewide rental freeze,” she said, since City of Vancouver rules don’t apply to where she and her family live at UBC.

Alex Hemingway, spokesman for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said it was the first measure he’d seen so far in the pandemic for a government to provide specific rent relief. “The suspension of all evictions is great, especially for those who can’t make rent April 1,” he added.

B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson was unable to say, in the news conference, whether all tenants in a shared house or apartment could each qualify for the $500-a-month supplement or whether it will be only $500 a unit. There was no information provided about what happens with the thousands of students who typically finish postsecondary terms at the end of April and then count on paying their rent from May to September by getting summer jobs.

Several other provinces have moved to curtail evictions. Ontario and Quebec have stopped the enforcement of existing eviction orders and temporarily paused new evictions, while Nova Scotia has said tenants affected by COVID-19 will not be evicted. In Alberta, however, Premier Jason Kenney said Monday there was no plan to freeze evictions.

One trouble for renters is that much of the federal government aid will be delivered after April rent deadlines. Ottawa said Wednesday that it would provide workers affected by COVID-19 with $2,000 monthly for up to four months. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said they’re aiming to have the application system online by April 6. Other measures, such as enhanced versions of the Canada child benefit and goods and services tax credit, will not be delivered until May.

“Unfortunately, there’s not going to be a lot of money available before April 1 to help people out,” said Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., noting that “it’s not obvious” how financial support could have been delivered sooner.

Canadians’ job prospects look increasingly bleak as COVID-19 leads to unprecedented layoffs, with nearly one million people filing for jobless benefits over the past week. Toronto-Dominion Bank on Wednesday projected the national jobless rate would average nearly 12 per cent in the second quarter, or more than double February’s 5.6 per cent.

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