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An elderly man wearing a protective face mask passes a sign publicizing a rent strike during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Toronto, April 6, 2020.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

When COVID-19 struck Canada, many of William Blake’s tenants lost their jobs and sources of income, so he offered them a lifeline.

The landlord, who personally oversees 22 properties in the Greater Toronto Area but also rents out homes in Alberta and B.C. and student housing in the Maritimes, shaved 25 per cent off April, May and June rent for his hardest-hit tenants. They have until Sept. 1 to pay the deferred amounts he laid out in an addendum to their leases.

“Why I did that is because they’re great tenants and I have a good relationship with them,” Mr. Blake said. “I don’t want to lose them, so if I have to take one little step back, it’ll be two steps forward a few months from now.”

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The solution is one he is hoping more landlords will consider as they grapple with how to help out tenants, but still pay their bills. Experts say it can serve as a model for what to do if you have a renter you like who can’t cover rent in the short term.

Mr. Blake’s arrangement was welcome news for a handful of his tenants including a Toronto couple – a bartender and waitress in their 20s – renting a home for about $2,000 a month.

They applied for and received the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit, when their employer closed, but felt even the money they earned from that was cutting it close.

Mr. Blake was just happy to help and has already spotted the couple back at work, but he knows not every renter has been so fortunate. Some landlord-tenant relations have gone sour during the pandemic and turned into battles involving eviction threats and tears.

“Honestly, we just haven’t seen very much evidence of tenants being able to come to a creative arrangement with their landlords,” said Will Gladman of the Vancouver Tenants Union.

His renters advocacy group asked its more than 2,000 members what they’re experiencing. It heard that 42 per cent of members surveyed tried to negotiate a COVID-19 deal with their landlord, but had no luck.

Only 6 per cent were able to get a rent reduction or deferral, “which obviously risks landing them in rent debt when all of these restrictions are lifted,” Mr. Gladman said.

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Some provincial governments are offering rent supplements Mr. Gladman recommends applying for, but he cautioned that they are “a drop in the ocean.” B.C., for example, is giving $300 per month to eligible households with no dependents and $500 per month for those with dependents.

In Toronto, the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations conducted a similar survey of 630 tenants over two one-week periods in June. It found 21 per cent of landlords have threatened evictions for those not paying rent, 54 per cent are not working with tenants who can’t cover rent and 65 per cent are upping rent fees during the pandemic.

The lack of leeway has pushed some Ontarians to refuse to pay rent altogether. They are taking part in a Keep Your Rent campaign that has urged people not to fork over any money to landlords on April, May and June 1.

“If it’s a choice between buying groceries and paying your rent and you know that the eviction process is slow and deferred and you know that starvation process proceeds pretty quickly, buying groceries is a rational choice,” said Kenn Hale, the director of advocacy and legal at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

Mr. Hale heard from the Fair Rental Policy Organization of Ontario that 93 per cent of people paid their rent in full, with the remainder either covering some or no rent.

While he’s pressing for government action, he said landlords and tenants striking agreements amongst themselves is an option, but people must be realistic about what they promise.

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“Look at your finances, look at the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario, and don’t commit to making payment plans that you can’t really make,” he said.

“Even if there aren’t immediate consequences to your failure [to meet the agreement terms], if you can’t fulfill it and then you try to go back and make another deal, it’s going to be harder.”

While some people say an addendum to your agreement is the best way to work out a deferral, Mr. Hale said letters, texts and emails can also be acceptable evidence, in the event something goes wrong.

Aside from an agreement, Mr. Gladman suggests people in a tight spot reach out to grassroots organizations or tenant advocacy centres, which have experienced staff who can walk people through their rights and what abatement options governments and banks may offer.

Mr. Blake, meanwhile, recommends tenants have an honest talk with landlords, who says should realize they are in a “people business.”

“If you treat it like a cold, hard business, you’re going to be losing tenants and you’re going to be having conflict when it’s unnecessary because most landlords are working-class landlords and most tenants are working class,” he said.

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“If we just agree with each other that we’re in this together and say let’s work it out, it’s so easy to create a win-win relationship.”

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