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Protesters demonstrate against evictions outside the Superior Court of Ontario in Toronto on Aug. 18, 2020.

Jake Kivanc/The Canadian Press

Estair Van Wagner is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Fay Faraday is an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Amar Bhatia is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

It is increasingly clear that the pandemic has affected some people more than others. And it is also increasingly clear that there has been hypocrisy and inhumanity in how governments and others have responded to that reality. Shamefully, home renters, especially low-income tenants, have not been excepted from that kind of treatment.

Federal and provincial programs were quickly (albeit imperfectly) rolled out to ensure main streets and shopping malls did not disappear with the lockdowns. In addition to federal interest-free business loans, Ontario imposed a moratorium on commercial evictions, which was extended for eligible businesses until April of next year.

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But even though governments have directed people to shelter at home, the same protections have not been offered to residential tenants. While some provinces created rental support programs, neither the federal government nor Ontario stepped up to provide any such relief. An Ontario eviction moratorium introduced in mid-March of last year was lifted on July 31, 2020, when there remained no end in sight to the pandemic and its economic fallout. The recent short-lived second-wave moratorium did not even stop eviction proceedings – they only temporarily delayed enforcement. Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board has conducted between 10,000 and 13,000 eviction hearings from November to January alone, and lawyers and tenants have been sounding the alarm that people were losing their homes without due process and despite best efforts to pay down any arrears.

The cruellest blow is that both this housing crisis and COVID-19 have disproportionately affected women and low-income, racialized communities, which have high proportions of both renters and essential workers who cannot work from home. All of this is happening in the depths of winter, as the new COVID-19 variants threaten to deepen these inequities in an anticipated third wave. COVID-19 evictions and job losses will entrench them for years to come.

Prior to the pandemic, Toronto was already facing a housing crisis, with record-low vacancy, little affordable housing, skyrocketing rents and widespread precarious work. The global pandemic, and the rampant job losses it sparked, has compounded matters into a perfect storm of housing insecurity. Within weeks of the initial lockdown last March, it was clear that many who had lost their jobs would be unable to pay rent.

Landlords have a legal obligation to negotiate with tenants struggling to pay rent because of COVID-19. However, the power imbalance puts tenants at a serious disadvantage, with some landlords pressuring them into unrealistic and exploitative repayment plans. Tenant unions have sprung up across the city to try to collectively negotiate solutions such as full or partial rent relief and no pandemic rent increases.

Many large corporate landlords have refused to enter good-faith negotiations with tenant organizations. Despite their profits, these landlords have not been asked by governments to shoulder any part of the pandemic’s financial burden. Instead of negotiating rent relief with tenant unions, they have imposed unilateral “agreements” under which individual tenants can be evicted from their homes for any deviation from aggressive repayment schedules. Tenants can be evicted without a hearing and with landlords under no obligation to acknowledge their financial reality. These evictions will further displace the women and low-income, racialized communities already shouldering the burden of the pandemic and the lack of affordable housing.

Members of the Crescent Town and Goodwood Tenants Unions, two of the most vocal tenant groups formed during COVID-19, are facing eviction despite their landlords failing to meaningfully negotiate. Organized tenants have been a particular target of evictions by institutional landlords.

Laws such as Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act acknowledge the unequal bargaining power between landlords and tenants, particularly in the ways in which losing one’s home can have a profound impact. Legal protections were won only after tenants collectively organized to pressure governments for change. But those laws have been eroded over the years with the introduction of vacancy rent decontrol, the financialization of housing, and landlords’ use of “renovictions” and above-guideline rent increases. These problems have existed for decades; COVID-19 has only exacerbated them.

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Any real postpandemic recovery must recognize the right to housing. Unrealistic repayment plans, accompanied by the threat of automatic evictions, are just deferred evictions.

But COVID-19 has also reminded us of the power of tenants working together to protect their homes and communities. This is the strong basis for a just recovery in which we truly choose to build back better, starting with keeping people in their homes and providing real rent relief rather than protecting pandemic profit-making.

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