Benjamin Ries is the supervising lawyer for housing law at Downtown Legal Services, the community legal clinic at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.
Let’s imagine two households for whom the pandemic may make next month’s costs difficult to meet.
Owen the Owner bought a semi-detached home in Toronto three years ago. His parents contributed to the down payment, and he inherited the previous owner’s basement tenant with a rent of $1,000 per month. This helped: Owen and his partner cannot afford the mortgage on their current incomes alone. Perhaps some day, they can afford to evict their tenant and give their future children a rec room.
Raquel the Renter moved into Owen’s basement after the previous occupant moved out. Raquel’s rent is $1,700, since vacancy decontrol allowed Owen to charge as much as he could get. Raquel spends roughly two-thirds of her net income on rent and cannot afford to save much after buying food and paying bills. She has done the math; her commuting cost of moving further away from work would outweigh her rental savings.
We can equally imagine Owen or Raquel showing COVID-19 symptoms and being advised to self-quarantine. Either could experience a sudden loss of income and require relief from their mortgage or rental payments alike. This feels new. As a legal-clinic housing lawyer for the past decade, I have grown used to watching homeowners’ situations improve while tenants’ situations deteriorate in response to the same events.
When a tenant can’t pay their rent, they are often presumed the author of their own misfortune. We are quick to suggest they have agreed to lease a property they can’t afford or haven’t enough savings to absorb the unexpected. Vacancy decontrol and rapid market rent increases reinforce these assumptions. If you can’t get your ducks in a row with this “great deal” on your apartment, and there’s a long lineup of prospective tenants willing and able to pay more, how can you deserve to stay where you are?
Conversely, we presume that homeowners made smart choices that allowed them to purchase at sometimes a fraction of their home’s current value, and now we must thank, treasure and protect them as benevolent providers of affordable housing. We do not ask whether their inability to absorb rent losses reflects their own irresponsibility. When a tenancy begins to cost them anything of significance, we seem to owe them a system that delivers eviction faster than a driver’s licence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed these conversations abruptly. Last week, Ontario stopped pretending that eviction is the market’s necessary, disciplinary hand-spanking of irresponsible tenants into good behaviour. Housing advocates’ calls to freeze evictions were answered by a governing party that counts landlord associations among its top donors.
Policy-makers’ embrace of “flatten the curve” pandemic-mitigation strategies have awoken them to an issue that has been raised in studies and reports for years: Underhousing and homelessness cost all of us money. Evictions feed a costly shelter system and create added costs in our schools, hospitals and jails. These connections already existed, but until now we have been content to shoulder the extra public cost caused by housing disruption.
What unites our traditional social and legal view of Owen and Raquel is that their housing interests are primarily financial. Our housing market is a game, and homes are spaces on a board that may resemble Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders. We absorb the shared medical and social costs of eviction and homelessness to preserve the rules of the game; after all, how much would any of us pay for housing if nobody could be deprived of it?
But with this pandemic and the millions who could die from it, experts have told us that this is not a game. We stop now and everyone remains in their space, because that is by far the best way to protect each other. Our individual positions in the housing market are not enough to protect any of us from the destruction of our shared health infrastructure and our economy.
Of course, not everyone agrees. As tenants warn they may default on April rent, many landlords have responded with either inflexibility or threats. Illegal lockouts will take place, and how we respond to them will test our commitment to public health. Together, we must now continue the economic activity that is compatible with our mutual safety and put aside those things which cause more harm than good: sporting events, handshakes and evictions. When the pandemic subsides, evictions will remain a traumatic and inhumane means of creating housing wealth. I hope we will remember this and act accordingly.
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