‘Shocking and disgusting’: Tenants face rent increases despite coronavirus crisis

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WATCH: Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the government would be looking to ease the burden on those who rent their home through a combination of measures already announced – Mar 18, 2020

Even as job losses multiply across Canada amid the coronavirus pandemic, some tenants are facing rent increases.

“It’s shocking and disgusting,” says Cameron McKay, a University of Ottawa second-year student who recently received a notice from his landlord of a 13 per cent rent hike planned for the end of the summer.

McKay, who currently pays $1,100 for an apartment he shares with two other people in Ottawa’s Theo university residence, would have to start paying $1,250 a month in order to keep his accommodation effective Aug. 31, according to documents reviewed by Global News.

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McKay said his two roommates and other students who live in the building have also been notified of steep rent increases, even as most have returned home since universities suspended on-campus activity due to COVID-19.

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For those who have left Ottawa amid the pandemic, it will be tricky to find alternate housing arrangements, says McKay, who is back at his parents’ home on Vancouver Island.

Across Canada, many are in a similar situation.

In Montreal, journalist Megan Jones said on Tuesday they and their girlfriend found a note taped to their door advising them of an upcoming $15 rent hike.

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While the increase is modest, it’s a “tone-deaf” move at a time when so many tenants are facing joblessness or reduced income, says Jones, who is concerned about their own job security.

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In Toronto, Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations (FMTA) said he’s heard of several instances of landlords raising rents — in one instance by as much as 30 per cent — despite the ongoing health emergency. The problem is especially acute in newer apartment buildings that are exempted from Ontario’s rent-control regulation, Dent says.

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Dent wants the government to step in to help tenants — and not just by temporarily blocking rent increases.

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In a joint statement on Wednesday, FMTA and a number of other tenants’ associations from across the country called on all provinces and territories to adopt a moratorium on all evictions, following the example of Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Quebec.

Later in the date on Wednesday, the B.C. government also announced it is temporarily banning evictions and offering renters up to $500 a month for the next three months.

The Northwest Territories has also adopted an effective evictions ban.

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The measure would be “a safeguard against the spread of the pandemic, and to protect the human right to housing by ensuring that renters are not being thrown into the streets in this time of unprecedented international crisis,” the statement reads.

The document also calls for “immediate cash assistance” for tenants.

While homeowners are seeing the ability to defer mortgages and put property taxes and utility bills on hold, Dent says it’s been “extremely frustrating” to see how little has been done specifically for Canada’s 3.4 million renter households.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that federal officials are looking at ways to get money to community housing providers and the nation’s renters.

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Another government source, who was not authorized to detail behind-the-scenes talks, told the Canadian Press there is an ongoing push with at least six provinces to sign up for a new rent supplement to avoid evictions for hundreds of thousands of renters.

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But landlords say they need help, too.

Julien Dupont, director general of the Theo university residence in Ottawa, noted in an email seen by Global News that while the building management was looking into possible solutions for tenants, private commercial buildings haven’t benefited from financial relief measures from the banks yet.

Katasa Groupe Development, of which Theo is a subsidiary, did not respond to a request for comment.

Independent landlords say they are struggling too.

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Margaret Curlew, who owns several rental properties across southern Ontario, says she’s heard from several tenants that they won’t be able to make the rent come April 1.

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But when Curlew inquired about deferring mortgage payments, she says she was turned down.

In an email viewed by Global News, a Scotiabank employee told Curlew that the bank’s current mortgage deferral program is not applicable to rental properties. Curlew says she’s received similar responses from all her other lenders, which include big banks, an online bank, a real estate financing company and two private lenders.

A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 46 per cent — or 1.6 million — of tenant households have one month or less worth of living expenses set aside. Twenty-four per cent don’t have enough saved up to get through even one week without income, according to the study.

Curlew, who says she was barely breaking even before the COVID-19 crisis, says under the current circumstances she won’t be able to make her mortgage payments for long.

“I am panicking.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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