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opinion

Jen Agg is a Toronto restaurant owner and author

I own four restaurants and a bar in downtown Toronto. Usually, April 1 would mean I’d be sending five rent cheques to happy landlords. But in the grips of the COVID-19 crisis, I’m not sending anything.

How can I pay rent when I have no income?

I have been in the restaurant industry a long time and endured many stressful moments, but nothing like this. On March 15, we closed down our entire operation – the restaurants, two of which are new and still paying off debts, and the bar – ahead of being mandated to do so. For me, it was the only choice when considered from a moral point of view. How could I put another night of profits above the safety of my staff, guests and the general public?

Although I felt good about having done the right thing, I realized quickly that with revenue suddenly and completely shut off, I was about to have a really rough few months.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister announced that guaranteed interest-free loans for small businesses – up to $40,000, interest-free until the end of 2022 – would begin rolling out as soon as next week. But this is just more debt for our companies, which are already swimming in it. For restaurants already struggling with the huge debt of being built, it’s simply too much to bear. Even those of us that might make it through a few months would be crushed by all those loans within a year.

Small, independent restaurants do not have huge cash reserves to pull us through hard times. We can survive a January slowdown, but now that we are bringing in zero revenue there is no way to pull through. The whole thing grinds to a halt really fast.

We have culled all unnecessary expenses, but the big one is inescapable: rent. We are in quite a predicament on that front: Our landlords still want it. I do not understand how and why landlords feel they should be immune to market forces. How do they think we pay our rent?

This idea that while their tenants by and large have nothing, landlords should still keep getting their cut honestly seems bananas to me. What’s any per cent of zero? If they do not work with us now, to help shoulder at least a tiny part of this burden, then they will have many empty storefronts.

It is incredibly short-sighted to expect a full return in this economy – or what’s left of it. I have been in talks with all of my landlords, who all use the same word: deferral. While appreciated, this is not all that helpful. Our elected leaders have to help with this. Why is it my responsibility to negotiate with landlords who do not want to or who refuse to budge from deferral?

We need our government to step into the ring with us, to demand that landlords work with us, because suggesting they be lenient or reasonable is not enough.

So what do I propose? If Ottawa will not step in with a bailout, I’d like landlords of small businesses to be obligated by the Trudeau administration to give the month of April free, as we lost most of March’s business. Since we are unable to operate in their buildings, it seems reasonable that we should get a break on rent, as a show of good faith and a willingness to work with us – so we can be there when this is all over.

Beyond April, it all depends. If small businesses are supported with some sort of bailout – not loans – I’d be happy to pay my May rent and beyond. If we are not, then we cannot expect most landlords to be lenient and reasonable unless they are mandated to be.

What I consider reasonable is 50 per cent, which will absolutely still be a hardship. But landlords must seek the help available to them – and mortgage relief has to be made available. This is a top-down problem and the banks have to help.

Some people may say, in these woefully hard economic times, who cares about restaurants?

Restaurants are a part of our cultural communion, which includes bookstores, record shops, that boutique you like, your local coffee spot, your go-to hair salon and countless other small businesses that are affected by this global disaster. Without them, when we’re finally allowed to go back to the way things were, our neighbourhoods will not feel like our neighbourhoods. And when we come back from this, our world will not look the same.

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