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Storefronts in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood are reflected in a sign indicating the temporary closure of a business, on March 24, 2020.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Federal and provincial governments have agreed to extend a commercial rent-relief program to help cover July costs for eligible small businesses.

The move comes with a few changes to the subsidy, as the COVID-19-related aid faces questions about whether it is delivering as expected.

The amended program had doled out $152 million in forgivable loans to landlords that had agreed to give rent breaks to more than 20,000 tenants as of June 21.

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With 16,000 applicants, small business groups say early uptake of the rent relief program has been disappointing

It carries a budget of over $2.97 billion, based on the latest federal spending estimates on pandemic-related aid.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the rent help should run through to September at least, and that the program needs other changes to ease access.

The business group continues to hear stories of small-business tenants aren’t being helped because their landlords have not applied. Landlords have to seek support from the program and agree to cut their tenants’ rents in exchange.

CFIB’s Alberta director Annie Dormuth said an extension to the fall would help companies still recovering from COVID-19 closures and trying to find their footing as public health restrictions are slowly rolled back.

Take up of the rent-relief program was slow at first, prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to publicly press landlords to apply for forgivable loans through the program.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau sounded more upbeat late last month when he said applications were rising thanks to provinces’ banning evictions during the ongoing pandemic. Landlords that can’t kick tenants out have more reason to seek financial assistance.

Still, over the last three weeks, business consultant Jenifer Bartman has seen emails from companies announcing closures, including some deciding to not renew their leases because it no longer makes financial sense to do so.

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“We’re going to see more of that. We’re going to see more wind-ups and people might say, ‘Oh well, small business doesn’t matter much,’ but it could be 10 jobs, it could be 20 jobs, it starts to snowball … and that’s permanent.”

She said part of the problem in the rent-relief program may be that asking landlords to shave down rents doesn’t address that they too have loans to pay off.

The program provides forgivable loans that cover half of rent for eligible small businesses, and also requires landlords to waive a further one-quarter of what they’d otherwise be owed.

“So they have financial institutions that are calling them to say, ‘Where is this month’s mortgage payment?”’ Bartman said. “Perhaps part of the disconnect is there.”

Among the changes included in the extension of the program is that insurance payments for missed rents and provincial rent supports won’t be clawed back from the rent-support loans.

Previous amounts clawed back under the program will be returned to landlords that previously received loans through the program.

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As well, those who qualified for loans by showing revenue declines of 70 per cent in April, May or June will qualify anew without being reassessed on whether their earnings have dropped by that much in July.

In a release, Morneau said the extra month should ensure small businesses and property owners “are poised to rebound in the post-pandemic recovery.”

The Canadian Association of Insolvency and Restructuring Professionals said in its own statement Thursday that without the rent-relief program and others, many Canadian businesses would likely already be insolvent.

Board member David Lewis said he hadn’t heard of companies filing for bankruptcy because they couldn’t get access to the rent-relief program. He cautioned that not everyone formally files.

“There are vacant premises where the tenant was there pre-COVID and now they’re gone,” he said, talking about what he sees around his hometown of Edmonton.

“Yes, the numbers (of formal filings) have gone down, yes these assistance programs have helped, but if they were struggling before, they’re going to struggle after.”

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He added that it’s too early to tell if the aid measures will mean companies come out in good positions once the crisis passes.

Dormuth from the CFIB said the situation is particularly acute at the moment for private-sector health professionals, such as dentists, optometrists and naturopaths, who have to meet safety requirements to reopen after months of little, if any, income.

Among the new costs they have to manage, along with rent, is personal protective equipment like surgical-grade masks that may not be readily available.

“Not only are they recovering from a complete mandated closure of no revenues for a couple of months, now they’re coming to an office environment where things are just completely changed,” Dormuth said.

It’s why the CFIB is asking provincial governments to give these companies access to provincial supply chains. CFIB is also asking the federal government to release revised eligibility rules for a $45-billion federal wage subsidy program that has been extended through the summer.

Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw answer questions during an Instagram live on how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted housing and your financial health. Here are some highlights from their Q&A. The Globe and Mail

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